Theatre consultant Peter Roberts is set to receive a special recognition award at this year’s Oliviers. He talks to Nick Smurthwaite about a career spanning almost 60 years that began in rock’n’roll and settled at Delfont Mackintosh
If anyone could be called an unsung hero of the entertainment industry’s backstage sector it is Peter Roberts. As well as his 40 years’ service as production manager and technical director for Bernard Delfont, and then Cameron Mackintosh, he was also responsible for revolutionary technical reforms and innovations.
Softly spoken, soberly dressed and self-effacing, the now-retired Roberts does not strike you as someone who spent his entire working life in the company of thespians and technicians.
Nick Allott – managing director of Cameron Mackintosh Ltd and a former colleague of Roberts – describes him as “very old-school – you’d see him standing in the middle of a building site in an immaculate suit with a hard hat on, while everyone else was in jeans and T-shirts”.
Growing up in Southport, Merseyside, Roberts says he was fascinated by theatrical illusion from an early age. Encouraged by his parents, he enrolled in a course at the Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts in London in the late 1950s that included a variety of backstage skills as well as acting.
It was the dawn of the 1960s – “the tail end of the variety era” – when he cut his backstage teeth as an assistant stage manager on a couple of gruelling rock’n’roll tours for the producer Larry Parnes, featuring the likes of Billy Fury and Marty Wilde. He says: “It was hard work, one-night stands, crazy itineraries, Plymouth to Aberdeen in a day. In those days, if you couldn’t fit it on the coach, you didn’t bring it. Today’s rock tours have 26 trailers.”
His London debut in 1961 was Peter Pan at the now defunct Scala Theatre in Charlotte Street, with Anne Heywood, John Gregson and Jane Asher, followed by a UK tour. His deputy stage manager was the comic actor John Inman.
Soon afterwards, he did his first show for Delfont – a tour with Harry Secombe – and never looked back. A succession of big West End shows for the producer followed – Lionel Bart’s Maggie May and Caligula with Kenneth Haigh in 1964, and Applause with Lauren Bacall in 1972, among them.
His mentor in those early years was Maurice Fournier, Delfont’s long-serving production manager, who guided Roberts through a succession of behind-the-scenes roles, from deputy stage manager to company manager. When Fournier died in 1978, aged 62, Roberts was appointed in his place and invited to join the board of Bernard Delfont Productions.
What was your first non-theatre job?
Helping out at a friend’s antique shop in South Kensington.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Assistant stage manager for a summer show at the Pier Theatre Bournemouth.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
That few things in life are better than being paid to do the thing you love the most.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Maurice Fournier, Bernard Delfont’s production manager.
What’s your best advice for someone considering at a career in technical theatre?
Don’t do it unless you feel passionate about it because you’ll be called upon to do all sorts of extraordinary things. It’s not something you do just to earn a living.
If you hadn’t been a technical director, what would you have been?
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
No, but I rather admire people who do. I’ve worked with directors who have called the whole company together to offer up a theatre prayer before the show.
It is easy to assume theatre design and technology is more sophisticated now than it was 50 years ago, but Roberts assures me that’s not always the case, especially when it comes to musical theatre and a designer called Sean Kenny, best known for his groundbreaking set for the original production of Oliver!.
He says: “I worked with Sean on Maggie May and, quite simply, he revolutionised theatre design. He worked on that show with a brilliant self-taught engineer called Bill Tottle, who owned Hall Stage Equipment. Kenny went to Bill with these ideas for rotating towers that moved up and down stage – things that had never been done before – and Bill was the one who said: ‘This is how we’ll do it.’ ”
Roberts’ long association with Cameron Mackintosh dates back to the 1990s, although their paths had actually crossed 30 years earlier when they were both working on a musical version of The Four Musketeers at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in London – with Roberts as stage manager and Mackintosh as a box-office assistant.
