Show People 63: Success and how to produce it: Bill Kenwright

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The Independent Culture
BILL KENWRIGHT is 45 minutes late, so there's time to check out his office on Shaftesbury Avenue. It's the size of a tennis court. There is a four-foot bear, wrapped in an Everton scarf, in one corner, and a white grand piano in another. Rows of production photos on the walls include one of playwrights Alan Bleasdale and Willy Russell, signed 'with a good percentage of love'.

The West End's most prolific producer arrives beaming enough matey charm to fill the room. 'I'm dreadfully sorry.' It's OK; if anyone has an excuse to be late, it's him. On Wednesday he had four shows opening around the country including the rock musical Robin Hood - Prince of Sherwood, which joins Kenwright's Travels with My Aunt, An Ideal Husband and Blood Brothers in the West End. John Godber's On the Piste opens there later this month. No Man's Land, The Deep Blue Sea and Gift of the Gorgon are all transferring from the fringe. In April he takes Blood Brothers to Broadway, where his Dancing at Lughnasa has won three Tonys. All this in a recession that has hit the commercial theatre as hard as anywhere. How does he cope?

'Doesn't worry me at all,' he says, chewing gum and sinking into a large sofa. But can he sleep? 'Oh no] I don't sleep a wink] Oh no, no, no, no, no. It's not the number of shows that's the pressure, it's the quality.' His taste is hit-and- miss: everything from solid-gold tickets (An Ideal Husband) to tacky spoofs (Robin Hood). 'I know from the start that some of the things I do aren't the classiest pieces of work, but I do them because I think they deserve to be taken a step further. And sometimes I fall on my arse.'

Bill Kenwright was born in Botanic Road, Liverpool, in 1945. His Dad was a brickie who became a successful builder, which means that when his son sees Blood Brothers he identifies with the poor one and the rich one. He was beaten at a posh school for getting his tenses wrong. He went to the theatre when he was 12, created one of his own at the bottom of the garden, and the following year played the stoat in Toad of Toad Hall at Liverpool Playhouse. Which he now runs.

Kenwright has an actor's knack for gilding an anecdote. Stories are prefaced with 'I'm not bullshitting' and 'I promise you'. Sometimes, flatteringly, even 'I've never told anyone this before'. One story has him arriving at Manchester to read English and drama and discovering that when you leave the station you turn right for the university and left for Granada TV. He turned left, spotted a notice for an audition, sidestepped the door- man, and got the part. 'Sixty-five guineas a week.' Bang went student life.

He did the the same thing in London, gate-crashing an audition at the Vaudeville. Someone asked if he had an agent and suggested her husband, John Cadell. 'Simon's dad.' So Simon's dad got him a few nice tellies and a West End musical with Pauline Collins, Jane Birkin and Francesca Annis. Then came Coronation Street which he says he only accepted because his mum wanted to walk through T J Hughes, the department store in Liverpool, with a soap star on her arm.

He was Gordon Clegg, appearing on and off, from 1968 to 1982. 'My character is still there. My mum runs the pub, Betty Turpin.' The Street was a big help when he started producing. 'Theatre managers would talk to me.' It started when Billy Liar, in which he was going to star, was cancelled. He put it on himself. Then he found a good part in another Waterhouse/Hall play. On that tour he learnt 'printing, haulage, get-ins, get-outs, and contracts'. The mainstay of his operation was Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which he toured for 13 years, before Lloyd Webber reclaimed the rights and rang up Jason Donovan.

Over the next two months Kenwright will have more of his money tied up in shows than ever before. He doesn't use angels. 'Doing the number of shows I do - never less than 20 - I don't have time to write the letters.' For the first tour Pat Phoenix and seven others from Coronation Street put in pounds 250 each. Since then Kenwright has been backed by NatWest.

'I was a gambler, a real one, for 20 years.' Now he is simply a workaholic. He has nine projects lined up with Sir Peter Hall alone. Not surprisingly, his family life has been erratic. He was briefly married to fashion designer Anouska Hempel, has a grown-up daughter from another relationship, and is currently 'in mourning' over 'a lady friend'. With Robin Hood he is trying to manufacture another Joseph. 'You cannot create a success in the provinces,' he says, 'unless it's had its West End opening. It's West End razzmatazz.' He's slashed ticket prices to reach an audience that won't read the critics. 'In the provinces they stand, they scream, they cheer. I want a bit of that in the West End. I'm not saying there's helicopters or there's chandeliers, but I can get a family in there, Mum, Dad and two kids, for forty quid.'

'Robin Hood - Prince of Sherwood': Piccadilly, London W1 (071-867 1118).

(Photograph omitted)