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Theatre accountant Robert Breckman: ‘Actors are all mad as hatters. And so am I’

Robert Breckman in his office. Photo: photos: Nick Higham

As the renowned theatre accountant retires at 80, after nearly six decades working in the industry, he reminisces with Nick Higham about his memories and explains why he doesn’t like the way his profession is going

Once a year for the past 25 years, I have walked down South Molton Street in London’s West End, pressed the buzzer at number 49 and climbed the narrow staircase hung with theatre posters. There to meet me at the top has been an impish fellow with a brusque manner and a sly wit. Few people, I imagine, look forward to visiting their accountant, but I do (truly). That’s because Robert Breckman is unlike most accountants.

Our meetings always produced a record of my income and expenditure and a completed tax return – and the occasional tax rebate as well. But these were incidental benefits. An appointment with Breckman owed as much to vaudeville as to accountancy: it was like being a music-hall comic’s feed.

The first time I met him, he was wearing a tie, but only so he could remove it with a deadpan flourish. It was clipped on. His opening gambit didn’t change in 25 years: “Sign this.” (Pushes client’s blank tax return across the desk). “Right, now I’ll tell you what you’ve signed.”

The sense of being part of a performance was enhanced by the setting. Every corner of his office was crammed with stuff. Theatre posters. Puppets. Prints of commedia dell’arte characters, acquired on visits to Venice. Toy theatres, some made by clients. Caricatures of theatregoers. Musical instruments. A collection of computer mice caught in mousetraps (Breckman doesn’t like computers and wouldn’t have one in the office). A sofa full of rather macabre-looking boudoir dolls. And any number of comedy and tragedy masks.

He is evidently a performer manqué. But there is more to him than that. Over the years I got to know slightly a man of tremendous energy, enormous generosity, deep interest in the theatre and a certain sadness.

His career began in 1961. He worked as front-of-house manager and accountant at the Cheltenham Everyman [1] and the Mermaid in London. At one point, he moved to the Liverpool Playhouse [2] as a stage manager: “I was very knowledgeable, having bought a book on stage management at Foyles.” But at Liverpool, he was expected to act as well, and found he didn’t like it.

When he set up on his own, his first client was nothing to do with the theatre. It was called Domus Supplies, and his bank put the firm in touch with him. “It was a bankrupt company.” What did it supply? “It didn’t supply anything. That’s why it went bankrupt,” Breckman says.

At the Mermaid, he helped minimise costs by keeping the sharpest of eyes on the production accounts. He didn’t wait for suppliers to send in their invoices but rang them on the Monday – or better still, got them to ring him – so he could prepare the previous week’s accounts immediately.

He also met everyone who was anyone in the theatre in the 1970s, starting with Richard Cottrell and Iain Mackintosh who ran Prospect Theatre, the decade’s premier touring company. Soon he was doing the books for Prospect, the Old Vic [3], the Young Vic [4], the Actors Company, Oxford Theatre Company and Patrick Ide, the impresario who ran the Duke of York’s Theatre [5]. “I filled a niche,” he says. “I was someone who’d been on both sides and understood their problems.”

Photo: Nick Higham

Breckman became well-known in the industry. He was the first chartered accountant to sit on the Arts Council’s drama panel, though typically he resigned when he thought his advice was being ignored. Actors aren’t very business-like, he says, which can make them difficult clients. It helps when they become successful enough to register for VAT and have to submit quarterly returns. But he likes their company. “They’re all mad as hatters. And so am I.”

He shows off a bulging file of cards and letters from the likes of Giles Havergal, who ran Glasgow Citizens [7] for 30 years, and former Shakespeare’s Globe artistic director Dominic Dromgoole [8], prompted by his retirement. “I will miss your expertise, perspective and mostly your friendship,” reads a typical one.

In another, the sports broadcaster Rob Curling remembers when Breckman first took him on. “It gave me a spring in my step that I don’t think I really deserved at the time. I suppose I couldn’t quite believe that I was the sort of person that your sort of person would be interested in. I was spellbound by your delight in the world that I was part of… and, of course, the twinkle in your eye.”

Breckman is quitting now partly because he’s 80, partly because digital technology makes him uncomfortable. “I don’t like the way the profession is going,” he says. “I don’t like emails and all that. You don’t have eye-to-eye with clients any more.”

He still plays squash once a week (“I cheat”) and is active in several charities, including the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. There’s also the Julie and Robert Breckman Gallery at the Victoria and Albert Museum, to which he donated his late wife Julie’s collection of Staffordshire china figures, plus a substantial endowment that enables the museum’s print and ceramic curators to buy anything they fancy; the provisos are that he gets final approval (he baulked at Banksy) and that they invite him to an annual tea party. His CV boasts donations of more than £1.5 million to good causes over the years.

Julie, his third wife, died in 2003 after years living with Alzheimer’s. He published a book about her and set up benches in her memory in Battersea Park, across the Thames from the home they shared in Chelsea.

Now he’s retired, that splendid room – more like a stage set than an accountant’s eyrie – has been dismantled, its contents handed over to the theatre archive at the University of Bristol.

But I feel privileged to have seen it and to have met the man who created it. And, with The Stage’s fee for this piece, I can say I am one of the few people to make money out of their accountant. Robert will appreciate that.

If you’d like to read more stories from the history of theatre, all previous content from The Stage is available at the British Newspaper Archive in a convenient, easy-to-access format. Please visit: thestage.co.uk/archive [9]