Theatre producer Ian Dickens has little time for the National Theatre – or for most of the country’s drama schools.
The entrepreneur, who produces UK tours of plays, has launched a scathing attack on the National as “elitist”.
“They put on the wrong sort of plays and they cast the wrong sort of actors,” blasts Ian, who is staging a Summer Play Season at Wolverhampton’s Grand Theatre for the fifth year running.
“We need a national theatre as it was when Olivier created it, full of well-made plays for everybody and not off-beat ones that people don’t understand.
“You shouldn’t have to have a degree in English literature to go to our national theatre.
“It’s so elitist. People go because they think it’s the place to go or because they’re tourists.
“It’s really not a national theatre for the British public.
“Sometimes they get it right – War Horse is wonderful – but generally they stage plays people haven’t heard of, or they put on a Shakespeare, which I don’t understand when we already have the Royal Shakespeare Company.”
Ian is also not a fan of National Theatre Live, where productions are filmed and beamed live into cinemas for audiences around the country.
“It’s just money-making exploitation,” he says. “To get the best experience of theatre, you have to see it in a theatre.”
The former actor, born in Nottingham in 1962, runs Ian Dickens Productions. He has, on average, seven companies touring the UK at any one time, with casts including the likes of Ruth Madoc, Fenella Fielding, Frazer Hines, Leslie Grantham and Hannah Waterman.
Based at the Lincoln Theatre Royal, Ian has put on more than 190 productions since 1990.
He reveals that every year he is sent 150 CVs from the students at three “so-called drama schools”, which he bins without reading.
“I see where they’ve trained and I ignore them, because there are so few good drama schools now where youngsters can get the correct training.
“I can think of only half a dozen. There are too many drama schools about now but on the whole they are just businesses, making money from kids who don’t have the talent to succeed. The standard today is nowhere near as good as it was 15 years ago.”
His Summer Play Season at the Grand begins on June 25 with Murder In Play, followed the following week by Steaming, then The Trouble With Old Lovers and finishing on July 16 with A Murder Has Been Arranged.
Ian says: “We’ve tried to put together an eclectic mix of plays that offer something for all the family.
“A Murder Has Been Arranged by Emlyn Williams is a marvellous ghost story set in a theatre, in which Ronnie Barker made his acting debut. It has so many twists and turns and stars Anita Harris and Coronation Street star Oliver Mellor. I defy you to work out whodunnit – I haven’t yet, and I’m directing it!
“The Trouble With Old Lovers is a fairly new play in the mould of Alan Ayckbourn. Starring Peter Amory and Nicola Bryant, it’s a great observation of a couple who have been a bit naughty over the years. If you’ve had an affair, never have a dinner party!
“Steaming is a fantastic 1980s play about six women – played by the likes of Rebecca Wheatley and Kim Taylforth – who have special reasons for keeping open a Turkish baths. Men may be interested in the teeny bit of nudity!
“We start the season with Murder In Play, a play within a play that’s a very funny whodunnit. It stars Dean Gaffney, Gemma Bissix and Katy Manning.”
Ian is very aware how the recession has hit the theatre and reveals that he budgets for houses to be only half full.
“I’d love more people in but that’s the reality,” he sighs.
“Society needs theatres as part of a healthy environment and it’s our duty to encourage young people to go, although we’ve failed miserably, hence the empty seats.
“The trouble is, drama is the poor relation to musicals. I have to persuade theatre managers to put on one play in a season, but it’s hard for them to turn down a musical they know will sell out.
“New plays are particularly hard to tour. Last year we premiered the new comedy The Final Test with Colin Baker. I loved it, it was a good play, but it did absolutely no business. It just died. So as much as I would love to put on new plays, they are very dangerous for us in the current environment.”
He knows that detective thrillers do well as earlier this year Ian toured with the Agatha Christie play A Murder Is Announced, though that is the only Christie whodunnit he can produce.
“I own the rights to that, though they run out this year. Bill Kenwright has the rights to put on most of the other plays with his Agatha Christie Theatre Company.
“There’s a line in Murder In Play which is very true – ‘anything with murder in the title sells’.
“Thrillers, whodunnits and ghost stories work, but you can’t give away comedies at the moment.”
* The Summer Play Season kicks off at Wolverhampton’s Grand Theatre on June 25. For tickets, ring 01902 429212 or go to www.grandtheatre.info .