04 January 2003
Business profile: Impresario who never
recovered from being stage-struck
Howard Panter was 'begged not to act' but that didn't stop him becoming one of the largest theatre owners, writes Kate Rankine
Howard Panter smiles fondly as he recalls his first visit to the theatre, aged five. Although he can't remember the name of the pantomime, the experience left a lasting impression.
"I remember the warmth of the theatre, it feeling very warm and golden inside," he recalls. "All of those wonderful womb-like, cocoon things that theatres do, in the dark with lovely bits of light."
Now, almost 50 years later, Panter is one of the largest theatre owners in the country. His company, Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG), owns 20 theatres including, in London, the Albery, Comedy, Donmar Warehouse, Duke of York's, Phoenix and Wyndham's, while his provincial theatres include the Theatre Royal, Brighton, the Victoria Concert Hall and the Regent Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, and the Ambassadors, Woking, where we meet. (Cinderella, starring Julian Clary, is showing. "Splendid" is his response, when I ask about it.)
As well as owning theatres, he is also a leading West End producer. The company's most recent productions include Sean Bean in Macbeth, Jude Law in Dr Faustus and Gwyneth Paltrow in Proof. Meanwhile, the success of The Rocky Horror Show continues unabated; it is now on its thirtieth year anniversary tour. "Extraordinary!" declares Panter.
Despite suffering from a heavy cold, he is determined to put on his best performance, delivering his lines in a booming baritone. There's no danger of not hearing him in the cheap seats. Indeed, it strikes me that the portly Panter, 53, looks as if he has been cast as a daft Colonel, complete with a false moustache, courtesy of the make-up department.
Although he doesn't regard himself as a luvvie (a regular diner at Sheekey's, rather than The Ivy), he has spent enough time with those theatrical types for some mannerisms to rub off. So, when I correct his mistaken impression that I work for The Telegraph, Panter turns to an imaginary audience, saying in a camp voice: "A bit of edge, love. A bit of edge."
Then he tells me how well he knows Charles Spencer, The Telegraph's theatre critic. So what does he think of the critics in general, I want to know. Are they the bane of his life? "Gosh!" is his reply. "The key thing is, 'do they know their subject or not?' " he adds, recovering a bit.
"Some of them are a little like going to the doctor who has slipped through without any qualifications at all. It's your left leg that's in pain, but the critic will say 'I really think it's the right ear that is the problem' because they really don't know the difference between directing, writing and acting."
My colleague Charles Spencer, Panter assures me, knows his subject - even if he recently gave a poor review of Gillian Anderson, star of The X-Files, making her West End debut in Michael Weller's What the Night is For at ATG's Comedy theatre.
Anyway, Panter insists that the good critics "help to keep standards up", preventing the industry from becoming "too inward-looking and self-satisfied".
Not that there is too much danger of that in the current climate. Although ATG remains profitable - its annual turnover is £45m - he reckons this summer could be "an absolute wipeout" for visitors in London. Fortunately, its plays tend to be "more up-market", appealing to a domestic audience.
"We don't have any Starlight Expresses," he says, adding quickly: "I'm not being snobby about Starlight Express."
Still, his plans for two musicals have been "put on the backburner" and, following the success of Macbeth, he is now considering more Shakespeare for the summer. Soon he starts moaning about the state of the West End itself, banging on about the traffic, the closure of Trafalgar Square, Mayor Ken Livingstone, the dirt and crime.
"Why can't London have the same pride in itself as New York - the same will to improve itself and regard to its strengths?" he thunders.
"We probably have the best theatre in the world, though New York might fence with us on that one. The only thing that is fundamentally wrong here is the infrastructure. It's a significant problem." Few people would disagree with him.
It was at his Dorset boarding school ("all cold showers and beatings," he quips) that Panter first became interested in drama, writing and starring in his own reviews.
"I wasn't exactly an academic giant," he admits. "My excuse for being such a dunce is that I went to Australia between two and 10. It was considered very sissy to read books."
Indeed, he had read only one - called Tim to the Rescue - by the time he had reached 10. "I remember it vividly," he beams. When he returned to England (his father worked for EMI), Panter says that he "couldn't get into a proper school"; he scored only 2pc in a maths entrance exam for Harrow.
After school, he studied production at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (Lamda). Maureen Lipman was a contemporary, though he adds: "I should be far too gentlemanly to mention that."
Did he ever want to become an actor, I ask? "No, they begged me not to, and all those jokes," he replies, smiling. "I've done everything else but acting: directed, I've built scenery, I've been a lighting designer, I've been a production manager, I've been a stage manager."
But, in the United States, Panter always tells people that he is an insurance salesman, not a theatre producer. Apparently, it stops waiters and bell-hops from pestering him too much, though it didn't work with a rather persistent immigration officer at JFK airport one time.
Exhausted and delayed, Panter was travelling to New York in order to close down Once A Catholic, which proved a disaster on Broadway. The immigration officer asked him what he did. "Theatre," came his reply. "What theatre? What theatre?" he demanded to know. Eventually, Panter told him the purpose of his visit. "I saw it, it stinks! It stinks!"
Ten years ago he became the first West End producer to turn theatre-owner when a consortium - including Sir Eddie Kulukundis, the theatre impresario and shipping broker, plus property developers, John and Peter Beckwith - took over the struggling Duke of York's theatre on St Martin's Lane. The first production was Death and the Maiden. "It did very well," he recalls, looking somewhat relieved.
Together with his wife, Rosemary Squire, he owns 8pc of ATG, with an option on a further 5pc. (In addition to Kulukundis and the Beckwiths, other shareholders of the private company include Carlton Communications and US real estate fund Apollo).
Squire, 46, is also an ATG director, and is negotiating the acquisition of three more regional theatres. Panter is vague about how long the couple have known each other; he guesses at 20 years. "You're going to ask me the date of the wedding next?" he says. Yes. "Oh no, you're not!" he says, doing an impression of a pantomime dame.
Four months ago, his wife gave birth to their first child, Kate, although she has two teenagers from a previous marriage. Panter goes all soppy at the mention of his daughter. "It's wonderful, it's fabulous, she is amazing," he coos. What is it like working with his wife, I ask? "Mostly very good," he says, choosing his words carefully.
He adds: "Much of the company's success, I think, has a lot to do with Rosemary and I having a feel for each other, and a feel for everyone else in the company. The good part is one has an excellent shorthand. We can get things done very quickly. The downside for us personally is that it never leaves us."
Still, Panter doesn't look very unhappy about that. The show must go on, after all.
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