By the mid-1990s Mackintosh had morphed into one of the world’s most successful producers, with Cats, Les Misérables and Phantom of the Opera in his portfolio. With Delfont’s death in 1994, Mackintosh took full ownership of the Prince Edward and Prince of Wales theatres, in which he already held a 50% stake. Along with the two venues, Mackintosh acquired the services of Richard Mills – who ran both theatres – and technical director Roberts.
Allott picks up the story: “It was at a time when Cameron Mackintosh Ltd was moving from being an independent company, with half a dozen people doing all the jobs and buying in technical staff, to being a larger organisation, building our own team upwards of 40 people from within. So Peter essentially created an in-house technical department for us.”
With the replication of all the big Mackintosh hits worldwide, Roberts’ workload was immense. “At one time we had 43 productions running concurrently all over the world,” he says. “We recruited according to requirement. On a big show like Miss Saigon you’d have a cast of 35 and a crew of about 25, plus the orchestra. It was like that for years.”
When Mackintosh decided to crack the Chinese market, it was Roberts he dispatched on a recce for a month or so. He travelled round Chinese cities looking at their theatres and drama schools – accompanied by an interpreter – “to see if they were equipped to take the big musicals from the West. What you’re trying to do in those situations is find a common level you can both sign up to.”
Since then, of course, Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables have proved huge hits in Beijing and Shanghai, along Ghost.
Backstage practices have inevitably evolved in the past half century, Roberts says. “Things are much more efficient now. The technology has changed enormously and made it easier to accurately repeat the director and designer’s wishes night after night. It was a bit hit and miss when I started out, but automation and development in lighting technology has put an end to that.”
In terms of safety, Roberts is all for the tougher regulations in place now. “They are not to stop you doing things, but to ensure you do them safely. I always point that out to anybody who says: ‘But it gets in the way.’ ”
As if his workload for Delfont Mackintosh wasn’t heavy enough, in his 15-years’ service Roberts was also a key player in the refurbishment of seven out of the eight theatres under the Delfont Mackintosh banner.
“Peter brought a great insight into how a theatre needs to function,” Allott says. “As far as he was concerned the needs of the production always came first. He and Cameron spoke the same language. Over time, Peter developed a very good way of dealing with Cameron.”
Roberts says: “It is much more difficult altering an existing theatre than creating a new one. With a new theatre you can do what you want with it. Refurbishment was bloody hard work for all of us, including Cameron.”
Could the boss ever be tough to deal with? “I never found him [Cameron] difficult. We had disagreements but not major ones. He has a particular style of working, but the end result is always the point.”
Perhaps Roberts’ crowning achievement was in helping to bring about enhanced radio frequencies for live entertainment, especially musical theatre, so that it was on a par with cinema, TV and the music industry. This took 14 years of lobbying and negotiating with Ofcom because of the slow changeover from analogue to digital.
“It was essential for us to up our game, and radio microphones were very much the key to doing that,” he says. “Initially I was not in favour of performers being miked but the equipment is so sophisticated now that you hardly notice they’re wearing them. The quality of sound is brilliant now. We couldn’t do what we do in musical theatre without it.”
Allott observes: “The thing about Peter is, when he puts his mind to something, he really goes for it.”
Born: Lancashire, 1942
Training: Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts, 1958-59
• Assistant stage manager for Harold Fielding, Larry Parnes and Daniel Mayer, 1960-62
• Stage manager, production manager and technical director, Bernard Delfont Organisation, 1962-92
• Technical director, Cameron Mackintosh Ltd, 1992-2007
• Director of Cameron Mackintosh Consultants Ltd, Delfont Mackintosh Theatres Ltd, 1992-2007
• Chair of Society of London Theatre’s Industrial Affairs Committee, 1987-97
• Deputy chair of the board of governors, Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, 2003-16
• Awarded ABTT Fellowship, 2008
For more information on Delfont Mackintosh productions go to delfontmackintosh.co.uk