Youth the key to theatre survival

Murder Inc.: Norman Pace, left, with Ian Dickens, the producer, Michelle Hardwick  and Chloe Newsome on the stage of the Grand.

ONCE virtually every town that could manage a clerk and the most modest of corporations would have had its own repertory company with its own thespians - it was a matter of civic pride.

Typically there would be the stars, the leading man and lady, a couple of elderly actors for the male and female character roles, a youngish (i.e. cheap) pair to play all the frothy young romantic couples and a spotty youth (even cheaper), who was the juvenile with the company all under the actor/director.

They rehearsed next week's play during the day – when there was no matinee of course – while performing the current production each night, a new play every week of a season which lasted for anything between three and eight months. A feat of both memory and stamina.

Each Rep had its regulars for each night who had their set seats, rather like season ticket holders at the local football team, with their favourites among the small cast – who in turn became local celebrities.

This was a real university of theatre, producing a galaxy of stars who learned their trade through the simple process of having to do every job on and off stage and play every role that needed filling.

The list of honours graduates is endless and includes the likes of Dame Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Christopher Plummer, Harold Pinter,  Nicolas Parsons, Lynn and Vanessa Redgrave, Patrick Stewart,  Ronnie Barker, Dirk Bogarde and, and not many people know this, Michael Caine.

In my hometown it was Oldham Rep, run in my day by Carl Paulson - who produced a steady stream of talent with many joining the cast of Coronation Street down the road at Granada. 

Oldham's graduates also included Dora Bryan (pictured right), Eric Sykes, John Le Mesurier and  Bernard Cribbins.

Paulson died in harness in 1973, aged just 47 but it seems he never quite departed  the Coliseum Theatre, home of the Rep, where he is said to haunt backstage, apparently enjoying hanging out with the wardrobe staff.

Oldham, and a few other theatres, try to hold to the rep tradition, admittedly with a less arduous schedule, but times have changed. These days in many towns, if there is a rep at all, it is run along the lines of Birmingham Rep with a mix of home grown and touring productions with runs of two weeks or more.

Into that rep tradition  though comes Ian Dickens. The actor turned director/producer might not run a rep but he perhaps does the next best thing creating an impressive list of productions which set off on tours around the country; visiting towns which usually no longer have a rep he provides them with live theatre with a mix of dramas, comedies, thrillers and farce.

It would be an exaggeration to say that Dickens keeps theatres alive but he certainly provides the transfusion to keep them ticking over with something other than tribute shows, box office bankers and the provincial tours of West End musicals.

Last year he provided a three week run at Wolverhampton Grand, this year it is four weeks with  Inside Job, a modern thriller, The Late Edwina Black, a Victorian mystery, It's Never Too Late, an out and out comedy and next week an Agatha Christie spoof with Murdered to Death.

The same four plays, plus the comedy Love's a Luxury, provide a five week season at Swansea which started this week, Swansea Grand Theatre's rep season of Ian Dickens' plays is where it all began with a pioneering four week run in 1997, followed by Darlington and then the Grand in Blackpool.

A common factor in three of the venues is Wolverhampton Grand chief executive Peter Cutchie who was head of theatre and arts in Darlington when the rep started there before moving to be General Manager of the Grand Theatre in Blackpool.

It was a less than auspicious start though.  Dickens said: “We started the first year in Swansea with probably 15 per cent audiences . . . we now play to 80 per cent every performance.

 “When Peter was at Darlington we did it there and we have been doing it for 11 years there and then when Peter was at Blackpool we did the Grand for the whole of his run there so he was keen to get it on here and the rep did quite well last year.”

Ian Dickens talks on the stage of the Grand as part of the package for people who had bought tickets to all four of the Wolverhampton theatre's Rep season

At any one time Dickens is likely to have seven productions touring the country - currently there are five - and keeping tabs on them all criss-crossing the land as well as bringing them all together for rep seasons in Blackpool, Wolverhampton, Darlington and Swansea is a major feat of logistics.

But it must help that theatre managements do know what they are getting with anything under the Dickens banner. The sets will be clean, solid, attractive and believable, adding to the play. The plays themselves will be watchable, well directed and produced and performed with a more than competent cast and there will be  at least one well known face from the telly among their number - which all helps to get bums on seats.

