One of Britain’s most influential theatre owners and producers has backed Andrew Lloyd Webber’s action to fight for the reopening of venues and ‘get the facts out there’, like suffragettes who campaigned within the law to get the vote for women.
Sir Howard Panter told the Sunday Telegraph: “The specific tactic of breaking the law, Andrew must do what Andrew thinks is best, of course. Good for him. But I think continually challenging with the facts, [on] the economic and social fallout, is going to be enormous if we’re not able to open up on 21 June.”
He added: “What Andrew feels and says is entirely understandable and reasonable.”
It is difficult for the Government to ignore Sir Howard’s voice. He and his wife, Dame Rosemary Squire, are among the industry’s most respected figures.
Over 30 years, they built up the Ambassadors, the world’s largest commercial theatre company, and they founded Trafalgar Entertainment, staging live productions and distributing live-streaming performances from the Royal Shakespeare Company and others.
They recently announced plans to construct the £100m, five-storey Olympia Theatre, which will be the largest new permanent theatre build of its kind to open in London since the National Theatre in 1976, as well as the acquisition of HQ Theatres and Hospitality, including 12 regional theatres across Britain.
Asked why he would not break the law, Sir Howard said: “Just because it won’t in itself necessarily be effective in this particular case…. We will fight – with [Andrew] and others – to get the facts out there.”
He discussed the suffragettes who broke the law to get the vote for women, whether being jailed, throwing themselves under the King’s horse or slashing famous paintings: “Some other people campaigned, campaigned and campaigned until women got the vote with facts. I’m in the group of people who want to campaign, campaign and campaign within the parameters that are there by law. But I think we have to shout loudly.”
Sir Howard Panter
Credit: Paul Grover
He spoke to the Sunday Telegraph ahead of unveiling the historic Trafalgar Theatre in London following a spectacular, multi-million pound restoration of the Grade II listed building. It has been returned to its original 1930s design, some of which has not been seen for over 90 years.
He said that a remarkable art deco building has emerged: “It’s absolutely amazing what we’ve discovered with all the historical societies we’ve worked with… It’s like discovering an extraordinary Tutankhamun’s tomb for the first time. It is breathtaking… It’s also part of investment in the future, the bounce back. When you go in, you feel you’re in a special place.”
Jersey Boys, an international hit that has won Tony, Grammy and Olivier awards, is due to be the first major musical production to play there.
Lord Lloyd-Webber’s defiant stance, which was last week reported by this paper, puts him on a collision course with Boris Johnson who is under pressure from scientists and senior ministers to resist removing all lockdown restrictions in England this month. He described the financial situation as so critical, he may have to sell his six West End venues.
Last month, the Society of London Theatre and UK Theatre warned that 70 per cent of theatres will run out of cash by the end of this year and that those in London alone had previously generated £133m in VAT payments for HM Treasury.
Sir Howard said: “No company can keep going forever putting millions and millions in [with] no money coming in because you can’t trade. This is the problem… Let us please trade again.”
Multi-million pound restoration of the Grade II listed Trafalgar Theatre, taking it back to its original 1930s spectacular design, some of which hasn’t been seen for over 90 years.
Thousands of people’s lives and millions of pounds of investment are dependent on theatres reopening, he argues: "Customer and investment confidence will go if they keep on delaying [lifting lockdown restrictions]…. It will take years to recover.”
He argued that the vaccine is a huge success and works: “Of course a clinician or a medic will say it’ll be safer if you don’t [go out]. It will be it’s be safer if I don’t go out ever. It’s an absurdity.”
He added: “There’s no need for social distancing at all now… We have sanitising for hands, staff and actors are tested every day… With temperature testing and everything else, we can test customers as they come through the door… Audiences are facing the front, rather than looking at one another… Hospitalisations and deaths, those are the facts that matter. Those are essentially low and staying low.”
He would support vaccine passports for theatres, allowing for medical exemptions: “You need a passport to travel abroad. You need a driving licence to drive… Simply stating that you’ve had one or two vaccinations is [not] in any way improper.”
Would he visit Lord Lloyd-Webber in jail? “I don’t know whether he’d be pleased to see me, but I’ll certainly take him a cake.”