Christopher Richardson InterviewThursday, 9 December, 2004
Interview: Christopher Richardson
Six foot two, eyes of blue, gay, wears a cream suit, Panama hat, smokes Gold Block. In the film version he’d be played by Sir Donald Sinden. He’s Christopher Richardson, short-fused, patrician, charming, laconic, debonaire and the father of The Pleasance.
Second Lieutenant Richardson has come a long way. He’s taken a few thousand actors, directors, comics, designers and producers along for the ride. There’s been scalding, Germany, public-schoolmastering of among others Stephen Fry who comments later, pipe-smoking, dogs, and the Royal College of Art with the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band. He’s created the biggest, most prestigious venue at the Edinburgh Fringe, runs a London theatre, designed numerous shows, and takes a back seat at The Pleasance from 2005. So, what’s his advice to actors?
‘Actors will come into the profession despite advice. Don’t.’
And still they come. One of the many performers to have ignored this is Butch. ‘Christopher is one of the true characters of the theatre circuit, with a gentle but charming largesse, Panama hat and black labrador. He looks like an Englishman returning from long travels in India in search of challenging culture and a gin and tonic.’ (Andrew Simmons, Topping & Butch)
‘He can also be a bit of a old bugger – but he knows that and plays on it mercilessly.’
The first theatre Christopher Richardson remembers was next to St George’s School in Farnham, 1944. A German aeroplane had crashed nearby. ‘The stage was sideways on’. Although he was 5, this irritated him immensely, and led in a flash of years to his 8-year chairmanship of the Society of British Theatre Designers. He was to run Theatre Futures, a theatre consultancy whose work has included the Theatre by the Lake, Keswick, The Jersey Opera House and the last refurbishment of the Young Vic, London. But before that, he was born.
Christopher Richardson (CR) was born in 1939, just before the Second World War (1939-45), and brought up in Haywards Heath, Sussex. His mother Nancy joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) shortly after its formation in 1938 and became an army captain. His father Nick Richardson had left his mother, and gone to New Zealand – where he died shortly after. CR didn’t know him. CR has a much-loved sister, Diana, 3 years older – who now has 4 children and 9 grandchildren.
Children were evacuated from towns for safety, because of bombing. In 1944, CR’s mother managed to find somewhere nearby for him to stay – with a woman he knew as Aunty Dorsie (Dorothy). He was badly scalded from a teapot and went to Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, relocated for the war to Hemel Hempstead.
As a small child, CR was ‘convinced the invasion was just for me. All for my 4th birthday – to entertain.’ Like every other war-time boy, he could tell apart doodle-bugs (V1 flying bombs), Dakotas and Spitfires. Waking up in the children’s ward, he convinced himself a doodle-bug had smashed through the roof and was lying next to him, waiting to explode. It was the first time he’d seen an iron lung, and ‘my first contact with really ill people’.
He was there for 7 weeks while doctors worked on his burns. Later – in 1948 – he was treated for the residual scars in the clinic of Sir Archibald McIndoe – the surgeon famous for plastic-surgery work on wartime scars – at Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead. A couple of years after being burnt, he caught meningitis and was moved to Winchester Hospital. He has fitful memories of all this. ‘It seemed a half-life.’ It was the closest he recalls coming to death.
It was a middle-class world where how one spoke mattered. CR’s mother Nancy was worried about his accent. Working-class Aunty Dorsie had turned his voice into broad Cockney. CR was moved to the more suitable home of an old major and his wife.
After the war, Nancy married again. CR’s new stepfather was in the Royal Engineers. The first posting was to Hameln – as in The Pied Piper – in Germany. It was 1947, and CR was 7.
‘I didn’t particularly want to be a young person,’ he remembers. ‘I was miserable at school until I was 17.’ He was bundled off to boarding school at 8. He didn’t see his parents as much as he would have liked to while at prep school – they were posted to the Suez Canal, Egypt. While they were overseas, CR spent holidays at a farm in South Brent, Devon, near Totnes. He remembers feeding heffers – and missing a family.
They wore pink at Brambletye Preparatory School, East Grinstead. There were IQ tests, and headmaster Bob Jones perceived that CR was not as stupid as he made himself out to be. Asked in class ‘What is a Tetrarch’, CR answered, exactly, ‘Ruler of a quarter part’. (Tetrarch: ‘A Roman governor of the fourth part of a province’). Bob Jones, while despairing of CR, realised that he was simply idle. CR later worked for him as a teacher.
CR was captivated by Brambletye’s ‘two Pelham puppet theatres and one big stage. My favourites were the the puppet theatres. I liked building the sets.’ They did The Monkey’s Paw by William Wymark Jacobs (1863-1943). CR built the set, helped by a member of staff. He devised a way for the strings to go through doors.
It was to become a defining characteristic. CR excelled at what he wanted to do, and took no interest in what he didn’t. He failed Common Entrance several times, but finally got into public school Wellington College. Both his father Nick, and his stepfather were former pupils. It was 1953, the year of Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation. His parents were stationed in Germany again, with the 27th Field Engineer Regiment in Minden.
Wellington College was a different education. ‘I was determinedly idle, extremely observant, very keen to paint and draw, and about theatre.’ He kept away from blood-sports and games. He took advantage of his second-row position in a rugby scrum to punch someone hard in the face. A purple-faced master screamed at him ‘That’s not cricket’. In tones familiar to many theatre performers over the years in Edinburgh, schoolboy CR replied: ‘I know it’s not fucking cricket.’
