John Perry was one of the last surviving members of H.M. Tennent Ltd - "the Firm", as it was known - which under the management of Hugh "Binkie" Beaumont dominated the West End and provincial theatres for more than 30 years. Founded in 1936, it flourished during the Second World War, and in the course of its existence produced over 400 plays, musicals, intimate revues and revivals of the classics. The name came to symbolise excellence of style, presentation and casting, setting standards which were the envy and admiration of its competitors on both sides of the Atlantic.
Perry's association with Beaumont began in 1938 when John Gielgud approached him and offered to direct a play Perry had written in collaboration with Molly Keane (under her pen-name M.J. Farrell), Perry's childhood friend and neighbour. Full of Irish wit and eccentric characters, the play, Spring Meeting (Ambassadors, 1938), provided Margaret Rutherford with a starring role and established her as a favourite with audiences and critics alike, a position she occupied with the Firm for the rest of her theatrical career. Simultaneously Gielgud agreed to make his first appearance for the Firm in Dodie Smith's Dear Octopus (Queen's, 1938) and apart from seasons at the Old Vic and Stratford-upon-Avon, remained as its brightest star for the next two decades. Gielgud subsequently staged two more of Perry's collaborations with Keane: Treasure Hunt (Apollo, 1949), an amusing vehicle for Sybil Thorndike, and Dazzling Prospect (Strand, 1961), which provided another comic role for Margaret Rutherford.
Perry was born at Woodruff, Co Tipperary, in 1906, and educated at Cheltenham College. He made his professional acting dbut as Jack Chesney in Charlie's Aunt in 1928, joined the Florence Glossop-Harris company for a tour of Canada and the West Indies and then left the stage to concentrate on writing. Among his other plays and adaptations were Kate O'Brien's The Last of Summer (Phoenix, 1944), Francis Brett Young's A Man About the House (Piccadilly, 1945) and Elizabeth Bowen's Castle Anna (Lyric Hammersmith, 1948). Although he never took his acting seriously, Perry found his career cut short by the Second World War and he served in the RAF for the next five years. In 1943, with support from Anthony Quayle, he was appointed ADC to the Governor of Gibraltar, which prompted Beaumont to organise a visit to the Rock by an all-star concert party which included Gielgud, Vivien Leigh, Elisabeth Welch and Michael Wilding. When his service career ended, Perry joined Beaumont at the Globe Theatre and eventually became a director of H.M. Tennent. Tall, fair-haired and elegant, at home in Ireland Perry was the typical gentleman, riding to hounds (he was joint master of his local pack, near Clonmel) and a keen gardener.
In 1945 Rudolf Bing, then administrator of the Glyndebourne festival, invited Beaumont to join him, Tyrone Guthrie, administrator of the Old Vic, and Norman Higgins, of the Arts Theatre, Cambridge, to form what became known as the Company of Four. Its policy was to present new plays at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, and also to provide a showcase for actors returning from the services. After the usual uncertain start ("The Company of Four and the Audience of Two") and losses which led to the withdrawal of Glyndebourne and the Old Vic, Perry replaced Murray Macdonald, the original administrator, and the theatre began to build up a dazzling reputation as the foremost experi- mental theatre in London.
Plays by English authors such as Wynyard Browne, Peter Ustinov and Christopher Fry and the Americans Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, William Saroyan and Thornton Wilder were included in productions by Peter Glenville and Ustinov himself, while Peter Brook produced translations of Sartre and Anouilh. Cocteau's The Eagle Has Two Heads, with Eileen Herlie, had laid the foundations of its mounting success but it was the intimate revues Tuppence Coloured and Oranges and Lemons, devised by Laurier Lister, that wiped out the first losses and provided financial security. Many of these productions transferred to the West End, including Anouilh's Point of Departure and The Rehearsal (which I translated) and Vanburgh's The Relapse in a memorable production by Anthony Quayle.
In Coronation year Gielgud repeated for the Company of Four the formula he had used at the Queen's in 1938 and at the Haymarket in 1944 when he appeared in a season of plays using the same cast; it was virtually the forerunner of the National Theatre. The Lyric's season included Paul Scofield in Richard II, which Gielgud directed. Peter Brook's Venice Preserv'd, with Gielgud, Scofield, Pamela Brown and Eileen Herlie, and The Way of the World with Margaret Rutherford as Lady Wishfort.
All these productions were backed by Tennent Plays Ltd, the non-profit- making organisation which was set up as a tax-free concession in the days before the subsidised theatres were launched. In spite of mounting opposition from other managements, which even led to questions being asked in the House of Commons, the system was allowed to continue.
Despite public conviction to the contrary, the Firm never held any star or writer under contract, Beaumont's genius and charm proving more effective than any written signature. But if anyone fell foul of the management or "blotted their copybook" they were unlikely to work for the Firm again.
This inference extended to all the personnel connected with the technical side and anyone who worked for the Firm will remember the team collected, each as uniquely qualified as the managing director himself: Lily Taylor in the wardrobe, Joe Davies the electrician, Bernard Gordon the general manager, Ian Dow in charge of construction, and the redoubtable Elsie Beyer, the first woman general manager to be appointed, Daphne Rye, the casting director, Vivienne Byerley, in charge of publicity, and a whole host of stage directors, company managers and wardrobe mistresses.
Perry retired to the country in the late Sixties but when Beaumont died suddenly in 1974 he came back to the Globe to help run the firm. Beaumont had never concerned himself with training a successor and with his failing health and competition from the subsidised theatres the Firm lost its impetus and, although it officially continued to exist, nothing could replace the original driving force and the name itself disappeared some five years ago.
Arthur John Perry, actor, playwright, theatrical agent: born Woodruff, Co Tipperary 7 May 1906; died Cambridge 16 February 1995.
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