Dench and Conti are top draws at box-office

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TOM CONTI and Dame Judi Dench have been named the most popular West End actors of the past two decades by counting the 1.5 million tickets booked through the Theatregoers' Club of Great Britain.

In the most democratic theatre award of its kind, the club added up the sales of club excursions to different shows and found the pair were the biggest draws in theatre land.

Dame Judi made the list thanks to a long career of stage successes, including A Pack of Lies and A Little Night Music. She is currently appearing in New York in David Hare's Amy's View, which transferred from London and last month brought her the Tony Award for best actress.

Conti was named as most popular actor thanks to roles in plays ranging from Whose Life is it Anyway? to lighter numbers like They're Playing Our Song and Romantic Comedy with Pauline Collins.

The Theatregoers' Club gave its awards at a 21st anniversary ceremony at the Cafe Royal in London yesterday attended by some of its 15,000 members.

John Gordon Sinclair collected the most popular musical actress award on behalf of Ruthie Henshall, his co-star in She Loves Me.

The most popular musical actor award went to Michael Ball who made his West End debut in Les Miserables and has since become a mainstay of popular musicals from Aspects of Love to Phantom of the Opera.

The most popular comedy performance award went to Stephanie Cole for her role in A Passionate Woman.

The veteran actress Dulcie Gray accepted an award on behalf of herself and her late husband Michael Denison who were awarded the most popular stage partnership award for their lifetime's work.

The awards reflected the elderly nature of many of the club's members. The club was set up in 1978 to help those with mobility problems attend the theatre, usually in groups by coach. Its members' taste can help determine the success or failure of a play.

Sir Ian McKellen has signed up to play Gandalf in the pounds 80m film version of The Lord of the Rings. He is likely to be joined in the three-film series by Ian Holm who will take the role of Bilbo. The JRR Tolkien classic has long been thought unfilmable. Miramax last year backed out of the project when the director and screenwriter Peter Jackson refused to compress the trilogy into one film. New Line Cinema plans to make the three films over the next four years. The trilogy has sold more than 50 million copies and was last year voted the book of the century in a poll for Channel 4 and Waterstone's book shops.

Coach Party Favourites

Tom Conti is the most popular actor for roles including Whose Life is it Anyway? Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell, Romantic Comedy and Noel Coward's Present Laughter.

Dame Judi Dench is the most popular actress for roles including Amy's View which won her a Tony in New York and her roles in Pack of Lies and A Little Night Music.

Steph-anie Cole, whose career has flour-ished playing women of a certain age, was awarded the best comedy performance award for her role in A Passionate Woman.

Ruthie Henshall won the award for the best musical perform-ance for her part in the long running musical and romantic comedy She Loves Me.