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David Pugh

Published 18 April 2008

In my experience, there are few interviewees who would happily let you continue recording them while they had a phone conversation. There are even fewer who would actively encourage you to turn your dictaphone on while they chatted on their mobile about a press night teetering on the brink of disaster.

But producer David Pugh is not your average interviewee. He speaks his mind, and he does so frequently. He is as open as a 24 hour supermarket. He is not ashamed of how much money he has made or lost; the recent national tour of Rebecca grossed £5.5 million, while the West End production Ducktastic! haemorrhaged £1.1 million. He is a character in a business that deserves characters. No other interviewee I have ever met has ruffled my hair – unaware of quite how much product is in it – within 30 seconds of meeting me.

“I always believe that you don’t call a show a hit until it’s recouped,” Pugh says, explaining why neither of his two current productions have ‘hit’ status for him yet. “But we’re doing very well.”

The productions in question are very different. Brief Encounter sees Cornish theatre company Kneehigh work its creative magic on the classic British film, bringing it to a purpose-built stage at the Haymarket Cineworld – now named the Cinema Haymarket – in a show that blends live music, film, theatre and buns to create an event as much as a performance. God Of Carnage is a more traditional piece starring Ralph Fiennes, Ken Stott, Tamsin Greig and Janet McTeer as parents who can’t solve a dispute without behaving worse than their children.

"I could have made The History Boys bigger than it was"

It is the latter production, which reunites Pugh with the team behind long-running hit Art – playwright Yasmina Reza, translator Christopher Hampton and director Matthew Warchus – that nearly suffered at the hands of the theatrical gods on its press night. Two thirds of the way through the performance the theatre lost electricity. After a short hiatus a cable was run to the pub opposite, allowing the performance to be completed under the most basic lights possible. “Thank God I was sober,” Pugh laughs, “which is a novelty!”

It is clear that Pugh loves his job. He talks passionately about it, about those producers he would rather not have any contact with, about the state of theatre in general, and about those people he keeps close to him, his team, to whom he credits most of his success. The single most important relationship is with his producing partner Dafydd Rogers. Regularly during our interview he bemoans Rogers’s absence; he is the numbers man with profits, losses and weekly box office takings at his fingertips. He is also the one who can explain how producing a show is “like spread betting”.

His wider team includes Anthony Pye-Jeary and Bob King from marketing agency Dewynters and West End PR Peter Thompson. These form the enclave he trusts: “I listen because they’re much better than I am at what I do. Of course, I interfere and drive them crackers, but you know…” If rumour is to be believed, it was Thompson who suggested staging Brief Encounter in a cinema.

The trust in his British colleagues comes in stark contrast to his relationship with Broadway, where he has found there is a very different way of working that rubs him distinctly the wrong way. “I don’t want meetings with 24 people all telling me what they think I need to hear,” he says, getting annoyed at just the thought of it.

"There’s something about the provinces, nudity and stabbing horses’ eyes out"

Though Equus is transferring to the Great White Way with original cast members Radcliffe and Richard Griffiths, Pugh is not producing. He found the process infuriating. At the negotiation stage, when he felt they should have been talking about director Thea Sharrock’s wish to re-stage the show in a different fashion, the first eight months were spent “talking about producers’ billing and who should be billed first and who should be on the poster. It’s f**k all to do with producing; it should be about the play. I hardly take billing; check my posters, I don’t, because I believe you should only be billed if you sell tickets. Nobody’s going to come and see a David Pugh show; they won’t know me from Adam.”

In the corner of his office above the Wyndham’s theatre stands a blackboard. One side displays a list of the projects he currently has on the go, the other holds a list of those people with whom he would like to work in the future.

“I’ll never get Alan Bennett because he’s so comfy at the National, but I could have made The History Boys bigger than it was,” he says with a glint – half cheeky, half wistful – in his eye, before adding self-referentially “he said sarcastically”. He goes through a list of playwrights he would like to work with: Michael Frayn “wonderful”, Willy Russell “my favourite”, Jez Butterworth “fantastic”, Enda Walsh “f***ing genius”, Kwame Kwei-Armah “lazy arse”. The last is delivered with a dry sarcastic wit that could be a Pugh trademark. Kwei-Armah, it seems, has been under commission to Pugh for four years and is yet to deliver his play.

His relationship with Reza is also an interesting one. Pugh professes to love working with her, but “I had to have six months out just to deal with her, and that’s just her hotel accommodation. Yasmina ain’t easy. I’m on the record as saying that she’s a snob, and it makes her laugh. She’s tricky, but I love that.”

“I absolutely love working with brilliant talented people and being party to it,” he says of why he has this hit list of talent. “I don’t contribute that much, but I love the feedback from them. I love making sure that I look after them. I love making sure that it looks classy, it looks professional and it’s got taste. That’s what I aim to do.”

