Producer Edward Snape: ‘At West End prices, the least we can do is provide a comfy seat’
From Cromer pier to the Garrick, and Jimmy Tarbuck to Kenneth Branagh, producer Edward Snape has worked his way up to the top. He tells Mark Shenton what he learned from losing his first big hit to Mark Goucher, how West End landlords are becoming too controlling, and why producers have to be more mindful of prices
When Edward Snape was 25, he learned a valuable lesson that would stand him in good stead on his rise to being one of the UK’s leading commercial producers: “Never earn more than the talent.”
It was a painful lesson to learn for the producer whose shows these days run from West End hits to UK and international tours and children’s shows.
Six years after becoming the youngest professional theatre manager in the country, aged 19 – when he managed one summer at Cromer’s end-of-the-pier theatre – he had his first big hit. He transferred the Reduced Shakespeare Company from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe to the Arts theatre in the West End, and for a while the partnership thrived.
“I’d seen them listed on a blackboard at the Pleasance in Edinburgh, saw the show and persuaded them to come under my wing and started booking them tours,” he says. “Then I bought them to the Arts theatre in London for a year. I was 25, and as a producer I made more money out of it than they did.”
The cracks started to form. “They resented it and after a year we parted ways. Now I realise you should never earn more than the talent. Mark Goucher picked them up and took them to the Criterion, where they ran for 10 years. To my annoyance it was longer, by a tiny bit, than The 39 Steps, which I did there afterwards.” Theatre producers are nothing if not competitive.
The classic portrait of theatre producers has long been of larger-than-life characters and extravagant showmen (and occasionally women), who put on big shows and have big personalities and lifestyles to match. But gradually that picture has been changing, if it was ever true.
Producing is also about survival in an industry where nothing can ever be taken for granted, where there’s always fierce competition and too few theatres to house the shows in. It’s about putting in the hard graft, learning about the back office of ticketing and the importance of making an impression front-of-house, and finding and maintaining those often elusive hits. Snape is one of the UK’s success stories.
He is also one of the quietest and most unassuming producers in the industry and one of the best liked. Now 52, he has had a string of hits and been involved in a series of different ventures across the theatre industry including ticketing. Talking to him today about his career it’s clear the experience with the Reduced Shakespeare Company left its mark as the show that got away. He admits: “I took it quite hard.”
But he found redemption with The 39 Steps, a comic production based partly on the 1915 John Buchan novel of the same name, and partly on the loose film adaptation by Alfred Hitchcock two decades later. “With The 39 Steps, I found my way back,” he says.
He’d seen an earlier theatrical adaptation of the four-hander, created by Nobby Dimon and Simon Corble, who were touring it out of the back of a van. “It was good, but I realised it could be better,” he says. “I kept asking Patrick Barlow to take a look at reworking it, and it took about eight years before it finally emerged.” It premiered at West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2005, then came to the Tricycle in London the following summer. “Then, very nervously, we brought it into the West End, where it ran for nine years.”
That was partly luck and partly timing – and a lot of good producing. Costs were low, meaning it could sustain its run easily. But he now wonders whether such a break out hit would be possible today. “That’s where the landscape has changed,” he says. “I don’t know if The 39 Steps would get a chance now. Today, there are more projects looking for theatres than there are theatres, so I don’t know if it would have found a theatre now.” And certainly not for what turned out to be an open-ended run.
“It was a sleeper hit and did us proud,” Snape continues. “And something I never expected, either, was how successful it was all around the world.” It even landed on Broadway in 2008, opening first at the American Airlines Theatre under the auspices of Roundabout Theatre Company before transferring to the Cort Theatre and then the Helen Hayes. It continued its travels in New York Off-Broadway at the New World Stages and then Union Square Theatre.
If The 39 Steps was one of those unexpected hits a producer always dreams of, Snape is also proud of another classic film adaptation The Ladykillers, which he brought to the West End stage.
“I loved the original movie, it’s still one of my favourites,” he says. “I was introduced to [comedy writer] Graham Linehan by Rupert Lord, and we brought him in to do the adaptation.” It had two West End runs, first at the Gielgud in 2011 and then again at the Vaudeville two years later. Re-reviewing its return in the Daily Telegraph, critic Charles Spencer said: “It is even funnier than the movie… It’s a hugely entertaining show that looks set to become a big West End hit all over again.”
Q&A: Edward Snape
What was your first job?
I was a Bluecoat at Pontins when I was 17, then I managed the theatre on Cromer Pier when I was 19.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
To work for another producer first. I learned the hard way, making more mistakes than I should have done.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Dick Condon, former theatre director at Norwich Theatre Royal. And my wife Marilyn, who I met when I worked with the Reduced Shakespeare Company, and she was working for Martyn Hayes.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
It helps to dress the part as well as be the part. It’s extraordinary how much that influences you.
If you hadn’t been a producer, what would you have been?
Absolutely no idea – probably a children’s entertainer and magician.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I love standing front of house and welcoming people on a first night and giving them a programme. It takes me back to my days as a front-of-house manager.
Snape has long championed popular theatre. At the age of 12, he converted a hayloft in his parent’s Norfolk barn into a 30-seat theatre and started putting on shows. He began his professional career as a Bluecoat children’s entertainer at Pontins in Great Yarmouth when he was 17.
“My love of theatre started with my parents being in the opera business,” he says. His father was finance director at English National Opera and his mother was an opera singer. “My rebellion was to go from stuffy subsidised opera to the end-of-the-pier and Pontins – it was my way of sticking two fingers up to my parents.”
