Bill Kenwright - Britain's top theatre impresario is not resting on his laurels

PUBLISHED: 15:15 27 February 2012 | UPDATED: 21:07 20 February 2013

Bill with partner Jenny Seagrove
Picture: Steve Wood/Rex

Bill with partner Jenny Seagrove Picture: Steve Wood/Rex

Bill Kenwright is Britain's most successful theatre producer but he's certainly not resting on his laurels. He talks to Natalie Anglesey

Bill Kenwright is suffering from a bad cold. One of the countrys most prolific theatre impresarios with an impressive array of West End and touring musicals to his credit, hes just returned from visiting the outdoor location of his next venture into movies.

I suppose Im still a big kid at heart, Bill chuckles in between sneezes. I like to watch the filming in process although its not my first film by any means, he remind me. Hes referring to some of his previous movies like Cherie starring Michelle Pfeiffer, The Day After The Fair, Stepping Out, Dont Go Breaking My Heart, Sundance Festival award-winner Die Mommie Die and The Purifiers.

This new film, which has the working title Broken, stars wonderful actors like Tim Roth and Cillian Murphy as well as Rufus Norris so, as theyre filming in London, I couldnt resist watching hence the cold. Actors must be built of stronger stuff.

Bill too is built of strong stuff. Born and raised in Liverpool in 1945, he attended the Liverpool Institute High School, where he caught the acting bug early on playing Shylock in the Merchant of Venice. He returns to Lancashire as often as possible not just to see his mother who refuses to leave the area but also his beloved football team.

Im still Chairman of Everton, in spite of what you read, and is the best job in the world. I remember watching them when I was a little lad in the boys pen at Goodison Park and now here I am sitting in one of the posh boxes watching my team and that still gives me a thrill.

Bill has achieved in the tough theatre world because hes a hard worker and expects others to pull their weight. If Im not enthusiastic about a project on stage or screen then how can I expect other people to be passionate about it?

Bills latest stage venture, a touring production of Scrooge The Musical, broke box-office records over the festive season at Salfords stunning Lowry Theatre after doing the same at the London Palladium.

We actually opened with Tommy Steele in the title role in Manchester about eight years ago as Ive been a huge fan of his since his days as a pop star. In 1957, when I was 11, Tommy was starring in the pantomime Goldilocks at the Royal Court in Liverpool and my mother took the jam jars back so wed have enough money for tickets although we still had to queue.

During the show Tommy walked forward to sing Butterfingers and when he got to the mike he stopped, took out his comb and combed his hair before starting to sing and I thought how cool - what a star!

Tommys successful pop career prompted Bill to form his own group. My first band was The Chevrolets, I went solo for a while and then formed Bill Kenwright and The Runaways. I cant even remember the names of some of the clubs we played in all over the north west. I think we were big in Oldham!

Bill, awarded a CBE in 2000, made a few hit and miss records with I Want To Go Back There Again and Walk Through Dreams back in 67. Loves Black and White, Giving Up, Tiggy and House That Fell On Its Face in 68. And finally, Baby I Could Be So Good at Loving, Boy and Girl, Sugar Man and When Times Were Good in 69. He even tried his hand at recording a couple of singles for Manchester band Money.

However, Bills short-lived career in pop didnt put him off the record business and in 2008 he launched his own record label with the London cast recordings of Scrooge and Cabaret. One of his current stage successes is Dreamboats and Petticoats and, like a little lad, hes delighted that on his recent 66th birthday he at last made the Top Ten charts with one of his old pop songs on the 5th compilation album of music from his era!

Back in the late 60s and 70s Bill had already branched out into acting appearing in Z Cars, The Liver Birds, Villains and some of the Carry On films. He also carried on doing cabaret when he played Gordon Clegg in Coronation Street.

That was one of the best experiences in my life. The fact that I was acting with some of the most famous actors in the country made my mother so proud.

During that time that Bill became extremely close to the late Betty Driver, when he played her on-screen illegitimate son and they kept in touch over the intervening years.

Betty was like a surrogate mum to me when I was in Corrie and always asked if I was eating properly. Shed been a huge star in her day and to me remained a star to the end. I went to visit her in hospital and the staff werent sure that shed recognise me because she was drifting in and out of consciousness. I put my mouth close to her ear and whispered that if she knew it was me to squeeze my hand - and she did.

I was so moved that I told her Id only return to The Street if she were there upon which she raised herself up and whispered that I dared not go back without her! The staff told me that after Id gone shed rallied and asked for egg and chips but sadly she didnt last much longer. I was honoured to be asked to speak at her funeral and it was wonderful to see all the people Id worked with in the congregation also honouring this great lady.

When he left Corrie, Bill soon realised that in the theatre the power lay with the people who produced the shows and turned his attention to that side of the business. He became established with a string of successes including Blood Brothers, still touring somewhere in the world today, as well as Joseph and The Amazing Technicoloured Dreamcoat, which recently followed Scrooge into The Lowry.

Monty Pythons Spamalot, Cabaret, Whistle Down The Wind, Jesus Christ Superstar, Tommy, Jekyll and Hyde, Rock N Roll Heaven, Evita, Tell Me On A Sunday, This Is Elvis and Legally Blonde are just some of the shows Bills been touring. In June Bill resurrects the high-speed, spectacular roller-skating musical Starlight Express at The Lowry. But hes quick to point out that he also has a vested interest in straight theatre as well as musicals.

I now own all the rights to staging Agatha Christie plays. Audiences love a good thriller and Ive done Verdict and am about to do Murder on the Nile. Ive also produced The Glass Menagerie starring Jessica Lange, The Country Girl, An Ideal Husband, The Night of the Iguana, A Few Good Men, the West End run of the Pitman Painters and next year will do Funny Peculiar among other projects and then of course theres the new film.

Regarding his home life Bills a very private person although its public knowledge that several of his film and stage projects have starred his long-term partner Jenny Seagrove and he was already a proud father before they met.

Bills public life has seen him rewarded for his hard work with Honorary Fellowships from Liverpools John Moores University and Nottingham Trent University as well as receiving several prestigious showbiz awards.

With all the awards hes won over the years, particularly a Tony Award for his Broadway production of A Dolls House starring Janet McTeer, what fills him with most pride? Theres barely a heart-beat before he replies with his boyish enthusiasm.

Apart from the opening night of Blood Brothers, when I knew something special was happening on stage, my biggest thrill was sitting in the directors box at Wembley in 1995 watching Everton play. Nothing can beat that feeling when the ball hit the back of that net and we beat Manchester United 1-0. To me, that was real magic!

Bill Kenwright is proud to be supporting this years Manchester Theatre Awards alongside Cheshire Life and Lancashire Life.

The awards are the biggest of their kind outside London confirming this region as one of Europes theatre heartlands.

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