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New Year’s Honours, from the Queen, The Stage and the critics

The New Year, of course, is a time to look forward, not back; but before we move too far forwards into 2014, let’s pause for one more minute and look behind us one more time as a slew of honours are made public at this time of year.

On New Year’s Eve, the Queen’s New Year’s Honours [1] were published, and saw the theatrical roll-call of honour topped by Michael Codron being knighted, with Penelope Keith, Angela Lansbury and Gillian Lynne all being made Dames.

It’s amazing to think that Codron, Lansbury and Lynne, each in their 80s, are still very much active in the theatre world that they’ve been a part of for well over half a century each – Codron produced a revival of Simon Gray’s Quartermaine’s Terms in the West End last year that he had also done the original production of, while Lynne directed a rather ill-fated London premiere of Jerry Herman’s Dear World at the Charing Cross Theatre last year (it ended its scheduled run prematurely), and Lansbury is returning to the West End in March to reprise  her Tony winning performance in Coward’s Blithe Spirit.

But it was Penelope Keith’s award that got the headline attention – though a stage regular, particularly on the touring circuit over the last few years, she’s hardly in the same vintage or pedigree of such other stage dames as Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren or Harriet Walter. As Zoe Williams pointed out in The Guardian,


The headline dameship is Penelope Keith. This is a decoy to distract attention from all the other honours, and devilishly effective. It will send everyone of a certain age who might otherwise have engaged their brains on a reverie for times past… Margot! … She is so perfect for this role, would that all the honours had gone to her.

Others, however, were mainly honoured for their deep pockets. Typically, people get honours for their charity work [however] had I known at the time of fashioning that opinion that these “charities” were principally political parties – Peter Emerson Jones, £41k to the Tories, Marion Dowdings, chairman of West Oxfordshire supper club, Trevor Mort, chairman of the Tory party disciplinary committee, Cale Hyde, former chairman of the same committee – then it would have been rather harsher.

Never mind. It was also nice to see, among the other honorees, a critic – yes, a critic: Richard Dorment, chief art critic of the Daily Telegraph, was given an OBE for services to the arts – while Dominic Cooke, who stepped down from running the Royal Court, lat year, was granted a CBE for services to drama. Michael Crawford, who already has an OBE, was upped to a CBE, “for charitable and philanthropic services, particularly to children’s charities”, while from the opera world, John Copley received a CBE, and Loretta Tomasi, chief executive of English National Opera, and signer Katherine Jenkins both received OBEs. There were OBEs also for Cameron Mackintosh managing director Nicholas Allott (“for services to theatre and charity”), actress Lynda Bellingham and comedian Sandi Toksvig.

Meanwhile, today sees the publication here in The Stage of our annual Stage 100 list [2]of the most powerful figures in British theatre. (Nick Allott shares fourth position here with his boss). And although ATG have consolidated their position at the top of the list for the 5th year running — edging out the National into second place with whom they shared top billing last year – it’s chastening to be reminded that David Ian [3], who once topped the list himself when he ran Live Nation (the chain that ATG acquired to build it into the force it is today), is now only on the list of active producers and not even in the Top Twenty.

But ATG appear currently unassailable; as Alistair Smith [4], The Stage’s deputy editor, points out,

In 2013, ATG was bought by private equity firm Providence in a deal worth in excess of £350 million. That deal was a game-changer and was the biggest theatre transaction that has ever taken place in the UK market. It was the theatrical equivalent of Roman Abramovich buying Chelsea in 2003. With Providence’s backing, ATG will have access to a war chest that puts it on a completely different footing to any other player in the UK market. In terms of financial clout, they are now streets ahead of the competition.

Money talks – but it also comes at a price. Private equity companies demand returns on their investment, too. So ATG, which already has a reputation for squeezing punters and promoters alike, will need to squeeze their venues even harder to return revenue to their new owners. On the other hand, it is notable that private equity is sufficiently impressed with the operating models of the theatre to want to risk the investment at all.

And the good news is that, however static the list appears at the very top of the tree, the list is constantly shifting below it, and this year sees no less than six new entries in the Top Twenty. British theatre needs fresh blood, and the list proves that it’s out there, ready to claim its place amongst the elite. The Stage 100 Awards [5] – being presented in six categories at The Stage’s annual New Year’s party on January 31 – will recognise the best theatres, producers and school of the year, as well as an unsung hero.

Finally, voting has now concluded in the Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards, of which I am currently chairman, and the results for which will be announced in a ceremony at the Prince of Wales Theatre on January 28. With both the Olivier Awards and the Evening Standard Awards recently changing their voting systems, the Critics’ Circle are now the only awards to be solely judged by critics and acting independently of outside influences.