But he got his athletics colours for high jump, and won the 1954 Junior Berkshire Championships High Jump Gold Medal.
At Wellington, he painted a lot, and failed A Level Art. He did well in the General Paper, in which he wrote a treatise on directing plays. He took no other subjects, so gained no A Levels. He gained 5 O Levels – including maths eventually. ‘I love it now. Then, I thought it was alien. I couldn’t do logs.’ By 17, he liked school – but it was too late. The moment of realisation was in a physics class operating a Wheatstone Bridge.
Holidays were in Minden. ‘We were billeted in a house. The family that owned it was presumably bought out. They were a very frightened population – not about to murder us in our beds.’
His mother Nancy played piano and sang – ‘she was a great musician’. Nancy was discovered by impresario Carol Levis – an earlier presenter of shows like Hughie Green’s Opportunity Knocks, and The X Factor.
CR climbed the roof of a friend’s house whose dad was a brigadier and the two boys let off crow-scarers (loud bangs). The local police came, but faced with pranks by two sons of the British army, ‘they were indulgent’.
Germany was ruined, but rebuilding, and CR formed perceptions from an early age. ‘A proportion of any country will just adapt. As a small boy, I didn’t see it as sinister. It was where home was. There was masses to do. In the late 1950s, I went back as a soldier, and that was only 13 years after the end of the war. Things had changed. Germany had an army of its own.’
The boyfriend of their cook Annelisa had a bike with an engine on the back wheel. CR roared around the countryside on it. He was taught piano by a Herr Schubert, but never practised.
In that quirky way memory works, selecting what others would think trivial, to haunt later years, CR recalls an incident he is still ashamed about.
‘There were 7 of them. They were shouting. They were encroaching. They were needy.’ He was surrounded by a group of local children, 10 to 15 years old. CR was 7. He had an exercise book. They were desperate for it. ‘They were poor and had nothing. It was something ordinary.’ He tore it in half and threw it at them.
Half a century later, he wakes up thinking about it, analysing his motives. Was he destroying it, or distributing it to the biggest number – ‘We all like to see ourselves in the best light.’ When it’s suggested that it’s simply insignificant, CR remains troubled. ‘I was in a position of power I couldn’t handle. It taught me a lot. That you must never take your own existence for granted. It does you no harm, for example, to give to beggars.’
CR discovered photography in Germany. Asked if the teenage years involved the discovery of anything more Daily Star, he gives one of his trademark shrewd grins, with gently hooded eyelids and moves on to the next topic. If Germany offered a Wandering Hans, let alone a Tom of Finland, their secrets are safe.
He met a chemist and explored technical shops. CR owned a Box Brownie 127 leatherette-covered camera. He bought an Agfa Silette 35 mm camera with range-finder. There was a dark-room at Wellington, and CR read a lot about the science of colour photography – the 3-colour system, light, the casting of shadows, subtractive and additive colours – though he hated school science. Stubbornly, he would only learn in his own way.
Maurice Allen was director of music and plays at Wellington. CR learnt from him and painted the set of The Mikado, the comic opera by William Schwenck Gilbert (1836-1911) and Arthur Seymour Sullivan. (1842 – 1900). CR sat in class with the future outstanding architect Nick Grimshaw.
CR designed Richard of Bordeaux, starring now TV presenter Peter Snow. It’s the play that had made John Gielgud a star as actor and director in 1933. It was written by a former games mistress Elizabeth Mackintosh (1896-1952), under the name of Gordon Daviot (she wrote mystery novels such as Miss Pym Disposes, as Josephine Tey).
It was a crucial phase in CR’s artistic development. ‘I was designing sets of ever-greater complexity for ever-greater plays’. He directed, acted (‘very badly’) in, and did the set for Morning Departure by Kenneth Woollard. It had been a successful 1950 film starring John Mills, Nigel Patrick and Richard Attenborough, directed by Roy Ward Baker. A submarine is trapped on the sea floor. It’s full of spunk (‘Pull yourself together Stokes’ / (slap) / ‘Thank you sir. I needed that’). CR visit a submarine for research – thanks to his mother’s persistence. He was 15.
Fans of CR’s lordly and patrician manner will be pleased to know it was there from the start. A Covent Garden stage designer ‘name of Green‘ visited Wellington, met CR and commented shrewdly ‘Christopher has the temperament of a stage designer of 45.’ CR explains – ‘ie fucking difficult’.
Like most people leaving school – in CR’s case, a year early – he had little idea of what to do next. He’d enjoyed art, taught by Arthur Eccott (who illustrated the French B paper in Common Entrance – in one of which the boy CR appears), and applied in 1957 for The Slade.
The distinguished British figurative and realist painter and ex-Royal Artillery war artist in Italy and Cairo, Sir William Coldstream (1908-1987) was principal at the time. Unfortunately, CR mistook him for the gardener (Bible scholars will note his replication of Mary Magdalene‘s mistake 2,000 years previously), and asked him for directions. CR failed to gain a place.
His family were now in Camberley, still in the army, and CR insisted on doing his 2 years of National Service. He’d done well in the voluntary Army Corps at Wellington and achieved its highest rank of Regimental Sergeant Major in the Corps – carrying a swagger-stick he’d made himself. ‘I’d turned poacher,’ he remarks now. ‘They hadn’t really found me out.’
He was posted to Oswestry, Shropshire, for the first 4 weeks, then to War Office Selection Board (WOSB), he thinks at Westbury. ‘I always loved strategy puzzles. They all thought I could lead.’ The Corps had given him much-needed confidence.