Meeting a local theatre manager and impresario proved to be a turning point for Snape. “I was greatly influenced by a Norfolk impresario, which sounds like a contradiction in terms, but is absolutely true. Dick Condon, who ran the Theatre Royal, Norwich, was a pioneer in terms of allowing theatre to be for everyone. He was a larger-than-life impresario, a proper showman – he outraged the locals by putting up Day-Glo posters around town.”
I went to Pontins to knock the prep school out. I was the poshest bingo caller they’d had
It was Condon who suggested he became a Bluecoat. “Although I was state-school educated in my teens, I had formerly been at posh prep schools, and the reason he suggested I go to Pontins was to knock that prep school out of me,” Snape says. “I was the poshest bingo caller they’d had.”
Then Condon, who also ran the seaside theatre at Cromer, invited him to manage a season there. Gordon and Bunny Jay were the headliners. “I was 19 and I had the time of my life,” he says.
He then headed to London. “I applied for a job at Stoll Moss Theatre, and worked at the London Palladium as an assistant house manager. It fitted in very much with my love of light entertainment. Jimmy Tarbuck was doing his TV show live from there every Sunday night, and I watched Harold Fielding bring in the musical Ziegfeld – it was heaven.” However, that show famously, and expensively, flopped. “I found out that Harold’s wife had been a big part of who he was, and when she died, it was said that a lot of him died with her.”
Marilyn Eardley, Snape’s wife of 19 years, is a “huge part” of his business. “She’s a co-owner and working on more projects than I am,” he says. With business partner Jon Bath, they produce shows under the banner of Fiery Angel, which is “definitely a company, not an individual – unlike other producers, I’ve always wanted to have partners around me”.
One of the most important things a producer needs to do is to sell tickets. And Snape set up one of the West End’s largest independent ticketing agencies, Group Line – which includes the brand lovetheatre.com – with actor Simon Warwick in 1991.
Snape says: “The master of selling group tickets in his day was Harold Fielding, so selling group ticketing to social clubs and so on was a big part of what we did, too. It’s a crucial skill. I think my colleagues have caught up now, but understanding how all that works is a hugely important part of being a producer.” Five years ago, they sold the ticketing business to ATG. Today he laments: “The landlords are becoming too controlling on ticketing and producers are having to wrestle with still allowing a free market in terms of ticketing.”
Snape also founded theatre production company Fiery Dragons with Luke Johnson, Raymond Gubbay and Louisa Prodromou. It was set up under the government’s Enterprise Investment Scheme to help fund theatrical investment. “We invariably invest in Fiery Angel shows, but we have interests in many others, too.” The company has a stake in the recently opened Killer Joe at Trafalgar Studios.
Producing his own shows remains Snape’s principal business, whether under the Fiery Angel banner or the Children’s Touring Partnership, a joint venture with Chichester Festival Theatre that produced the Olivier award-winning Goodnight Mister Tom and the recent stage version of The Jungle Book. “When people talk about diversity, it’s not just about who is on stage but who is in the audience, and the best way to get diversity is to get schools to go to the theatre,” he says.
To help bring in audiences as young as possible, another venture he is involved in is Fierylight Productions, a joint venture with Limelight Productions, which is responsible for the global smash hit touring show Peppa Pig Live!.
Edward Snape’s top tips
• The most important thing is giving off positive energy.
• Don’t give up.
• Give bad news out quicker than good news – particularly with investors. If you’ve lost their money, you should tell them before they even realise it. And savour the good news.
In the past year, Fiery Angel has brought a new version of Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein from Broadway to the West End’s Garrick, and transferred the Almeida’s Mary Stuart to the Duke of York’s. It has brought Bristol Old Vic’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night to the Wyndham’s and then New York’s Brooklyn Academy of Music, setting out the company’s stall for high-quality modern classics.
Snape is also particularly proud of his work with Kenneth Branagh, who returned to the West End in 2015 with a year-long season at the Garrick, which Branagh oversaw as co-producer, co-director and frequently the star. “I’m still in love with Ken Branagh as much now as I was at the beginning,” Snape says. “It was the most exciting thing to do, but it was also scary.”
Branagh and Snape had worked together on The Painkiller in Belfast with Rob Brydon, and wanted to bring it to the West End. “Out of that, Ken said he was mulling doing a season and asked if we’d be interested. So we went to Pinewood Studios, where he was filming, and he’d put up a whole wall of postcards of plays he wanted to do. We realised we were about to embark on a big adventure.”
But the availability of theatres was an issue, which Snape knew because his company had been trying to book one for a year. “It’s no secret that the Garrick was not our first choice as it looked so shabby,” the producer adds, “but after we signed the contracts, Nica Burns said she was going to get the paintbrush out. What I didn’t realise was that she was going to spend millions on it, God bless her. And what had been shabby turned out to be a lovely home for the season. It was a huge success in every sense, critically and commercially.”
It upped the West End’s game, but he doesn’t deny that huge challenges remain. “I can’t lie, I find it quite scary. The true independent producers are fighting for airspace and if you are part of a theatre-owning chain, you have a huge advantage.”
Escalating ticket prices concern him too. “At the prices we charge the public now, the least we can do is provide them with a comfortable seat,” he says of the condition of some theatres, and adds: “We mustn’t allow greed to take control. We have to understand what a commitment it is to come to the theatre. It can be hundreds of pounds. I hope we don’t take that audience for granted.”
CV: Edward Snape
Born: London, 1966
• The 39 Steps, West Yorkshire Playhouse (2005) Tricycle and Criterion, London (2006-2015), and Broadway (2008)
• The Ladykillers, Gielgud (2011) and Vaudeville, London (2013)
• Young Frankenstein, Garrick Theatre, London (2017)
• Mary Stuart, Duke of York’s, London (2018)
• Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Wyndham’s, London (2018)
• The 39 Steps (best comedy)
• Goodnight Mr Tom (best entertainment)