How We Met: Nica Burns & Thelma Holt

'I was climbing a pyramid when she rang: "Darling, it's Thelma, we have to help David Suchet"'
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Thelma Holt CBE, 78, is a theatre producer. The co-founder of the Open Space Theatre in London in the 1960s, Holt ran the theatre company at the Roundhouse in the 1970s and has been responsible for numerous internationally successful productions with the National Theatre, the Peter Hall Company and the RSC among others. She lives in west London

We met at the Donmar in 1985; Nica was greeting people in the foyer. They were as poor as church mice, and my heart lifted as I walked in and thought, "Thank God the Open Space is alive and well." Nica had an office, not even that really, up a ladder. When I ran Open Space I'd had an office in a hole in the ground next to the Elsan [toilet].

She was quick, bright and doing all the work. I fell for her hook, line and sinker because I'm inclined to fall for people who bring back happy memories and I'd done all that too, so it was a cosy, warm bath to meet a kindred spirit who was a lot younger.

We met regularly after that, always in the theatre. She had an attractive air of confidence, which she still has, although it's probably more real now, and an intuition for the theatre, which led to her doing her own thing, interfering, telling people, "No, that's not right." And she'd be right too. There's no harm in having a Napoleon complex if you're a producer.

Nica is, by nature, happy. She knows the value of life so she tries to enjoy it. Things have happened to both of us in the years we've known each other. We've been bereaved, all the normal things that happen in any life, but her way of "pick yourself up, brush yourself down" is something I admire and very necessary for the career we have chosen.

People wouldn't think it, but we both like running a home a lot. There isn't much time to do it, so your time is precious and the quality of your life is important. When we do close the door, it's not often, but you have to grab the moment and enjoy it.

I like Nica on first nights, and I don't necessarily mean her own productions. She's fun. She comes to see it and to wish it well. I've watched her clap and I've thought, "You can't really have enjoyed this pile of shit," but she claps her hands off. She's generous-spirited.

Nica will age extremely well, but she will be a dreadful old woman. She'll be bossy, but right. But since I'm older than her, I may not live to see it, so I'll leave that to her very nice husband.

Nica Burns, 50, is a theatre producer. She was artistic director at the Donmar Warehouse from 1983 to1989 and has been director and producer of the Edinburgh Comedy Awards (formally the Perrier) since 1984. Burns owns five West End theatres and is president of the Society of London Theatres. She lives in London with her husband

Thelma is a legend. She's a very flamboyant character and has always been talked about. I was artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse when we met. It was the press night for Cheek By Jowl's first visit to a West End theatre and I was in the foyer greeting everybody when this extraordinary-looking woman with bright-red hair came up the stairs. She has a very strong natural presence so I knew she was someone special. She said, "I'm Thelma Holt," and of course I was delighted.

The more I got to know her, the more I understood how she had earned her reputation. She has an extraordinary ability to make strong relationships with a huge cross-section of people. She chaired the drama panel of the Arts Council and when you see her in meetings you can see why. You get a whole load of people round the table fighting each other and Thelma has the capacity to say, "No darlings, this is what we should do!" with great authority.

Many of the things we have worked on have been similar and often I've found that the people I have worked with have worked with Thelma before. She has made life a lot easier for me as a female producer – there were almost no other women apart from her when she began.

With our current show she called and said, "Darling, the next show that we are going to do is going to be Ghosts and you're going to put up half the money and give me your theatre. These are the dates..." Nobody else would be able to do that. Thelma has an ability to make herself special to people.

I've never been to Thelma's for dinner, nor she to mine, but both of our lives are dominated by our work so our social life is totally blurred. We meet to eat at Sheekey's, The Ivy – all the theatreland places.

Thelma is very loved. I don't think I could ever be quite as loved as she is, but I think we both have the same honesty and tell people when there is trouble. That shared sensibility makes our relationship strong, but we don't have to spend a lot of time together to know that.

My favourite memory of Thelma is when she first talked about doing Man and Boy with David Suchet together. My husband and I were on a trip to the Mexican pyramids. We were off the beaten track and, as we climbed this ancient ruin and emerged above the tree line, my mobile, which hadn't had any reception until then, turned itself on and rang. This voice came out of it saying, "Darling it's Thelma, we've got to help David Suchet." By the time we made it to the top, it was all arranged.

Henrik Ibsen's'Ghosts' is at the Duchess Theatre, London WC2 (tel: 0844 579 1973, ghoststheplay.com) from 23 February

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