He went to the army’s Mons Officer Cadet School, Aldershot, which trained cavalry and artillery officers. He came out ‘a reasonable success, but I could never pass the gunner maths.’ He was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Artillery, and posted to the 41st Field Regiment in Lippstadt, Germany. He was assistant adjutant. It was 1959, and he was 20. ‘It was a joyful year.’
CR was a good swimmer, and supervised an exercise to pick up as many plates as possible from the floor of the swimming pool. A young soldier picked up a lot and couldn’t bring them to the surface. ‘He panicked, he froze. He couldn’t give them up.’ It taught CR a lesson he values, that people may often not ask for the help they need when they’ve taken on too much.’ So we went in and got him out.’
CR became a nuclear expert by accident. His colonel was sent on a course, with CR to carry his books. Assorted Canadian, French and British colonels, a Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME) captain, and CR worked out the damage from dropping small nuclear bombs.
Course leader Col Floyd B Miller, US Army Chemical Corps took a shine to CR and a fellow junior officer: ‘I like the answer of these two young fellers here.’ As a newly elevated expert, CR wrote a booklet for platoon commanders on the deployment of nuclear weapons in the field (‘What a completely extraordinary and appalling thought’). CR finished National Service and left the army.
He went to Hammersmith College of Art and Building to do a foundation course. It was next to the old BBC Studios. The distinguished sculptor and Royal Academician Ralph Brown (b 1928) was principal. It was 1959/60, and CR only lasted a term. ‘Rather snobbily, I didn’t think it was good enough. I’ve still got the drawings I did there. I’m sad I didn’t continue there. It was a good place.’
He changed art school to Goldsmiths College to continue his foundation year. Drawing master Sam Rabin (d 1991) was also a professional wrestler (Bronze Medal, Amsterdam Olympics, 1928) and taught CR life drawing. Another of his students was the notorious art-forger Tom Keating. ‘Sam Rabin would say “You’ve got a talent for drawing, lad”, and would then sketch and prove you had none at all.’ The etcher Paul Drury (1903-1987) was another tutor. CR left and didn’t finish at Goldsmiths.
Bob Jones was still headmaster at CR’s old prep school Brambletye, and CR visited him for advice. The upshot was a new career in teaching, and a change of name.
CR had been anonymous at Wellington, having changed his name to Nick – ‘because I hated being called Chris.’ He glowers. ‘And I still do.’ He’d been Nicholas in the army. But Bob Jones remembered him by as Christopher, so back to Christopher it was.
CR taught French and Art. ‘French was a struggle’. With children’s art, he found ‘They finish quickly. Draw a lighthouse, do a boat, sea.’ The perfection, simplicity, and inherent completeness of children’s art made a deep impression on him. Today he cites as a major influence the Russian painter Nicholas de Stael (1914-1955) ‘because of that minimalism – reducing landscape to its component parts; Cubists reduced it to a diagram; he reduced it to the ultimate diagram.’
After a further brief flirtation with the army, CR got into the Royal College of Art. He’d applied to the Film School and got into the Interior Design department. It was perfect for his interests – ‘It was a 3 year architectural course, essentially.’. He was there for 3 years, 1963/4 to 1966/7 and won the Silver Medal for Experimental Theatre Design.
The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band rehearsed in the College canteen. David Hockney had just graduated. It was the time of ‘The Stones, The Beatles. And Cliff.’
CR recalls an environment of great people. Sir Hugh Casson RIBA was head of interior design. Professor Christopher Cornford was Dean. The distinguished architect John Miller RIBA was later Professor of Environmental Design (1975-85). Designer Norman Potter, CR’s tutor, was ‘wonderfully inspiring. He was a true teacher. He sent us all down alley-ways. We learnt to search down them. We found nothing there.’
Best of all was a great General Studies course ‘taught by the likes of Frederick Samson‘. Novelist Iris Murdoch (1919-1999) was a visiting tutor.
CR did an essay on Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), the distinguished Utilitarianist, philosopher and jurist whose remains can be found, stuffed and mounted, sitting on a chair in University College London.
CR recalls – ‘I knew nothing about him and cared less.’ Iris Murdoch – who died with Alzheimer‘s and can therefore claim to be one of the few people to have met CR and forgotten him – marked his essay: ‘Eloquent and interesting. But wrong.’
CR toyed with the idea of going into TV, but decided to teach design to the young. He went to Uppingham School, a distinguished public school founded in 1584, and ended up staying there for 20 years.
Uppingham’s ex-pupils include motor racer Sir Malcolm Campbell, his son Donald Campbell – the world speed record holder, killed on Coniston Water in Bluebird, actor Boris Karloff (aka WH Pratt), architect Piers Gough, film director John Schlesinger, broadcaster John Suchet, CBI head Tim Melville-Ross, actor and writer Stephen Fry, Harvey Nichols chairman Dickson Poon, restaurateur Rick Stein, TV presenter Johnny Vaughan, Carphone Warehouse co-founders Charles Dunstone and David Ross, Busted member Charlie Simpson, McFly member Harry Judd.
CR was involved in Uppingham’s Thring Centre from the start. It was named after Edward Thring, headmaster of Uppingham 1853-87, who founded the philosophy that pupils must be taught according to their needs, not according to the needs of the timetable. The centre had dark-rooms, electronic workshops, pottery, furniture workshops, printing press, offset litho, and a TV studio.
