Profile: All the world's his stage: Bill Kenwright: From Euripides to Everton is a short step for our most prolific producer, says David Bowen

Click to follow
The Independent Online
BILL KENWRIGHT sits in his vast office on Shaftesbury Avenue, fingering a Blood Brothers key ring. The room, with its white grand piano and poster-plastered walls, oozes showbusiness glitz. So it should: Kenwright is Britain's most prolific producer, with 30 West End hits to his name.

He has just pulled off a remarkable coup: he spent pounds 950,000 of his own money transferring a Greek tragedy, Medea, to Broadway, and came away with a profit. He is not Cameron Mackintosh, with his string of hit musicals - but Cameron Mackintosh would not have put on Medea or Blood Brothers, a musical with few laughs.

'I enjoyed most of that,' he says at the end of the interview. 'I like talking about business for a change . . . Most people only want to talk about personal things.' He is under siege: the gossip columns have uncovered a link between him and the actress Jenny Seagrove.

He is a businessman, certainly, but an unusual one. Not many executives have been to school with Paul McCartney and George Harrison or played a heart throb in Coronation Street. A few have tried to take over football clubs, but none come close to tears as they talk about the day they thought their team was going down.

Most business people know all about rights issues. Kenwright - black-browed and silver haired, like Norman Lamont with a rich Scouse accent - gropes for the words: 'You know, those things where you raise money, what are they called?' But he gives himself away when he pulls the prospectus for the Everton issue from under a pile of paper. He is a bit of a ham, as an ex-Street actor should be.

In the next few weeks, he will know whether he is to become a big shareholder in Everton, which he says is the most important thing in his life after his family. He thought he had bagged the club just before Christmas, but after a four-month struggle found he had lost it. He has offered to put money into the club but does not know yet whether that will be welcomed.

Meanwhile, he has shows to produce. Midsummer is a fallow season, so with Piaf now closed he only has Blood Brothers and An Absolute Turkey in the West End, five shows on tour and Blood Brothers on Broadway.

Kenwright was born in Liverpool in 1945. His father started as a bricklayer and ended as a successful builder. Liverpool in the Sixties was an exciting place: merchant seamen would bring records in from America, so the kids would get the latest rock'n'roll before London did. His school, Liverpool Institute, was 'the school where it all happened'. Paul McCartney was there, guitar at hand. 'I always knew he would be something quite extraordinary,' Kenwright says.

'It was a great time. I always had a feeling I was going to be a film star,' he says. After school, he got a place at Manchester University to read drama. But after wandering into the Granada studios he found he had a job, and ended up playing Gordon Clegg on Coronation Street. He appeared on and off from 1968 to 1982.

The Street helped him to get other parts, including one as Billy Liar, but the backer pulled out. So, at the age of 21, he raised the money and played the part anyway. Then he got the touring rights for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which he ran for 13 years. For the first eight years, he had a reputation as a chancer, and lived from hand to mouth. 'I was just looking for parts for me,' he says. 'Then at the end of the Seventies, I discovered I liked walking in the front door better than the stage door.'

He settled in London, and started to build his reputation. He has never used other people's money; he says he could not bear to lose it. But he was a great gambler with his own, both at blackjack and showbusiness.

'I think I'm lucky, but I also think I'm the best in the world at specific parts of my business. I know more than most people what the guy on the terraces and in the directors' box would want to see.'

'I'm not a businessman. I know if it costs a tenner and you sell it for 11, you've made a quid,' he says. Which means he is a businessman, whatever he thinks: indeed he keeps a much closer eye on his cash than most 'real' businessmen. He gets an update on receipts twice a day - at noon and five - a print-out each morning of the previous day's takings, and a weekly analysis by his accountants. 'It's to do with adding and subtracting,' he says. 'I keep a watch on it because it's my money.' According to the latest accounts, for the year to May 1991, Bill Kenwright Ltd turned over pounds 9.7m and made a profit of pounds 956,000: as 99 per cent shareholder, Kenwright got almost all the pounds 400,000 dividend payout.

