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Why you need to have a happy workforce

13th July 2023

Class Dismissed: Raymond Gubbay

The legendary impresario on his start in the industry, the misguidedness of Nadine Dorries – and his friend Luciano Pavarotti


FW: So what was it like starting out in the performing arts business?


RG: I left school three days before my 16th birthday: my father was a chartered accountant, and he was determined that I would be articled to him. Once I got the basic five O-Levels, that was all I needed – but I absolutely hated it. After that, I got a job in newsreels – that was the week after Kennedy had been assassinated. By good luck my father was doing the accounts for theatrical people, and I managed to get a meeting in Notting Hill Gate with Victor Hochhauser.


And what was that interview like?


RG: He had three questions. ‘Are you Jewish, boy?’ ‘Where did you go to school?’ ‘Can you start on Monday?’ It suited me to a tee. I worked there for 10 months, 28 days and 12 hours and then bold as brass, started out on my own. In retrospect Viktor was running a sort of finishing school for budding promoters.


Which people have had the biggest influence on your career?


It was important when I was introduced to Donald Swann – who was half of Flanders and Swann. The Queen Elizabeth II Theatre gave me dates for an evening of his songs with very little grace, but they gave me the date because Don was involved. We ended up doing over 130 performances a year, and my business just grew and grew.


Has theatre changed out of all recognition since your heyday?


I think I had the glory years – because things have changed now as inevitably they do. I suppose every generation is apt to say the same, but I think it’s become much more difficult. It’s tough. Nowadays the kind of parameters that you work within are in many cases rightfully much trickier than they were when I was a young man.


What would you say to a young writer of musical theatre or opera?


RG: The basic premise hasn’t changed. If you’ve got ideas and you’re creative, and you want to do something – then you have to find a way through. Can you get through to Cameron Mackintosh first up? I doubt it very much, but you can find someone to workshop it for you. It’s a question of persistence and determination and, of course, talent. And everyone needs a bit of luck somewhere along the line.


What’s your view of the debate surrounding theatre subsidy?


RG: The whole point of subsidy is that you enable companies like the Royal Opera House or the Royal Ballet to exist. You certainly couldn’t run these things on a commercial basis. That said, I don’t think they do a very good job of it. I also don’t think Nadine Dorries, when she was Secretary of State, should have interfered with funding allocation. It should be arm’s length from government.


What’s the best night you’ve had at the theatre?


RG: Last year the Albert Hall put on a gala concert to celebrate my long association with them and my family came from all over Europe. I loved that – I think it’s the only time they’ve ever done that for a promoter.


What was Pavarotti like to work with?


RG: I remember he came in to a masterclass once and afterwards we had a reception. We had an apple crumble and cream dessert. There was this man who saw that Pavarotti and came running up to him with his dessert in his left hand because he wanted to shake Pavarotti’s hand with the other. Pavarotti couldn’t resist taking the dessert off him with his free hand! More generally, he was very generous with his time.


What have you learned from the greats?


RG: They’re all different. As a promoter I’ve learned that you have to step back and try not to impinge on celebrities. Don’t get overwhelmed and don’t be too gushy. Just try to be as nice as possible.


Lowering the Tone and Raising the Roof is published by Quiller and priced at £18.99


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