During CR’s time at Uppingham, it was predominantly a boys school; there were girls in the last few years. He was head of the art and design departments for a while. He did plays, and was involved in building the theatre – which he ran for 12 years, taking odd things to Edinburgh. CR taught his The Pleasance successor Anthony Alderson at Uppingham.
But he was ready for change. ‘One day in 1984, I woke up in class wondering who the boring old fart talking was. I realised it was me. I’d become more interested in the subject than the people I was teaching.’ He knew it was time to stop.
‘I took time off Uppingham to see whether there was anything else I could do.’
CR was offered work as designer of a film in Ireland and a show in the Opera House in Jersey. Both fell through.
(Years later, CR helped redesign the Jersey Opera House, restoring it to Adolphus Curry‘s original design in time for its centenary in 2000).
Somebody suggested CR went to Edinburgh. He’d already been there, so it seemed a good idea.
In 1979, he’d gone to the Fringe with two shows. One was the then Children’s Music Theatre, which later became the National Youth Music Theatre. That production was Tin Pan Ali at St Denis’ School. ‘It was great fun.’
There were three in the other show – a young musician, writer, and comic – Howard Goodall, Richard Curtis, Rowan Atkinson.
CR built a staircase with Rowan Atkinson leading to a gallery for the The Wireworks – high above Edinburgh and ‘just behind the Fringe Office. It’s now the Advocates’ Hall.’
CR began formulating the practical rules of theatre economics that would lay the foundations of running The Pleasance. ‘I did a few sums:
‘A) If the cost of the scaffolding for building the gallery exceeds the amount you take in ticket money, you haven’t got it right.
B) ‘If the height of the balustrade of the gallery obscures the view of people sitting in the gallery – it’s not a good idea.’
Those waiting for a CR punch-line won’t be disappointed. ‘In this case, neither was correct.’ CR felt ‘there must be a better way of doing this.’
It was the way ahead, and in 1985, he took a year off school. Uppingham had celebrated 400 years (1584) for which CR did various shows, including The Mikado. He set off for Edinburgh.
CR remembers standing in The Pleasance, then only known as the name of an Edinburgh street. ‘It was an acutely depressing day. There was a car park and a few buildings.’ It was called The Wildcat Theatre Complex, and had been restored in 1980 by Wildcat Stage Productions from a former derelict theatre on the site. ‘There was a bar with a fire, and a theatre that seated 250 with a long, thin auditorium. I’d seen my nephew performing there previously.’
‘It had potential. So, I said, all right, I’ll do it. It was either that or taking to the bottle.’
CR introduced the name The Pleasance as the title of the theatre for the opening year under his direction, in August 1985. ‘It means pleasure ground’ he explains, ‘usually in the grounds of a mansion.’ The Edinburgh street had been famous for something quite different, and appropriate for what CR had in mind. ‘It had been a home for fallen women.’
His first-year shows included The Bodgers (Jack Docherty and friends); Malvinas Cabaret – 2 young men pretending to be Argentine soldiers (after the Falklands War 1982; Malvinas being the Argentine name for the Falklands); Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by David Herbert Lawrence (1885-1930), ‘with nudity’. The Cabaret Bar was, CR remembers, ‘quite small, with 100 seats.’
‘We made £200 profit. It took 10 years before we made a profit again – in 1995.’ One year, CR had to sell off his Volvo to pay off the artistes.
Later years saw many distinguished artistes, such as Tom Robinson Band’s Tom Robinson: ‘As a performer I always found that Christopher made me warmly welcome as a member of the Pleasance family, both in the London office and at the venue itself mid-festival.’
PR Paul Sullivan has many recollections. ‘The first time I laid eyes on Christopher he was on his hands and knees putting the finishing touches to some decking at the Pleasance Dome – the calm ‘eye’ in a hurricane of frantic activity – two days before the Festival began.
‘It’s typical of him. Never one to be just a figure-head venue director, his passion, energy and enthusiasm for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe – and the performing arts as a whole – has, in some way or another, affected everyone who has ever had any involvement with the madness and mayhem that take place during August. If I had just half his zeal and creativity (and possibly half his temper!), I would be a very happy PR.’
Ah, the famous Richardson short fuse. It’s Alright For Some and Etcetera Theatre Co-Director smoulderingly gorgeous Zena Barrie:
‘Christopher Richardson is a grumpy old bugger, warm, selfless, charming and an incredible driving force and visionary – nothing is impossible. He is the Arthur’s Seat of the Fringe, the Vesuvius of the Pleasance. He’ll always find the time to help anyone out with the benefit of his wisdom, even “the competition”. He’s also very funny.’
Vesusius eh? Blimey. Ever-diplomat, though. Director Toni Arthur-Hay – ‘I adore him and think he’s lovely’ – who is married to Time Out critic Malcolm Hay:
‘For ages Christopher kept thinking I was Malcolm’s previous wife. That is until I married Malcolm. Then he kept referring to me as “Yes, I know who you are. You’re Malcolm’s girlfriend – the one I keep confusing with his wife.”
Ebullient international theatre producer, PR and frankly divine Louise Chantal knows the lad from the inside, having run The Pleasance Press Office more than once:
‘Chistopher has made such a difference to so many people’s lives. He absolutely relishes discovering talent, preferably young talent. And challenging everything you think about what you can achieve in theatre. And in life for that matter.
‘You can never second-guess Christopher. Just when he’s at his most irritating, when you think he’s lost the plot completely – that’s when Christopher comes up with something so brilliant, simple and (usually) generous that you just have to sit there wishing you’d thought of it. I love him.’