It is a tried and tested - and successful - formula. With no grants, subsidies or handouts from anywhere or anyone Ian Dickens Productions survives on what comes through the box office so he must be doing something right and it is easy to see what.

He provides a saleable product to allow theatres to put on live plays and hopefully help create a new generation of theatregoers, something that is dear to Ian Dickens' heart.

But Dickens doesn't just talk the talk though - his money has gone very much where his mouth is and not only does he provide a steady diet of plays for theatres he now has his own establishment to worry about, the Theatre Royal Lincoln which he bought last year when its future looked shaky after the council announced it was axing the £170,000 a year grant.

“Primarily I am a director, that is what I do, producer was foisted upon me and now theatre manager but I love the theatre. It is vital to any community to have a vibrant theatre - all communities that are vibrant have a good theatre.

“I just love being in the theatre and creating something on stage.”

Dickens is a little bit of a throwback to the days of the actor/manager touring the provinces with his band of thespians but  for someone whose life revolves around applause and spotlights he keeps well away from the lure of bright lights.

He said: “I won't touch the West End. I have had many offers but I tell them fine, buy it off me. I love the Provinces, they are the best audiences in the country - better than the West End.


“It is sad the old days have gone. It is very different now and I suppose I am trying to rekindle some of that but I am not on a mission. I just want people to keep theatres open. We have some beautiful buildings in this country and they won't be kept open unless people come to see them.”

Dickens has been a producer now for 20 years and said: “When I first started there were probably 40 or 50 people doing what I do. Now, with the amount of weeks I put out, there are probably two other producers. That is just a crying shame. Programming a theatre is so difficult, trying to find the sort of product that is right for that theatre.”

One of his ambitions is to find a way to encourage young people to experience the theatre believing that once  experienced, rather like learning to ride a bike, it will be with you forever.

He said: “We had a schools' conference in Lincoln and the view was that the ticket price was fine for young people in Lincoln, the problem was getting them there so I have now put in a scheme where I get a businessman to sponsor a coach to bring kids to the theatre.

“As a theatre manager we have to find schemes to get people in and then from the producers' side we have to make tickets cheap enough for people to come - just to get them in the building, just to see what it is,  because invariably they will enjoy the experience.

“It has all got to stem back to young people. I am on a big mission hopefully over the next few years to get more people into the theatre in whatever way I can because that will be the lifeblood, creating the reason for theatres to put plays on. 

“We have to get young people back into the theatre. That is the only way the theatre, the whole of the theatre, will survive. Young people are our future.”

As a theatre manager and a producer of plays  Dickens can see both sides and accepts that his area of expertise, drama, is at the bottom of a very large pile.

Victor Spinetti, a stalwart of the modern theatre with a host of films, TV  and plays to his credit who is one of the stars of Murdered to Death

“From a programming point of view if I have a musical or a play for a venue I know that the musical will do much better than a drama. Drama is the poor relation. The Cinderella of theatre. The one nighter will do better, the ballet the opera are better - drama is the hardest sell so that is what has to be addressed. That is why we have to get young people back into coming to drama.

“Maybe the old repertory system where people got in for next to nothing, got to know the actors, felt part of the company was an answer. I have tried to do it here with the rep season and that is a way of doing it.

“ I would let young people into theatres for nothing up to 18 years of old. It is impractical but I am sure there is a way we can do it somehow. It is the only way to get them inside. Once they are in the theatre then they might come back again.”

 If you want to see what the thgeatre is about or just want to enjoy an evening out the final play in the Grand's Ian Dickens' rep season is Murdered to Death, a comedy murder mystery with Norman Pace (Hale and Pace) Victor Spinettti (just about everything including The RSC,  three Beatles' films and . . . Texas Pete in Superted), Michelle Hardwick (The Royal) and Chloe Newsome (Coronation Street) which opens on 27-07-10 and runs unto 31-07-10.

Roger Clarke 


A change of pace for Norman

For anyone interested in theatres and their history check out

Birmingham had 21 theatres at one time while Oldham managed a staggering 14. Even Kidderminster had nine 

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