Sir Howard Panter: All the world's his stage

He is the man behind our biggest shows. Now he plans to make British theatre a global force, he tells Susie Mesure
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With a voice that could reach his own theatres' cheap seats, and wearing a characteristically flamboyant purple shirt, Sir Howard Panter should be on the stage, not talking about the stage in a bland box of a meeting room. There aren't even any posters to jazz it up; I'd expected more from a man who is all about the visual.

But if it means that Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG), which Sir Howard set up in 1992 with his subsequent wife and co-chief executive, Rosemary Squire, is saving its cash for its 40 venues instead, then that's good news for audiences. Especially if you consider the furore that erupted over the state of theatreland after a Victorian ceiling collapsed during a pre-Christmas performance of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Although the offending theatre, the Apollo, is owned by rival Nimax, the restoration levies whacked on to most tickets these days means that theatregoers have a vested interest in their venues.

Sir Howard , 65 next weekend, reckons that the controversial levy, which comes on top of transaction fees, is a way of "involving them more directly than just shoving a pound on the ticket price", plus it makes the process "more transparent". And, for the record, he's happy to pledge that his ceilings are safe – because ATG had already replaced the wooden posts at the heart of the Apollo accident with steel ones. "I'm not being smug. There but for the grace of God go all of us," he adds, in case I misconstrue his words. But I want to know if theatres are spending enough, what with the age-old lack of loos, legroom and the like.

ATG, which claims to be the biggest live-theatre operator in the world, certainly has cash to burn, what with selling 60 per cent to Providence Private Equity Partners, a £37bn US group, in a £450m deal last autumn. And, yes, it's being spent: £12m worth over the past three years. But here's where it gets juicy: given his way, Sir Howard, who was knighted in last year's Birthday Honours, would do a lot more than merely decorate. "I think there is an intelligent debate to be had," he pauses, for perhaps the first time in what was shaping up to be a monologue of an interview, "about buildings of a particular age, like the Apollo, which, when they were built, their average life would have been 14 years."

Put bluntly, he's fed up with tinkering around the edges – putting in more ladies' loos, for example ("when they were built, it was considered improper for ladies to go to the lavatory; they were not expected to leave their seats") – and has bigger goals, like tearing theatres down. Not, obviously, to get rid of them, but to build better ones "with apartments and offices above and a car park – Oh! A car park, that's a good idea – below", which has happened a few times on Broadway. "We do have a bit of an obsession in this country about keeping things in aspic for the sake of keeping them in aspic when they're not always fit for purpose. You wouldn't say, 'Well, that football stadium's lovely, we've got to keep that because it was like that in 1902', you'd say, 'Knock it down and build a better one'."

Then again, ambitious expansion plans mean that Sir Howard has plenty of new theatres in his sights. His initial soliloquy sticks to the corporate script: words such as "content"; "roll-out"; and "model" all feature heavily. It's impressive stuff that revolves around exporting one of the things Britain truly shines at – theatre – to the rest of the world. Thus ATG is close to acquiring a theatre in Sydney, and is building others in Seoul and Hong Kong. Then there's more to come in New York, where it bought Foxwoods (now the Lyric) last year, plus one in New Jersey. And it's all about "rolling-out the one-stop shop, which is basically what we are". Or, in other words, owning theatres and their productions.

"Individual productions are often exported, such as Cats or Matthew Bourne's Nutcracker, but the idea of taking the whole model [overseas] has never happened. People come from all over the world to see our theatre, and I always say that if we built the best cars in the world we'd be exporting a lot of them, too." Not that he's claiming credit for the expertise. "It's to do with a chap called Shakespeare, 450 years ago. We've got form."

But his tone changes while he's talking, from jovial to defensive. Does he sense some leftie-luvvie hostility to the notion of something quite so, well, big? "The best global brands are a Good Thing. Just because they're global doesn't mean they're bad," he stresses.

"One can certainly argue, no names, no pack drill, as they say, but I can think of a number of artistic directors of London venues whose biggest concern is what their competitor down the road is doing, compared with, hey, there's great work to be done in China or Japan."

And ATG's productions, which range from Martin Freeman in Richard III and Jane Horrocks in East is East, to biggies such as The Lion King and, over on Broadway, Matilda, are in hot demand. "Most of the international market wants Western musicals, either classics or perceived classics, and dance-driven productions, such as Matthew Bourne or Stomp. Things that either have no language or a lot of music." Which explains why ATG is working so hard on its musicals, both classic and new. Sir Howard scotches any suggestion that the genre is in trouble despite recent flops such as I Can't Sing! and Stephen Ward.

"Even the circuits in North America want more high-quality, classic productions of Annie Get Your Gun." Jason Donovan and Emma Williams star in a new version of the Irving Berlin classic, which opened last week in Manchester before touring the UK. "The music is genuinely timeless," Sir Howard says of the score. "It takes you not only into this century but into the next one, with the battle of the sexes. 'Anything You Can Do' is one of the songs that's forever sung. I don't know quite what was in the air in Forties, Fifties, Sixties New York [when Berlin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Frank Loesser were writing], but if we could ever catch it, we'd be lucky."

ATG is trying hard: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, playing now at the Savoy, is new, as is its forthcoming Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, which is heading this way from New York. And it is working with Bristol Old Vic and the Citizens in Glasgow on developing seven or eight new musicals. "We're particularly focused on British writers who happen not to be part of the London scene. We want stories that have a local resonance but universal appeal."

And he really does mean universal. For a man who has "dyslexia and an art teacher" to thank for pushing him into theatre in the first place, Sir Howard really hasn't done badly. Even if I still think he'd make a captivating leading man.

'Annie Get Your Gun' is at the Opera House, Manchester, until 24 May, and then tours until October