Get with the programme – British theatre programmes vs Playbill

Sheridan Morley

Most British theatre programmes are little more than overpriced cast lists, argues Sheridan Morley, explaining why successive attempts to bring the handbooks up to date have never come close to emulating the success of America’s Playbill

Kenneth Tynan, much in the news of late because of last week’s BBC TV play and the current, superb Corin Redgrave solo at the Arts Theatre, should be recalled not just as a critic, first literary manager of the National and, God forbid, the man who first said a rude word on television. Nor is Oh! Calcutta! the greatest of his claims to fame. Among many more forgotten such claims, Tynan was the man who invented the modern subsidised theatre programme.

As a long-time theatregoer, not least for the Observer, Tynan asked Olivier, at their earliest conferences for the National back in 1963, why theatre programmes had to be such rubbish, offering little more than cast lists and details of where the players had previously been employed.

As an arts journalist in his own right, Tynan felt that audiences deserved something more for their money, something they could actually read rather than skim, something they could study on the train home, something that contained decent background essays on the play and the playwright and maybe even the themes raised by the play.

Olivier agreed and the result was an early set of National Theatre programmes which I have cherished across 40 years as models of their kind. In those days the National even sold white and red bookcase boxes in which they could be stored. If you can imagine an entire modern colour magazine devoted to one single play, that is essentially what these were.

But nothing is forever. London theatre programmes, always excepting those for the subsidised companies and houses where there is a resident management, are still tacky beyond belief and it was in slowly realising the truth that the Really Useful Theatres and the Ambassador Group both opened giveaway magazines a year or two ago, ones which playgoers would get handed to them in a neat folder when they bought their programmes.

But sadly the RUT magazine, Theatregoer, is closing, while the Ambassadors magazine seems at best to be only quarterly. I need at this point to declare several interests. My wife Ruth Leon was the founding editor of Theatregoer and ran it for its first couple of years in partnership with its owner, Madeleine Lloyd Webber. I have myself been for all of 30 years the London theatre correspondent for the American theatre programme-magazine Playbill and I have written for a vast range of other theatre magazines – among them Plays and Players, Plays International, Theatre World, Drama, Applause and now Theatregoer – all of which are, if not actually defunct, then a very pale shadow of their former selves.

Now, these were never mishandled. Indeed, their editors also included such expert theatre critics and writers as Michael Coveney and Clive Hirschhorn. But just as George Kaufman said of Broadway that satire is what closes on Saturday, so theatre magazines over here are what close not long after they first hit the bookstalls or even the theatres.

But why? Why can Playbill in America have survived virtually the century, not just as a free programme given away in theatres but also as a monthly magazine sold and subscribed to across the USA? For one very simple reason – advertisers in America assume that if you can afford to go to a theatre (at upwards of $100 a ticket for The Producers), then you can easily afford a mink coat, some diamonds and a Cadillac convertible.

Accordingly, Playbill has always carried advertising which Vogue or Tatler would die for, full page colour ads at the very top of the market. And because of that, the magazine can not only afford to pay its writers decently, it can also pay the theatres that carry it a small handling charge to make sure it is properly distributed – again, at no cost at all to the theatregoer.

Everybody wins, whereas over here everyone loses. Advertisers will not get behind theatre programmes or magazines, which they find too localised and specialised and without them such publications cannot survive. Even managers like Cameron Mackintosh have recognised that through no fault of anyone, theatregoers over here are getting a rotten deal and most playhouses do now provide minimal cast lists for free in case you do not want to shell out a fiver for a selection of large colour photos of a rock or TV star making a rare stage appearance, photos you could probably get more cheaply in Hello! magazine.

The idea that a programme should also contain critical essays, background information about how, why and when a play or even a musical was written is now a totally lost cause in commercial theatres. Only when a theatre has a resident literary manager – like the Almeida or Hampstead – does it seem to believe that its audience deserves something thought-provoking to read.

The rumour on the Avenue is that deWynters, the publisher of many West End theatre programmes, is thinking of boosting its editorial content and one can only wish the firm well, but where so many have failed. What is the answer? Are we really doomed only to be told which of the cast last appeared in The Bill and when? Why should theatre programmes not carry – as Playbill does – reviews rather than just ads for neighbouring restaurants? Why not review theatre books, CDs and videos or even look at movies with a theatrical connection of some kind, as so many now do? Or might it be possible to set up some kind of central programme publishing house which supplied all theatres, whether subsidised or not, with an intelligent collection of critical and background essays at a knockdown rate?

One of the many problems is that if this task falls to a single theatre management company, be it Really Useful, ATG or Delfont-Mackintosh, they would understandably not be eager to have their programme-magazines advertise shows that belong to rival managements. The joy of Playbill is that it is not owned by the Shuberts or indeed any other Broadway chain, it stands independent, owned by the same family for half a century and able to cover all productions with arm’s-length impartiality. Couldn’t we at the very least have Playbill London?

* Sheridan Morley is drama critic on the Daily Express and presents Melodies For You every Sunday evening on BBC Radio 2

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