PR legend Guy Chapman, head of Guy Chapman Associates first met CR ‘when Judith Dimant – now Executive Director of Complicité – was handling all his Edinburgh.
‘Chaos was the name of the game. A situation that didn’t improve much when Cameron Duncan and I took over in the mid-90s. Only with the advent of computerisation at The Pleasance did anything get more organised.
‘Throughout this period, Christopher remained remarkably calm and sanguine about everything, relying on everyone’s passion for theatre to see any project through.
‘Nothing will obliterate my memories of Christopher trying to remain cool on the opening night of my production of Corpus Christi. We had a candle-light prayer-meeting on one side of the pavement outside, fundamental Islamics on the other and a fatwah delivered to the stage door threatening everyone.
‘His only comment was “Let’s have a quiet glass of wine and see what happens.”‘
In 2004, according to CR:
The Pleasance had 18 venues on 2 sites. The smallest was 50, the largest 700. 230,000 people passed through The Pleasance. The average ticket price was around £7 to £7.50. ‘We are some 20-25% of The Fringe. We probably influence the public spend by £20 million.’ (CR bases this on the Official Fringe estimates of the total amount spent by the public as a result of The Fringe). The Pleasance took £1.8 million at the box office. ‘About a third sticks to us in order to run the thing. To be safe, this year we should have taken £2 million. We’re short by about £70,000, roughly a third.’
Bar revenue is on top, and the bars are not run by The Pleasance. ‘They are run by the student associations.’ Each visitor spends about £3 a head. ‘We get 10%’ of the bar.’
According to The Pleasance‘s 2004 printed programme, there were 138 shows, broken down as Theatre 36 (26%); Musicals/Opera 5 (4%); Kids 7 (5%); Comedy 90 (65%).
Pleasance 2004 shows included The Pleasance Press Launch, Always Have Something In The Briefcase, Beyond A Joke, Dutch Elm Conservatoire, Every Body Talks, Flop, Hopkins & Glover, Jekyll and Hyde 2030, Luke and Stella, Millie & Tillie – Do You, Nikolina, Pole Dancer, Sarah Kendall, Skinny No Foam, Star Search – Amused Moose, Stupid Monkey!, The City Club, The Elephant Woman, The Joy of Wine, The Virgin Club, The Wau Wau Sisters, Thom Pain (based on nothing).
The Pleasance 2004 also hosted The 5065 Lift, whose shows included The Lift Launch, Aliens Are Scary, Honolulu.
CR is ever-ready to hand out credit to his team, who at December 2004 included: Anthony Alderson – Deputy Director, Jose Ferran – Business Manager, Ryan Taylor – Stage Manager, Ollie Rance – Programme Co-ordinator (his long-time colleague lovely Claire Nightingale, left in 2004), Iain Hughes – Communications, Beci Ryan, Madeline Brown – Box Office & Reception, Mandy Ivory-Castile – Production Manager (Edinburgh), Peter Ramasay, Yvonne Goddard – Accounts, Stephane Levy – Website & Graphic Design, Dan Pursey & Will Lewis at Mobius – Press & Marketing, Richard Osborne, Dan Watkins – Associate Directors, Kathryn Norton-Smith, Tim Norton – Associate Directors for Young Pleasance. They were joined at Edinburgh 2004 by: Matt Britten – Chief LX, Will Jackson – Master Carpenter, Pamela Clarke, Alice Russell, Lorna Hosler, Cat Murray – Edinburgh Press Office Staff, Tim Standing – Press & Marketing Assistant / Edinburgh Street Team, Phil Jackson – Box Office Manager (Edinburgh), Matt Miller – Associate Director, the late Brooke – Pleasance Mastiff the First, guard dog to the stars. The Pleasance Theatre Trust Trustees 2004: Richard House, Andrew Leigh, Jeremy Lucas, Piers Torday. Secretary: John Faulkner. Those also thanked: Robin Smith and Tally Parr at Host Universal. Catherine Comerford and all at The Stage Newspaper. Olivia Anderson, Angus Bremner, all at Factotum, Lisa Greig at Edinburgh First, Paul Gudgin and all at the Fringe Office, Lorna Brain, Louise MacNaught and Bruce Hay at Edinburgh University Festivals Office, Graham Boyack, Margaret Gray, Jimmy Donohue, Owen Quin, Ian Evans and all at EUSA, James Oliver, Gary O’Connor at Royal Bank of Scotland, Theatre Futures, Mirage Seating, Black Light of Edinburgh, Field and Lawn Marquees, Orbital Sound, Steeldeck, Arena Promotional Facilities, ‘and especially the late Charlie Hartill‘.
Charlie Hartill (1971-2004) is a friend sadly missed. A The Pleasance staff member – their computer man – he was a former president of Cambridge Footlights, and a director of the Festival Fringe for 8 years. His suicide on 6 January 2004 was a loss sadly felt at The Pleasance and by CR personally.
CR set up in his memory The Charlie Hartrill Special Reserve – A Fund For New Theatre. It is ‘a rolling investment fund towards the production costs of selected projects, shows which have more than five people on the stage and where at least 40% of the company in whatever capacity will be within five years of full time education.’ Money comes from donations and 11.5% of the price paid by customers for Charlie’s Special Reserve wine at The Pleasance – the same percentage as the alcoholic content. At Edinburgh 2004, CR says this raised nearly £4,000. Overall in 2004, the fund raised £10,000. The target is £2 million.
