Obituaries:Robert Nesbitt

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The Independent Online
To the cause of cheering us all up with "nothing but splendour and feminine gender", as the chorus from the Victorian music-hall has it, Robert Nesbitt devoted over half a century.

Whether in London, Blackpool or Las Vegas, in revue, pantomime, variety or shows in which statuesque half-clad lovelies vied for attention with a sumptuously garbed chorus line, Nesbitt's touch was recognisable to the connoisseur.

Was there anyone in London more likely to bring a distinctive flourish of colour and verve to the more spectacular kind of song-and-dance show? His was not an art-form of much concern to critics. He asked them to his shows but they usually sent their second strings on condition that they wrote little.

Nesbitt never minded. He was a good-natured man, beautifully mannered, carefully dressed, and faithful to the belief that his audiences knew what they wanted - just a light, tasteful, colourful and amusing night out with plenty to please the eye, innocuous tunes and gags to raise the odd laugh.

None of which may have been intellectually provocative but all of which needed the most astute organisation, whether it was placing a sketch for an unknown provincial comic at the Prince of Wales (Sid Field), the choice of Principal Boy for the new pantomime at the Palladium, the ordering of the turns in the next Crazy Gang at the Victoria Palace, the avoidance of scenic collisions in a Folies-Bergere-type revue at the Casino, or the staging at short notice of the Royal Variety Show, which he did 23 times between 1945 and 1979.

If Nesbitt's heart was in any single branch of such popular entertainment it was probably in sumptuous imitations of what one might find at the Moulin Rouge, the Lido or the Folies-Bergere. Nesbitt could talk about their different styles with authority but without always achieving perfection with his West End imitations.

When for example the chorus girls in Latin Quarter (1949) sat stiffly about never daring to move lest a spy from the Lord Chamberlain's office should be present as censor and command that the show be closed, one first-string critic who had condescended

to attend complained not of movement among the nudes but of the costumes for the rest of the girls and the shaky decor. They were clothed, the critic added, "in colours that had the offensive force of battering rams. When the scenery on which they were disposed moved jerkily forward," he reported with indignation, " they were visibly shaken."

More critical ingratitude was recorded after Plaisirs de Paris (Prince of Wales, 1957) with its "thumping succession of red velvet jackets, cafe tables, artists' models, spangles, sparkle and glitter, the Eiffel Tower, and shimmering, shining girls: the whole representing the witty and irrational spirit of Paris about as much as a heap of spare parts a Rolls-Royce".

Nesbitt's taste however, not only in the direction and disposition of a chorus line, was generally as refined as it was in the engagement of youthful female talent, however pressing the mother of the aspirant to stardom.

When, for example, the unknown Julie Andrews appeared aged 12 at rehearsals for the revue Starlight Roof (London Hippodrome 1947) she gave delight not only with her voice but with her personality and sense of theatre. Nesbitt nevertheless judged her youthful presence in a night-club scene as liable to give offence. With reluctance and his usual courtesy, he dismissed her.

Nesbitt was raised, after education at Repton and Oxford, in a tradition of revue immortalised by such legendary pre-war impresarios as Andre Charlot and C. B. Cochran (one of whose illustrious "young ladies", Iris Lockwood, he married). After stints in advertising and journalism, having reported Norman Hartnell's first Parisian collection for an American publication, he turned to the stage, writing lyrics for London cabaret at Quaglino's and Ciro's.

When he began writing and directing West End shows (in 1932) his choreographer was Frederick Ashton. Under titles like Char-a-Bang!, Stop-Go! and Take It Easy, Aladdin, they heralded a growing public taste for intimate revue which did not disappear untilthe 1960s when Nesbitt was directing variety bills and pantomime at the Palladium and bringing Ken Dodd to metropolitan attention.

Meanwhile he had been summoned back from New York and Las Vegas, where he was often in demand, to instigate in Leicester Square a form of entertainment which prospered for longer than any other movement in either the subsidised or unsubsidised post-war theatre.

Transforming the old London Hippodrome where Ivor Novello's musical comedies used to break records and Maurice Chevalier dispensed his enchantments, Nesbitt created something different, called "The Talk of the Town".

There was no trouble in attracting reviewers to it from the Fleet Street dailies. In an era of old technology, when as soon as the curtain fell on a play they had to scurry back to Fleet Street and write their overnight notices (or dictate from faulty orfouled telephone booths), the Talk of the Town proved an oasis of elegant, civilised and sometimes witty entertainment.

A supper restaurant with over 1,000 covers, it thrived for 25 years under Nesbitt's shrewd guidance, wining and dining the critics who knew that the show would go on too late for any feasible deadline to be met, and starring, say, Judy Garland. The only recorded complaint was of the choice that had to be made between attending to the pleasures of the table and those of the stage.

Robert Nesbitt, theatrical producer and impresario: born London 11 January 1906; married Iris Lockwood; died 3 January 1995.

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