Arts feature

Indiscretions from two veteran producers

Duncan Weldon and Paul Elliott on the West End's good old days - and being shafted

12 July 2014

9:00 AM

12 July 2014

9:00 AM

Stars, playwrights and even set designers are constantly being lionised in the papers. But why not producers? They, after all, are the ones who choose the plays, the stars, and then make it all happen. Duncan Weldon and Paul Elliott are two veteran cigar chompers who’ve been in the business for 45 years. They’ve made and lost a packet, over and over again. They never seem to learn. Like all producers, they love their wives almost as much as they love a hit.

Over lunch in the West End, I discussed the knack of being and staying a producer. Great exponents such as Cameron Mackintosh and Bill Kenwright have always had loyal teams. But Elliott and Weldon are in a way the true odd couple. They shared an office on the Aldwych (Ivor Novello’s old suite of rooms) for 37 years. Despite squabbles and fall-outs, they are a double act whose mood is currently rather good. They are producing David Suchet, who is going round the world in a very effective Vatican thriller, The Last Confession. Thanks to Suchet’s international stardom through his heavily exported TV Poirot, the show’s a gold mine. They have Rupert Everett coming up in Amadeus — another potential big banker.

Elliott is affable, rumbustious and totally a creature of the business called show. Weldon is quieter, more watchful, and has heart trouble. Weldon admits to liking actors; Elliott’s not so keen. ‘That’s because you got poor billing when you were one,’ snipes Weldon over his salmon. Elliott’s first stage performance was in 1958 in his home town of Bournemouth, in Agatha Christie’s Murder at the Vicarage. He also appeared in 39 episodes of Dixon of Dock Green: ‘And they’ve all been wiped so no one can blackmail me.’

Elliott loves a battle and it’s not hard to imagine him with his feet on the desk doing the old ‘you’re stealing from me!’ routine down the phone. In a furious negotiation with a recalcitrant agent he once famously took down his trousers and offered his bottom. Since he was being metaphorically shafted, he suggested the agent might as well go the whole hog; a scene worthy of Mel Brooks’s The Producers.

What did they think the public’s image of the producer is today? ‘The same as it always was,’ says Elliott. ‘We drive around in Rolls-Royces, have astrakhan collars on our coats and we’re very rich. Actually, a lot of actors have no idea what we do, let alone the public. An actor I knew once produced a play and even he complained what a pain in the arse actors are.’

Dixon of Dock Green led him into business with his chum the actor Peter Byrne (the show’s detective inspector Andy Crawford) and into forming E&B productions. Indeed no one has been bigger in pantomime than Elliott — the ‘King of Panto’ — who ran the biggest company of all time (directing hundreds himself), which he finally sold. He still loves the genre, which he thinks smells of orange peel. Another of its major benefits is that, with an occasional respray, you can use the same design for decades. ‘We got 25 years out of the set for Cannon and Ball’s Babes in the Wood.’

Weldon started out in Southport, Lancashire, as a call-boy at the town’s Garrick Theatre. ‘My father had a chain of photographic stores and expected me to go into the business. I worked at Stratford for Peter Hall for a while, met David Kossoff and became a producer.’ Their first show was Uproar in the House with Bob Monkhouse at Bournemouth. Weldon then persuaded John Gregson to do Goodbye Charlie by George Axelrod and the pair pooled their limited resources. Their London debut was a presentation of J.B. Priestley’s glorious When We Are Marrried in 1970. The costs have rocketed. ‘When we first put on When We Are Married, we mounted it for £15,000. When we recently did it, it cost £450,000,’ says Weldon.

Triumph Theatre Productions went on to be a major force in the land. Weldon presented 63 consecutive plays at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London’s most prestigious theatre. Actor-wooing is perhaps his real skill. ‘He has immense patience and will stalk an actor for a part,’ says Elliott. ‘With me it’s: “Do you want it or not?” — I’m not a wooer, I’m a doer.’  ‘That’s why we work so well,’ says Weldon. ‘It took me years to woo Rex Harrison and he did eight shows for me.’ Was Sexy Rexy as big a bastard as they say? ‘Never with me. I got him at the end of his career so he must have mellowed.’

Even Rex Harrison would sign for six months. Today, stars will only sign for 12 weeks in case they get offered a lucrative film or telly. ‘It’s hell,’ says Elliott. ‘With a show you only get your money back on week ten so you’ve got just two weeks of profit.’ Apparently the leads in a recent sold-out Private Lives wouldn’t extend their contracts, despite earning £15,000 a week each.

‘It’s all changed and the money is daft’ is the message I get from these two West End relics. ‘A thousand years ago I employed Rock Hudson, who was off for ten days ill,’ says Elliott. ‘The business went down and Rock said, “I don’t like to do that. I’ll get you the money back.” He then worked for the minimum. He cared about the business. Most now couldn’t give a monkey’s.’

Indisposition is now an epidemic. Stars feel free to go ill the second the sun comes out. In a West End musical today, there’s almost never a full cast. ‘There is less illness on tour,’ says Weldon. ‘But that’s because on tour they don’t have a bathroom to paint.’ They like a good moan, do producers. Weldon and Elliott would make a great Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse sketch.

‘There’s still money to be made, otherwise we wouldn’t be here,’ admits Weldon. But the old days seem more attractive to Elliott because the business was more human back then. ‘When we started it was all done off the back of an envelope. A star like Jimmy Edwards would say, “My dear boy, fill my glass with whisky and if I nod over a full glass that’s a deal.” And it was all done on a nod and a handshake. That said, Jimmy Edwards’s agent killed himself by jumping out of a window in Guildford.’

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