Cambridge Footlights runs regularly at The Pleasance. The hugely distinguished comedy actor Neil Mullarkey knows CR from then:
‘I first met Chris when he did the set for the Cambridge Footlights. I remember he had a pipe and an air of grace. Neither seem to have deserted him in the hundred years since. He always has a smile and a word of encouragement for anyone and everyone.’
CR’s friend William Burdett-Coutts, Artistic Director of Riverside Studios, London, and The Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh:
‘Christopher is one of the bedrocks on which the Fringe is founded. He has an omnipresent image in Edinburgh besporting the famous hat, tie, jacket and, for many years, Brooke – his wonderfully faithful dog. He’s a character par excellence.
‘It’s tempting to think him eccentric, but in fact he is not. What he has is a vast enthusiasm for supporting the talent that emerges through the Fringe. He also has a unique spirit, which has driven him through the years to keep The Pleasance the remarkable place it is.’
Topping & Butch aka Michael Topping and Andrew Simmons are a couple of lads who’ve livened The Pleasance with two shows a year – one fractionally more respectable than the other – at Edinburgh 2003 and 2004:
‘The first time I met Christopher was when he came to see our show in a North London pub. He was impressed, but not enough to be entirely convinced that we were the right act for the Pleasance.
‘He took time out of a busy schedule to see us again, at a different venue, in a different atmosphere and subsequently agreed to give us a place in his Edinburgh line-up.
‘His amazing passion for finding original works and getting them – in the most professional way – from behind-the-scenes negotiation to their presentation in print and on stage, is remarkable.
‘Christopher is one of that dying breed – at once a true gentleman, astute businessmen, and a real champion of new and emerging talent.’
Michael Topping thinks of CR as ‘a charismatic gentleman to be reckoned with. He always manages quietly to make his presence felt wherever he is.
‘I always imagine him having watched benevolently over a public-school cricket-match, then quietly gone off to take his dog for a walk to the village pub.
‘Very shrewd – but kindly behind the grand appearance – he knows instinctively how to deal with the myriad performers and characters under his Pleasance umbrella.
‘He is certainly not afraid to speak his mind or let you know your presence is no longer required.
‘A gentleman of great charm and charisma who is The Pleasance. He appears to belong to a bygone gentler era – and yet has his finger very much on the new and innovative.’
After running theatres in Edinburgh, CR wanted to open one in London. Shillibeers had created a bar and restaurant in an old industrial complex near Caledonian Road, and CR took space there.
He designed The Pleasance, opening in Christmas 1995. He lists the capacity of the large theatre at 288, up to 350. The Studio takes 60, including the people on the stage. The Stage Newspaper sponsored The Studio.
The Pleasance London Studio was christened by un-fallen woman Miranda Hart, who’d appeared at Pleasance Edinburgh in 2002 and 2003 (‘Christopher told us off if we put our feet up in Brooke’s Bar’):
‘I knew I would get on with him when he greeted me with “Ah dear Miss Fart“.
‘I always have fond memories of Christopher. How anyone could manage to walk around that infamous courtyard in Edinburgh with a labrador in tow, adorned with a Panama hat (despite the harsh Scottish summers), and still maintain an air of authority and likeability is beyond me – it’s true English eccentricity.
CR recalls he installed a Portakabin (Pleasance Hut) in that very courtyard for Miranda Hart’s show. He named it Miss Fart’s Hut
Miranda Hart: ‘Whatever people say about venue managers in Edinburgh, Christopher is genuinely supportive of young, burgeoning talent. Well, I was sucked in anyway. But that is because he said I reminded him of Joyce Grenfell. And flattery gets you everywhere.’
Fellow London (Canal Café) theatre – director, NewsRevue producer and Sam ‘n’ Emma actor Emma Taylor:
‘When the Canal Café Theatre underwent an enforced closure that threatened to run on longer than anticipated, we were in a real pickle. Acts had been booked, contracts signed.
‘I knew exactly where to turn and I was right. Christopher and everyone at The Pleasance helped us prepare for Plan B – Canal Café at The Pleasance. As it turned out we were able to open on time, but it was very reassuring to know that help was at hand.
‘As a performer at The Pleasance, Edinburgh, it’s those little acts of kindness and generosity that you remember. A bottle of bubbly for all the acts in your dressing room is star treatment rarely found on the Fringe.’
In 21 years of running theatres in Edinburgh and London, CR has watched hundreds of shows. With his eyes wide open and, currently, directors in his sights.
‘The personality of directors seems to have changed. You don’t see as much experiment as you’d like to see with young directors. Maybe it’s only me who hasn’t seen it. As a designer, I sometimes get worried by their lack of understanding of how much other people have helped to create a production. Directors are not alone. They have to coordinate but seem encouraged to work as demi-gods.
‘There’s a teensy-weensy bit too much arrogance about the role. I’m not sure how good that is for the state of theatre.’ Humility classes for directors?
‘Yes. And could they learn to read a drawing?’
Any words for new designers? ‘Learn as many practical skills as you can. To weld, cook, fornicate – and you’ll never be at a loss.’
He loves the idea of people knowing what they’re about. ‘Marlene Dietrich used to go onto a stage and know what the light filter was. They’d shine the light in her face and she’d say, “But last time it had a Strand Electric 137“. It’s Surprise Pink. It’s a filter that brings out flesh tones. It makes small boys look well-fed. So we always used it on parents’ days.’
