Theatre Critic and Journalist

Portrait of a Producer: Michael Codron

Portrait of a Producer: Michael Codron

Published in The Cornershop Quarterly, December ‘12

“Do you smoke or drink?” asks Michael Codron, flashing a small tin of cigars across his desk of regimented clutter. Both, I reply – just not at 11 o’clock on a Wednesday morning. “Mind if I do?”

He opts for a cigar, but nothing else. Strands of slow-moving smoke start to plateau in the air around him. By rights, the cigar should seem cliché – a flashy prop for a born producer’s emphatic gesticulation – but with Codron, there’s something homely about it. He smokes as he speaks: softly, unobtrusively. Twice, I nudge the dictaphone a little closer to his side of the desk, anxious that his breathy baritone purr isn’t registering.

This gentle, kindly manner has served the 82 year-old well over his fifty-five years as a – mostly the – commercial producer. His recent biography, written by Alan Strachan, makes much of his knack for negotiation. The Codron pause is almost as renowned as that of Harold Pinter, whose early plays he produced, and meetings regularly end abruptly. Today, without ever domineering, it’s him that steers our interview, trading an answer for a question of his own. He seems reluctant to talk about himself, but never crosses into evasiveness.

“I’d rather be under the surface,” he says. “I don’t show myself [on opening nights], which a lot of producers do and I admire them for that. I usually tuck myself away in the dress circle or something.”

When he started out in the mid-fifties, producers like Jack Hylton often gave themselves top billing. Codron’s have always been atypically demure. It is, he confirms, “always about the work. That comes first.” Any enquiry about his own legacy is delicately deflected.

Yet, in a sense, his career is a self-portrait spanning half a century. He told Strachan, “If one produces something it must have something of oneself in it.” For Codron, producing is, in its own way, “a creative act,” not least because it involves the risk of self-exposure. “Several times, I’ve thought something was very good, only to find the public don’t like it. When the public don’t come, it is very hurtful, because you’re taste is being discarded really.”

Ultimately, what else has a producer got? Fortunately, Codron’s taste is beyond question. This is, after all, the man that first backed Joe Orton (against a wave of public and political outcry), Christopher Hampton, Michaell Frayn and, of course, Harold Pinter, as well as producing most of Tom Stoppard, Alan Ayckbourn, David Hare and Alan Bennett’s forays into commercial theatre. Codron’s CV isn’t far off a history of post-war theatre in Britain.

Another of his discoveries was Simon Gray, a novelist new to playwriting. In January, Michael Codron Ltd will revive Quartermaine’s Terms, first produced 30 years ago with Edward Fox in the title role. Pinter directed. “I think it’s his best play, but one of the reasons I’m doing it is that it didn’t get a good review in the Sunday Times. Other places were positive, but Simon and their main critic James Fenton had had some correspondence – not wise – and he was lying in wait for us. That affected us very much.” The show still clocked up seven months, mind.

“We were in a theatre that was slightly too big: the Queen’s. It’s much more of a chamber play. Harold and Simon were at their most vociferous with each other. So, one way or t’other, though I loved doing it, it wasn’t the happiest of productions, so I thought I’d revisit it, maybe as a passing shot.”

This isn’t the first time he’s mooted resignation, though he’s not committing either way today. Perhaps there’s simply no more space on the walls of his office above the Aldwych lobby for any more posters. Familiar faces peer out of almost every frame.

One is instantly recognisable: a periwigged Rowan Atkinson. Atkinson is his next Quartermaine, thus reuniting with his first significant backer. Codron produced Atkinson’s 1981 revue. “Somebody must have told me to go to Edinburgh and have a look at this boy. He’s got quite a good little crew,” Codron recalls, “Turned out to be Richard Curtis and Howard Goodall! He was very, very good. Word must have got round, because we were almost booked out before opening.”

That just doesn’t happen these days. “I really admire people that are producing new plays in the West End, because it’s extremely difficult today. I was lucky. I had writers who wanted their plays in the West End and actors who were prepared to spend six months on stage. Now you’re lucky if they do three or four months.

“Make your headline, ‘He laments’,” he jokes, “The West End has become a second home for things. The fact that Constellations or Curious Incident aren’t new commercial ventures, that’s sad.”

And then, from nowhere, he whispers: “It’s the end of the interview.” And, sure enough, so it is.

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