Lloyd Webber sells four theatres to Michael Grade

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The Independent Culture

Michael Grade, the broadcast executive known for his red braces and cigars, has at last made his West End debut – not by treading the capital's boards but by taking ownership of them.

In his first foray into theatre ownership, and in one of the most high-profile theatre property deals of the last decade, a consortium led by Mr Grade has purchased four central London theatres for £50m from Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber's Really Useful Group (RUG).

"It has been a totally gut-wrenching decision for me to decide to sell the four theatres," said Lord Lloyd Webber in a statement yesterday. "However following my illness last year I was advised to reduce the debt in the family company. My commitment to composing, producing and theatre ownership remains as strong as ever."

The move is something of a coup for Mr Grade, whose family connections led him to be interested in investing in theatres for some time. His father was the theatrical agent Leslie Grade, and his uncles were the impresario Lew Grade and Bernard Delfont, co-founder of theatre group Delfont Mackintosh Theatres. Mr Delfont was a former owner of Cambridge Circus's Palace Theatre and supervised the opening of the New London Theatre in 1972, both of which were part of the sale. The deal also included Cambridge and Her Majesty's theatres. The purchasing consortium also included Michael Linnit, the theatrical agent.

André Ptaszynski, the RUG chief executive, wrote to the theatres' staff on Tuesday to inform them of the sale. He acknowledged that it might result in job losses, but said that only a small number of staff would be affected.

"While unsettling to a degree, I am sure our members will appreciate the advance information provided so far as it addresses speculation about the future of the group," said Willy Donaghy, a supervisory official for media and entertainment union BECTU. "This is a situation we'll be watching closely in preparation for future talks."

The sale is as much of a wrench for Lord Lloyd Webber as it is a boon for Mr Grade. The New London was the home of Cats for 21 years until May 2002. Her Majesty's is the home of The Phantom of the Opera. The Palace was once described by John Betjeman as "the only theatre architecture... which climbs into the regions of a work of art".

RUG will retain ownership of larger theatres including the Palladium and the Theatre Royal Drury Lane as well as a 50 per cent stake in the Adelphi. The sale represents 4,900 seats.

"I am particularly proud that over the 25 years that I have owned the Palace I have been able to restore the magnificent auditorium and the exterior, thereby removing the huge neon advertising hoarding that defaced both the theatre and Cambridge Circus," added Lord Lloyd Webber.

"I have agreed the purchase price be reduced by £5m to enable GradeLinnit to invest this sum in the theatres, principally in the Palace."

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