Australian born Helen Montagu was one of the most innovative and respected theatre producers in Britain. In a career that spanned over four decades she worked with and nurtured such diverse writing talents as John Osborne, Arnold Wesker, Christopher Hampton and Joe Orton as well as many actors including John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Max Wall and Joan Plowright.
Although she was well known for presenting superlative productions of straight plays she was equally at home with lighter fare. The Who’s classic rock opera Tommy, starring Peter Straker, and the musical Prisoner Cell Block H with Lily Savage were two offbeat commercial hits, as was the Australian tap dancing show Hot Shoe Shuffle. She had a close affinity with comedians, working with Max Wall at the Royal Court when he took the lead in Ubu Roi and presenting Dave Allen in his one man show in the West End.
Montagu also had a keen eye, for spotting new talent. As the executive producer of the musical 42nd Street, which ran at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane from 1984-88, she often made incognito visits to see the show. One evening both the star and first understudy were taken ill and a 15-year-old second understudy went on at short notice and gave a stunning performance. She was Catherine Zeta Jones and Montagu promptly gave her the lead for the rest of the musical’s run.
Born in Sydney, Australia on April 21, 1928 the daughter of a banker, she read English literature at Sydney University, where she met her future husband, the psychologist Russell Willet. They married in 1953 and decided to move to Britain the same year.
Deciding on a career in theatre she trained first as an actress at the Central School of Speech and Drama before taking a job in 1965 as the casting director at the Royal Court Theatre, then under the auspices of George Devine.
Not long afterwards she was offered the job of general manager at the theatre by the artistic director Bill Gaskill. During the late sixties and early seventies the theatre was enjoying one of its most productive and creative periods. Many of the plays it produced transferred to the West End, including John Osborne’s Inadmissable Evidence, Time Present, Hotel in Amsterdam with Paul Scofield, David Storey’s The Changing Room, the memorable production of Home starring John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, and Christopher Hampton’s The Philanthropist with Alec McCowen, among others.
As well as liasing with actors, writers and directors on a daily basis, Montagu also had several run-ins with the Lord Chamberlain on censorship issues, notably with Edward Bond’s notorious play Saved, in which a baby is stoned to death in its pram. Not content with coping with the fury of some of the critics she also had to pacify some of the audience. “There were murmurs of outrage in the stalls on the first night,” she recalled.
After leaving the Royal Court after seven years she joined HM Tennents, under the directorship of the legendary Hugh ‘Binkie’ Beaumont and then still one of the West End’s most powerful theatrical managements. She brought a number of bright ideas, including installing a repertory company at the Lyric Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, and presenting a series of plays for short rather than long runs, the foundation of an annual Hugh Beaumont Award for young fringe directors and grants for new authors.
The first produced The Bed Before Yesterday, a superb new farce from the 90-year-old Ben Travers, starring Joan Plowright, the third produced The Family Dance, commissioned from Felicity Browne. Montagu would have stayed with HM Tennents but there was a dispute over the cost of Franco Zefferelli’s production of Filumena and she resigned in 1977 to form her own company, Backstage Productions. She later joined forces with Peter Sibley as her general manager and renamed the company Helen Montagu Productions.
Under her own banner she was a business force to be reckoned with. Most of her productions were a commercial success and there were very few flops. She presented Paul Scofield in The Tempest (financed by Michael Winner), Wendy Hiller in Driving Miss Daisy and musicals such as Tommy by The Who, Side by Side by Sondheim in London and Toronto, Beryl Reid in Gigi and I Gotta Shoe by Ned Sherrin and Caryl Brahms. Overseas she presented Warren Mitchell in The Dresser in Australia and Robyn Archer in A Star Is Torn in Australia and London. She had recently been planning several more theatre shows.
Montagu died suddenly after a stroke on January 1, aged 75. She is survived by her husband, three daughters and a son.