After years of running venues, what has he learnt to pass on? ‘Say what you are going to do. Do what you say you are going to do. And when you get it wrong, admit it.’
CR is probably best known as Brooke‘s owner, though who owned whom was a moot point. Brooke sadly died of liver cancer in 2004, but not before gaining Fringe Report’s Best Fringe Canine Award 2004. A pure black Labrador, he is fondly remembered, and missed. He would have been 10 in February 2005. The Pleasance’s Brooke’s Bar is named after him.
‘I’ve always loved dogs’. He had a dog called Sally as a child, his stepfather’s Border Collie. And a Miniature Dachshund, Melita. CR exercised her while riding his bike, and Melita, always jumping up, developed much longer back legs as a result, with the resulting profile of a drag-racer.
The doggie network is strong. Lovely actor and generally wonderful blonde-ish bombshell Lizzie Roper on CR: ‘An Edinburgh institution and owner of one very sweet dog.’
Jacqui Roberts PR: ‘Brooke looked over my plate of food in Brooke’s Bar.’
Suave babe-magnet and recklessly handsome comedy manager Richard Bucknall on CR: ‘An Edinburgh institution. In years to come there’ll be be a statue in the Pleasance Courtyard featuring a man in a Panama hat with a Labrador by his side.’
The delightful and urbane Nigel ‘Bruiser’ Klarfeld, thinking woman’s bit of rough, Bound And Gagged Comedy supremo, and owner of magnificent dog Brandi – she’s a 4-year-old cross-breed Staffordshire/Greyhound – looks beyond the dog-lover to the man:
‘You have to admire Christopher’s vision for the Pleasance in Edinburgh. The right man at the right time, he is one of a very small handful of people who’ve transformed the festival to how it is today – vibrant.
‘You know you’ve arrived as a performer or a promoter when your show is on at the Pleasance.’
The magnificent Steve Bennett, critic, reviewer, journalist and editor of the UK’s premier comedy resource Chortle:
‘Christopher Richardson has been at the heart of the Edinburgh Fringe for more years than anyone would care to remember. He’s had an immeasurable role in shaping the festival into what it is today.
‘The Pleasance remains probably the most sought-after venue for performers. The Courtyard is the unofficial hub of the whole Fringe. It’s the testament to Christopher’s work and vision.’
Comedy impresario, producer and director legendary Rohan Acharya: ‘I have an odd relationship with Christopher Richardson, in that whenever we bump into each other (several times a year), we realise we know each other – but I always get a terrible attack of shyness and never seem to say much more than a mumbled “Hello”.
‘What he probably doesn’t realise is that he has provided me with inspiration and motivation at key points in my career. His leadership of Pleasance Edinburgh has affected the entire industry – he has made the venue phenomenally successful and seen the launch of countless acts.
‘This year I received my first welcome note and bottle of champers for running the BBC Stand-Up Show at the Pleasance Dome – where I was provided with a superb space and excellent crew.
‘Christopher is a landmark on the national comedy map. Though he’s clearly a shrewd businessman, he is also one with a huge heart. And his passion for the shows that appear at his venues is truly invigorating.’
John Ritchie is the aimiable and charming editor of EdinburghGuide.com, Hogmanay.net, and ‘a 25-year veteran of The Festival’.
He met CR 22 years ago ‘through Professor Owen Dudley Edwards, Professor of American Literature at Edinburgh University, and the leading expert on Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle.
‘If Christopher Richardson retires, then Edinburgh life, and more importantly The Fringe, will suffer one of its greatest losses.
‘His contribution is immeasurable. He has created a platform for hundreds of people to become famous. He’s a bloody good guy.’
Looking towards the next part of his life, CR is both reflective, and open. Discussing his sexuality, he says simply: ‘My gay nature evolved. It’s me. I don’t suppose I came out till about 15 years ago. I’ve been celibate most of my life. I don’t mind people knowing I’m gay. It’s not the thing that really matters. I don’t see it’s worth making much about. It’s like being tall. I can see in crowds. No more significance than that.’
He remembers with amusement showing off one of his designs to a roomful of what then seemed old men to him, at the age of 16. They were friends of an older friend assembled in a louche Bayswater flat. ‘I couldn’t work out why they were taking such an interest in what I was saying.’
His military background makes him a firm believer that ‘we need armies, need arms’. Equally it led to him joining the Anti-War March 2004. ‘We mustn’t go to war without a reason. We must have the right grounds for making war, if we have to.’ He marched next to a major-general.
The rest of his thinking, likewise, is constantly open. After all, he does smoke a pipe.
He used to smoke Balkan Sobranie, till the manufacturer stopped making it. It was a risqué choice, with a scented aroma from its Latakia ingredient – very art-masterly, raffish. Now, with his more elder-statesman image, it’s the reassuringly solid Gold Block (“the aristocrat of British pipe tobaccos”).
‘I hope to move on to something new.’ He says wryly. ‘Take the knowledge and wisdom from what went before, and try to invest it in whatever I’m doing next. Doing painting and writing. May be of use to others. Could be as a novel, or a book about knots. Could be a book about making things.’
He looks a fit man, despite overcoming a stroke. ‘I’m a walking monument to the wonders of modern science. Pills keep me alive these days. I’ve led a dissolute life. Still, to be alive is quite nice. I’m waiting for more time to do things.’
A single man, he has learnt to accept his own company. ‘I’m lonely sometimes. When the day goes, everybody goes home, and you’re on your own. You wonder why you’re there. The audience has gone, and you’re left with an empty theatre. You despair of what you’re doing this for. It’s like the end of the summer term. I wonder if that will happen in August 2005 (when he retires)?’