The more Pugh discusses the theatre industry, the clearer it becomes that there are two areas that particularly concern him: bringing through new writing and writers, and encouraging and supporting new producers.

His passion for new work can be seen in the productions he chooses to stage: Art, God Of Carnage, The Play What I Wrote and Ducktastic! were all new shows. His two next projects will be a stage adaptation of Calendar Girls written by Tim Firth, and a stage version of The Birds, which is currently being honed by Conor McPherson. As he talks about the process of seeing this project come together, his passion is palpable: “To get a first draft, that’s so exciting. Me and Daf sat and read it, it was last November. It was dark when we got it at four o’clock in the afternoon; it scared the sh*t out of us.”

"Going to a West End show should be like the best orgasm you’ve ever had"

By contrast, helping new producers is a more personal, less demonstrable ambition. “I think the role of the producer is very underestimated and very underrated. I don’t quite know what we do, but without a producer nothing happens. It’s bloody tough for young producers coming up, it really is, and we need them because we are getting fewer and fewer producers.” Pugh was involved with Stage One, a scheme to help young producers, but stepped away from it when he fell upon hard times. “How could I go and tell young people how to do it when I’d just actually buggered it up myself?” he says regretfully.

There were times over the past few years, Pugh confides, that he thought about giving it all up and considered whether he could return to teaching. The failure of Ducktastic!, a comic play about illusionists from the team behind mega-hit The Play What I Wrote, hit him hard. “When shows go wrong,” Pugh sighs, “they go wrong at the beginning. I’m the one who bought 46 ducks and did a show called Ducktastic! and got it wrong. Ken Branagh, Hamish [McColl], Sean [Foley] and myself go off to Las Vegas and we see Siegfried and Roy and we think ‘Hey, this is great.’ What we didn’t realise was you can make magic funny but you can’t make illusion funny. You can do gag, gag, gag, gag, gag, big roars, then you do an illusion and the audience goes ‘Oooh, gosh’, they look at each other and think ‘Did that really happen?’ and then you have to start again.”

Pugh is having a similar experience with the touring production of his West End hit Equus, which is “Dying on its arse; we can’t give the tickets away”. This is even more surprising than the Ducktastic! affair as in London the production was one of 2007’s most sought after tickets. Some would point to a casting change that saw Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe replaced with Alfie Allen, though Pugh has other ideas: “There’s something about the provinces, nudity and stabbing horses’ eyes out…” He says he always suspected there might be this problem with touring the production, but if so, why do it? “When we did it in town 50% of our audience were kids under 18. They went out, like I did when I first saw it at 16, and it meant something to them, so I persuaded the Arts Council to give me a grant. We’re out for 16 weeks on the road; they’ve granted me £176,000. I’m going to lose £176,000 and more besides – can you believe it? – but everybody under 26 can see the show at any performance for £10. That’s why the Arts Council should be doing it in my book.”

His early experiences of theatre, experiences he is striving to make available to today’s youth, saw the formation of Pugh’s drive and passion. His trip to see Equus was life-changing: “It alerted me to what sexuality was about and it made me think. I’d only seen things like The Black And White Minstrels and Danny Le Rue at the Palace, which alerted my sexuality not at all.” A trip to see A Chorus Line that same year set the benchmark for the theatre he wanted to produce in the future: “I ran all the way down the Strand thinking this was just what theatre should be about. Going to a West End show should be like the best orgasm you’ve ever had. It happens occasionally.”

This drive to make orgasmic theatre and to make it for the masses, lies somewhere near the heart of what Pugh is trying to achieve and why he continues in this industry. He tells a story, which he describes as “slightly w**ky and pretentious” about a poster he saw at the Geffrye Museum showing the Jarrow Marchers arriving outside the Royal Opera House. “I sort of thought ‘I want to do theatre for those Jarrow Marchers, not for those c**ts sitting in the box.’”

"I hate snob theatre"

It is all well and good thinking that, but it is less easy to implement it as a successful business plan in which is invested the money of 82 investors, each of whom you know personally. “I think it’s got out of control,” he says of West End theatre. “I think seat prices have risen at producers’ whims. I think that ticket agency charges are daylight robbery. And I think we’re making it an elitist game. But you’re talking to somebody who’s actually just done a show called Equus that I charged £49.50 top [price] for. I’m now doing a show called Brief Encounter and it’s a £39.50 top [price], which is less than anything else. So, have I really taken up the fight? No, I haven’t taken up the fight, have I? I’ve bowed to it. It’s elitist, and I want to do a musical where they can get into the gallery for 3p, as in 3 old pence. I want to hear what people think. I want people to have that orgasm and I want it to be all of them.

“I f***ing hate snob theatre,” he finishes, yet there are those that would be very quick to point out that in Art, a play about three upper middle class friends and a purchase of modern art, and in God Of Carnage, a play about four arguing middle class parents, he is producing just that. Honesty, as is always the case with Pugh, is the best policy: “I have to make a living.”

MA

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