West End boys don’t come more down to earth than Bill Kenwright.
You don’t get an interview or, perish the thought, an audience with Kenwright.
You have a chat. It feels like you’re having a jar in the Eagle Vaults on Scotty Road rather than listening to ambulances go by and phones ring off the hook in Little Venice, London.
Leave Liverpool but it never leaves you, says the top producer behind many of Britain’s best known musicals, plays, concerts and films. He’s not mawkish, just matter of fact. “I only feel at home in Liverpool.”
Iconoclasm goes with the turf – and helps when dealing with the big egos in showbusiness and football.
Bill’s power base is London, his heart in the Liverpool he left half a century ago but to which he regularly returns as individual, impresario, Everton chairman. But his soul belongs to Blackpool.
Bill puts that down to his mum. He lost her a few months ago. “She was the most important person in my life.” She was the touchstone to Bill’s Blackpool too. He recalls the rite of childhood Lights runs here, the sand, sea and soggy sarnie beach breaks, queues for the flicks, the concerts, the “great northern comedians.”
He adds: “It was the start of the foreign holiday boom – my mum and dad would say week in Spain or weekend in Blackpool? It was always Blackpool. I absolutely love Blackpool. My love of showbiz started here.”
Six of his shows head to town this year with a seventh hopefully to come.
Bill’s dream – and this is the man who gave us Any Dream Will Do – is to present a summer season here.
Given a better economy, the right people at the right price at the right time in the right venue, he would love to see if Blackpool has what it takes to sustain a season show.
He dipped a toe in the water last year with a two-week run of Starlight Express. “It did well.” Opera House management mucked into promote the show. “They did a great job for us.”
But he admits now is not the time to test the theory. “For me to take a risk with my shows, fine. But not when I involve others in a risk.” Theatre takings are down globally – along with Bill’s profits. He’s still doing nicely but remembers the glory days.
He’s the original Boy from the Blackpool Stuff, stood in line, at 11, to watch his rock ‘n’ roll heroes here.
He remembers the Opera House’s heyday, two sell out shows early doors and night, 6,000 bottoms on seats at just one of many theatres in Blackpool. Some have gone with much of the audience.
Some performers still have what it takes to pack the Opera House, he reckons. “Tommy Steele’s still the ultimate showman.”
Bill’s reached for the stars, established more, and brought some of the best known shows from the West End and Broadway to Blackpool.
He’s come with them too. “You can’t keep me away. It is and always will be the greatest capital of entertainment in the world. I don’t see Blackpool warts and all – I don’t see the warts. Nothing stands in the way of my memories.”
It’s still the big trip out, even if he’s producing shows at venues he once queued outside. There’s “more to come,” he promises, and “other producers will follow.” He was blown away by what he saw when he attended the Royal Variety show at the Opera House with his mate Laurie Mansfield “who is, among other things head honcho of the Entertainment Artistes’ Benevolent Fund. The two of us are joined at the hip. We love Blackpool.”
It put the Opera House back on Bill’s tour map, “not that I’ve forsaken The Grand,” and for more productions than at many other venues en route.
It’s a welcome change to see the Opera House’s customary one-nighters elbowed aside for longer runs of tried and tested favourites, Joseph and The Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat and Blood Brothers, and two sure fire hits in the making, Save the Last Dance for Me and Soul Sister, shortlisted for an Olivier Award.
He hopes for a fifth show at the Opera House for the extra Lights week. There are two other shows at the Grand Theatre.
Kenwright, 67, has come a long way since he hit our screens as a baby faced Elvis lookalike heartthrob on Coronation Street. He is now an elder statesman of theatre along with Sir Cameron Macintosh, 66, and Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, 64, Bill’s knightood presumably lost in the same post as Doddy’s?
There’s a marked lack of luvvy about Kenwright. In Everton terms he’s a striker rather than a team player. His new goal is that extra show for Blackpool. He’s itching to broker the deal.
“You think Blackpool’s back on the up and up?” he asks. “I do. For me it always has the wow factor I felt when I first saw The Tower, the Opera House and Grand. When I go to my grave the best loved times of my career will have been here, the first season of Joseph, 17 weeks twice daily, taking my mum to the White Tower, singing round the piano. For me to even produce in Blackpool is a privilege. It really is. And these shows are great shows.”