Out of the comfort zone

Martin McCallum helped Cameron Mackintosh to bring musical megahits such as Cats and Les Misérables to the stage in London and all over the world. Now, he tells Robin Stringer, he's striking out alone - as an independent producer
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The Independent Culture

Passions run high in the theatre. But they do not usually erupt into shotgun confrontations. Martin McCallum, the managerial genius behind the hugely successful Cameron Mackintosh organisation, should know. During his 35 years in the theatre, it has only happened to him once.

Before there is any misunderstanding, it should be made clear that the shotgun was not brandished by Sir Cameron in a fit of pique when he discovered that, after 22 years' faithful service, his managing director wanted to quit to pursue his own interests. The incident happened back in the bad old 1970s, when the National Theatre, newly opened under Peter Hall, was beset with strikes, and the young McCallum, then the production manager, turned strike-breaker to remove the set of No Man's Land from the stage so that it could be transported as planned to Canada.

"I was threatened a number of times," he recalled, "once by somebody who was standing by his open boot in the car park with a shotgun. I would be lying if I said it was not a frightening time. I was getting intimidated at work, and I was escorted on occasion to the station to get me home. But it soon passed. At the time I just felt that if I let this thing beat me, I was beaten for ever."

McCallum, now 53, has shown the same single-mindedness in his determination to leave Cameron Mackintosh and become a producer in his own right. "I have been thinking about it for quite a long time, about not getting too comfortable," he said. "I wanted to be smaller again, to be working on things that I could have a creative impact on - things that had become more and more removed from me, just by virtue of what the company had become over the past 22 years." His disengagement from Cameron Mackintosh has not been easy. He first raised the subject in 1999. "What Cameron wanted to know was how it was going to work without me," he said. "That took a bit of time to sort out until we got to a point where everyone was comfortable."

Latterly, he has been leading the design team for the new 500-seat theatre called the Sondheim, which Mackintosh is putting on top of the Queen's Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue as part of a £35m refurbishment of his theatres. The need for such a space has been recognised at Cameron Mackintosh for nearly 20 years and McCallum, who had always wanted "to put this work in hand", found its final realisation "a nice punctuation point" on which to finish. His loss will be felt not only by Mackintosh, but by theatre as a whole. He has been an influential figure - whether as the president of the Society of London Theatre, as the chairman of the Donmar, or as the adviser to the Arts Council, the Almeida and the Theatre Museum.

Now, still adjusting to his newfound freedom, McCallum is focusing on three big new projects. He is patently excited by them. All three are in early stages of development. All three promise to ensure that he will remain as much a globetrotter as he has been during his Mackintosh years. Last week he left for Australia to advance the first of them, a film adaptation of Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy, which he intends to shoot entirely on location in India. To the casual observer, Seth's complex epic, which runs to 1,500 pages, might seem unfilmable. But McCallum thinks otherwise. So does his co-producer, Jane Scott, whose impressive list of credits includes Crocodile Dundee, My Brilliant Career, Strictly Ballroom and Shine; and his scriptwriter, John Dryden, who wrote the award-winning BBC radio adaptation of the book. Even Vikram Seth is said to be delighted. Never one to do anything by halves, McCallum is planning to sell his handsome Notting Hill home and move to Australia by the end of the year. His partner, with whom he has two young boys - he has two grown-up children from a previous marriage - is Australian, and he is familiar with the country, having established the Mackintosh office there and toured his shows round the Far East.

Next month will find him in Connecticut, where the second of his projects, a brand-new musical based on Hans Andersen's The Nightingale, is being workshopped at the Eugene O'Neill Festival. McCallum has commissioned the musical from two young Americans, the scriptwriter and playwright Steven Sater and the singer-songwriter Duncan Sheik. They have added characters to the original tale and turned it into a love story, while retaining its ancient China setting.

His third project is a new dance version of Edward Scissorhands, which he is co-producing with the choreographer Matthew Bourne, who made his name with a triumphant all-male version of Swan Lake. McCallum believes that the Scissorhands story is ideal material. "So much more can be said for Edward by not saying anything," he comments. "This allows the audience to bring something to it, which is how all the best drama really works."

McCallum is steeped in theatre. He first discovered his passion at Frensham Heights, an arts-oriented, progressive co-educational school set in 113 acres of prime Home Counties countryside. So bitten was he by the bug that when, in 1966, he transferred reluctantly to Guildford Technical College, he began working weekends at the nearby Castle Theatre in Farnham. He was paid £3 as a casual. He kept his moonlighting secret from his parents but when, after a year, he was offered a full-time job at the theatre, he decided to leave college and had to come clean. His father did not speak to him for a year. His mother was more understanding, and secretly gave him money. He needed it. His new job paid just £1 a week, even if he worked weekends. When he asked why the pay was so low compared with his previous weekend rate, he was told, "Ah, yes, but casual labour is very expensive." It was his first, never-to-be-forgotten insight into the mysteries of pay agreements.

At this stage he wanted to act, an ambition he doggedly pursued through the British repertory-theatre system in various stage-management roles via the Phoenix at Leicester, the Gateway at Chester and the Library in Manchester. En route he finally realised that he was not cut out to be an actor, but in compensation he acquired friends such as Ian McDiarmid, a taste for lighting, sound and design, and a priceless store of theatrical knowhow. A telegram from the National Theatre, then based at the Old Vic, changed his life. He was asked to join as the production manager. He had just turned 21. Suddenly, he was touring with Laurence Olivier, and was the production manager on that memorable A Long Day's Journey Into Night starring Olivier and Constance Cummings.

He eventually left the National, disenchanted with a management that failed to seize the opportunity offered by the strike to institute a set of working practices appropriate to the new building on the South Bank. With his colleague Richard Bullimore he set up the Production Office, a new concept at the time in that it provided a hothouse of specialist technical knowledge. It was hired for Evita and for Cats. Cameron Mackintosh was impressed.

He asked McCallum to look at the way his company worked and make recommendations. McCallum duly obliged. Mackintosh was deeply unhappy at the result. "This is not what I want at all," he said. McCallum assumed that was that. Two weeks later the telephone rang. Mackintosh had been thinking. He wanted McCallum to join him and put into practice his recommendations.

"So I set up a duplicate of what I had done at the Production Office at Cameron Mackintosh," he recalled. "It was not a brilliantly conceived strategy. It grew organically, and that's what was right about it. Basically, it was a question of putting things together for everyone to go and do the shows - Les Misérables, Song and Dance, The Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon and so on." Or, to borrow one former colleague's words, "Martin put the nuts and bolts in Cameron's airy-fairy ideas."

It was McCallum who persuaded Mackintosh to set up offices abroad in New York and Australia. "If we really were to do things the way we wanted to do them, I knew we had to set up on our own," he said. "We were so fussy. We wanted to know how every single element was done. What we are really talking about is attention to detail." The policy has paid dividends for all concerned - for Cameron Mackintosh and his company, for the creators of the shows, for the singers, dancers and musicians who perform them, and for audiences around the world.

As the architect of that policy, Martin McCallum is now adapting it to new ends. The passion is still there. So, too, is the concern for attention to detail. The outcome should be worth waiting for.