Kenwright's theatrical range is eclectic, from Medea to farces such as On the Piste. One of his biggest London hits was an unlikely one: Willy Russell's Blood Brothers, a musical tragedy set in Liverpool. In April last year, he transferred it to Broadway: the show was panned by the New York critics, but Kenwright did not give up. He brought in David Cassidy and his real-life brother, as well as Petula Clark, and it recovered: Blood Brothers is now known as the Miracle of Broadway.

Taking on Medea, a tragedy by Euripides, was an even bigger gamble. 'Everyone said I was off my trolley,' he says. He knew it would work, because it worked in Liverpool. 'For the first few minutes, there were women wailing on the stage,' he says. 'Then Diana Rigg appeared and starting talking about how she was going to murder her kids. I went to the director and said 'you've got a hit: listen to the silence - in Liverpool]' '

On tour, 'you could have shot moose in the auditorium', but Medea soon became a hit in the West End. New York could work only if the critics liked it, though: the 12- week run meant there was no time for a Blood Brothers-style recovery. They did - and Kenwright says he made about pounds 100,000.

If he just wanted to get rich, he would stick with a handful of big earners, but he enjoys chancing it. 'If he sees an empty theatre, it's a personal crusade that he has to fill it,' says Mackintosh.

He has just spent six months being followed by cameras for a BBC2 programme this week, which he says he did as a favour to the producer. 'Never again,' he says. 'It was just horrible.' But the intrusion of the cameras was nothing compared with this year's big battle: the struggle for Everton.

He has been a fan since he was seven, and catches the 10.10am from Euston on Saturdays to see every home match. He has been a director for several years, but only realised towards the end of last year that the Moores family wanted to sell their controlling share. 'I couldn't think of anyone else who should be taking over the club apart from me,' he says. 'I look at Ron Noades and Ken Bates (chairmen of Crystal Palace and Chelsea respectively) and don't realise I'm one of them. More than anything else I'm a fan.'

On 22 December, he was told his bid had been accepted, but two days later learned that Peter Johnson, owner of Park Foods and Tranmere Rovers, had topped it. 'I've never experienced anything like the next five months,' he says. 'I was racked with self-doubt, pain and anger.' He was the 'fans' man' and got 100 letters of support a week.

But at the same time the team was struggling, heading into the relegation zone which, Kenwright says, was more important than what was happening in the boardroom. 'I started to think 'this is not good for the club', so I rang Peter Johnson and said 'if I withdraw you have to understand it's like a father giving up his child'.' Johnson said he wanted him to stay, and Kenwright then had to convince his fans that the hamper man was not the devil incarnate.

The morning of Everton's last match of the season - which decided whether it would be relegated - was the worst day of his life. Everton won. The fans who invaded the pitch sang 'There's one Bill Kenwright, there's only one Bill Kenwright]'

Football has taught him more about the nasty side of business than the West End. He met boardroom operators at Everton: he did not like them but, he says, 'I learned an awful lot.'

Kenwright is evidently a workaholic. Here we are interviewing him at 8pm, and he will keep going until after his theatres shut. ''Theatre time is seven to 11, but work time is 10 to seven, so I have to do two days,' he says, then adds: 'Work is a substitute for insecure emotions.' His much-examined private life has included a brief marriage, to fashion designer Anouska Hempel, and he admits his workstyle makes relationships difficult: 'A happy thought would be to live with someone who shares my work ethic.'

'The honest truth is, I'd like to have a rest,' he says. But that is not so easy: he cannot sell out, because without him his company is worthless. He has had offers, but for Kenwright, not Bill Kenwright Ltd. 'The only one I was tempted by was from a Hollywood studio that wanted to set up a theatre division. Then I was offered the directorship of Everton, so I said 'goodbye Hollywood'. What would I have done on a Saturday afternoon?'

'Bill Kenwright Presents' is on BBC2 at 7.30pm on Thursday.

(Photograph omitted)