You name it. She owns it

Janet Holmes a Court has a stranglehold on the West End and many believe it couldn't be in better hands. Interview by David Lister
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The Independent Culture
Janet Holmes a Court is not averse to the odd dramatic gesture, and earlier this year she made her most dramatic yet. The owner of 11 West End theatres, she took the roof off one of them. If audiences at Her Majesty's in the Haymarket felt a slight chill, they probably thought it was a special effect to enhance the entrance of the Phantom of the Opera. Most felt nothing at all.

The fact that over a period of two months none of the public realised half the roof was missing for repair affords the executive chairwoman of Stoll Moss theatres a hearty Australian chuckle. And a conspiratorial glance, as if to say, "If the most powerful woman in British theatre can't raise the roof now and again, what's the point of the job?"

An immaculately groomed, elegantly attractive 51-year-old, and a multimillionairess to boot, Mrs Holmes a Court not only breaks some of the conventions of theatre, she breaks some of the conventions of business as well, virtually coming out into the street to meet me at the door to her offices high above Soho Square. But then, having a posse of secretaries would not be in the mould of a woman who includes box-office and front-of-house staff in management meetings.

Since inheriting the Stoll Moss theatres - and, come to that, a construction company, a cattle business, as well as being a very proactive chairwoman of the Australian Children's Television Foundation (of which more later) - she has made a point of challenging the class system that permeates even theatre administration. She has also started a renovation and refurbishment programme for all her theatres, which she pledges will never end, put in more ladies toilets and taken out seats to give more leg-room. And she notably upstaged her critics, the critics, with a masterly coup de theatre.

This last occurred over the renaming of a West End theatre after Sir John Gielgud for his 90th birthday. Mrs Holmes a Court was singled out for some hasty and xenophobic abuse by some theatre critics for not renaming the Queen's Theatre, which many felt was the most appropriate choice. Some implied she did not know who Sir John was. In fact, she was in discussion with him all the time over renaming the Globe, and announced it from the stage at the Laurence Olivier awards, at the same time assuring an emotional Zoe Wanamaker, who was alongside her, that her father's Globe would be the only Globe in London. "Do you think I didn't know the sort of jokes that would be made if I'd chosen the Queen's?" she asks rhetorically now. "I'm not daft."

The widow of the Australian businessman Robert Holmes a Court, who died of a heart attack in 1990, is not only shrewd, she is relishing playing a far more active role in the Stoll Moss empire than her late husband.

The empire includes flagships like the London Palladium and the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, as well as the bulk of Shaftesbury Avenue, yet the metaphors she employs are borrowed from another arm of her business. "In the cattle business I have given people greater authority than was customary. At Stoll Moss, too, I wanted to give responsibility to a much wider range of people. The theatre managers now are responsible for training staff and seeing the theatre is maintained. They are no longer glorified ushers. There was hostility at first to the way I was changing things. But as an Australian I see the class system operating in the UK in all sorts of companies, even in theatre. Companies here are more hierarchical and it's still a handicap to have the wrong accent or to come from the wrong side of the tracks."

But for students of theatre the renovation programme and the more egalitarian management system may soon assume less importance compared to Mrs Holmes a Court's next passion, which is to improve "the product" in the West End.

Already she has appointed Nica Burns from the world of the fringe as Stoll Moss's executive producer and has instructed her to hold weekly surgeries for new, young producers. Ms Burns has herself mounted a mould- breaking West End show, Deborah Warner's 20-minute production of Samuel Beckett's Footfalls with Fiona Shaw. But that looks like just the beginning. Mrs Holmes a Court has augmented her management team by hiring Peter Cregeen, the producer of ITV's The Bill. She wants him to encourage TV writers to work in her theatres.

More adventurously, she promises tobring European theatre to the West End. "We have to get involved in the product area. We have to make sure that drama in the West End doesn't disappear completely. We will look to other parts of the world for product that normally wouldn't come to the West End. We have an obligation to try out some of these things, though obviously we can't go mad and have fringe theatre in every West End theatre. But I want to try to encourage a wider audience and challenge the assumptions of what the West End is all about."

An announcement of her plans for the import of world theatre will be made before the end of the year, she pledges. One certainty is that the product she brings in will not be just Broadway pap. Back in Australia Mrs Holmes a Court has been spearheading an anti-American campaign, successfully limiting the amount of US imports on Australian children's TV and making space and money available for homegrown writers and producers to make culturally indigenous programmes.

Passionate about Australian culture, she is a graduate of the University of Western Australia, where she read chemistry and met her husband, who read law. After their marriage, he ran the business and she brought up their four children. The global stock market crash of the late 1980s precipitated his heart attack and he died at the age of 53.

Before his death she was chairing the Australian Children's Television Foundation, concerned at the all-American diet being served up to her own children. Australia remains one of the few countries that has legislated for the quality and quantity of children's TV.

"You can imagine," beams Mrs Holmes a Court, "that we are very popular with parents. Children in Australia, in India, everywhere, should have TV that reflects their culture. When I was young I wasn't allowed to read comics. My mother said, 'There's nothing wrong with them, they just aren't good enough.' I am concerned that what we show kids is good enough. I feel strongly about not aping America. Why does every kid you see have to wear his baseball cap round the wrong way? It drives me potty."