He intends to go on designing theatres for a living, get a narrow-boat on the the canal system, and paint. ‘If I finish any of that lot, it would be great.’ Perhaps write one of three novels. One’s about his Great Uncle Wilfrid (of whom, more below). Another’s about family history – ‘Spaniards, Scotsmen, Irishmen, and bits of India, and Scottish Enlightenment.’ One about dogs (of course). And he’d like to study Scottish history in Edinburgh.
At the moment, he’s off to Auckland, New Zealand. ‘My father is buried there.’ He’ll sail on the Soren Larsen. It’s the 146 foot long square rigged ‘Cape Horner‘ magnificently restored tallship heroine of The Onedin Line, and The French Lieutenant’s Woman. ‘I love boats.’ He intends to ‘float sedately around Auckland Bay.’
But not before firing off a few scatter-shots. ‘There are two TV presenters more irritating than most. Alan Titchmarsh and – who’s that man from The Goodies? – Bill Oddie. One has done a thing on forests, gardens. The fact is I’ve watched both avidly. I apologise for not liking them in the past.’ (He’s now a fan). ‘Unless it’s Alan Titchmarsh doing both and I just thought he’s Bill Oddie.’
He campaigns readily, often joining in with other venue directors. A current issue (2004) is VAT on box-office takings. ‘The Inland Revenue is concerned about the European Union about making people VAT exempt. Regents Park Zoo got its box office VAT-exempt. We’re all trying now.’ It’s an important issue, because VAT exemption would provide crucial help with sustainability.
He’s a strong advocate of patronage. ‘Why aren’t TV companies putting a percentage into small independent stage productions? They do reap the benefits, after all.’
He wants a centralised booking office and listings magazine – with no selection process – for London fringe and small theatres. ‘For example The Arts Council could help this.’ He’s keen that the Edinburgh Fringe should run this, during the months of the year when their sophisticated booking and listings computer system isn’t being used.
The issue of economics is a constant theme. ‘The Pleasance London has a system. It costs £80 a day to bring a show into The Studio. The show can charge eg £3 per head. ‘If they have enough friends, they can fill it and have enough left over for a bowl of soup. It’s worked very well. We need more places like this.’
Looking back on his career so far, are there any particular heroes? CR thinks for a while, before wondering aloud if inanimate objects count. ‘In which case, the Japanese use of wood.’
Edward Gordon Craig (1872-1966), director and designer, was a major influence. Appropriately for the less-than-shrinking-violet CR, Gordon Craig led a colourful life. The son of a liaison between actress Ellen Terry and the architect Edward William Godwin, he was a lover of Isadora Duncan (1878-1927), and cousin of John Gielgud (1904-2000).
Designer Ralph Koltai (b 1924), ex Royal Army Service Corps posted to the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials, and Head of the Theatre Design Department (1965-72) at Central School of Art and Design in London was an inspiration. Among painters, CR particularly admired French Impressionist painter Claude Monet (1840-1926).
He loves to paint landscapes, water colours. ‘I’m interested in landscape and the relationship of the human figure to landscape – a bum can be a sand-dune. I’m not very good at drawing – it’s a problem. I’m not a natural draftsman.’ He rates drawing highly as a skill. ‘It saddens me that life drawing is not really taught in art schools. Anyone not fascinated by the body is a prude or an idiot.’
‘Robert Stephens (1931-1995) and Maggie Smith (b 1934) were my favourite actors, in their heydays.’ His favourite with them playing opposite each other was the Robert Neame (b 1911) directed film of Muriel Spark (b 1918)’s novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969). A well-spoken, elegant and fractionally-eccentric teacher extolling ‘la creme de la creme’ in Edinburgh. Familiar, non?
His original inspiration was his flamboyant Great Uncle Wilfred Alexander. Colonel Alexander was in ‘33rd Division, the forerunner of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps (RAOC)’. He started a theatre company in the First World War (1914-18). He was in the trenches in Mons, Belgium in 1914. In Reims, France – they did The Mikado. In Gibraltar he did a lot of amateur theatre, in a concert party with the 33rd Division – a prototype for Captain Terri Dennis in Privates On Parade.
Colonel Alexander later started a touring company in 1926. ‘Unfortunately, it was the year of the General Strike. ‘It went bust, but he lived on – on half his military pension’. He wrote abstruse books on Shakespearean Costume. And Stalls Eye View, never published, with a forward by Emlyn Williams (1905-1987). It lists all the shows he ever saw.’ A much-loved figure in CR’s life, he was a formative influence.
CR’s best-known feature, alongside his loveable geniality and supportive optimism, is his exceedingly short fuse, leading to volcanic explosions of temper. Where does this spring from? Hmm. ‘If the building is falling down, I don’t panic. But the small irrationalities of life annoy me so much.’ And he bites his fingernails ‘always have’.
‘Things that make me see purple. Forms to fill in. People who can’t put things up straight. Like the fucking Leaning Tower of Pisa.’
‘People can’t take passion anymore. Passion. I’m passionate.’
But surely there’s more than just passion? What’s the portrait in the round? Old friend and former pupil, actor and writer Stephen Fry:
‘The energy of a puppy, the sensitivity of a fawn, the strength of a bear and the temper of a wasp. Features by Hogarth, character by Dickens. He stands alone and I’m Proud to know him.’
Interview with Christopher Richardson by John Park
Thursday 9 December 2004