In memory of Michael White – theatre impresario and film producer

90Michael White – theatre impresario and film producer dies, aged 80.

Famous for staging controversial shows such as Oh! Calcutta, The Rocky Horror Show and Y and producing Monty Python films and The Comic Strip Presents series for Channel 4, Michael White, an engagingly laid-back impresario who only staged shows he liked himself, was also celebrated for putting on lavish parties for his opening nights.

Michael Darvell recalls the highs and the lows…

Born in Glasgow, Michael White (1936–2016) was a sickly child suffering from asthma, so his parents sent him to be educated in the less polluted atmosphere of Switzerland. Later he studied at the Sorbonne in Paris and after graduating landed a job as a Wall Street runner in the 1950s.

With his interest in theatre, White took the post as assistant to Sir Peter Daubeny who ran the World Theatre Seasons at the Aldwych Theatre in London. With five years’ good grounding in theatre administration, White then set about staging his own first production in 1961 of Jack Gelber’s The Connection, a play about drug addicts interspersed with jazz music. It was the first production in an up-and-down career for White which lasted for more than 50 years, during which time he had many successes and a number of failures.

Apparently White was not one to research his own productions too closely before staging them, but simply relied on liking what he saw and if it felt right he would back it. This led to some disappointments but he still had a roster of very good shows under his belt. Always one to uphold the banning of censorship, when the Lord Chamberlain’s office ceased to licence plays in 1968, White staged a hitherto banned play, Soldiers, by Rolf Hochhuth, which was highly critical of Winston Churchill.

Similarly in 1970 he backed Oh! Calcutta!, the controversial nude sex revue which ran for seven years, or nearly 4,000 performances in London alone. Audiences had not been used to seeing nudity in a West End theatre (pace the Windmill’s Revudeville) and so they rushed to see it as they had done too when Galt MacDermot’s Hair had opened.

White staged another US award-winning MacDermot project, a musical version of Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona (1973) but in London it failed to have the staying power of Hair. However, White did have a hit with Anthony Shaffer’s 1970 play Sleuth which ran for many years in London, and he also backed A Chorus Line (1976) and Annie (1978) with great success, as the original London production notched up nearly 1,500 performances, did well on a UK tour and was revived in 1988.

He also gave London Spike Milligan in Son of Oblomov, Barry Humphries as Edna Everage in Housewife, Superstar and university students John Cleese, Bill Oddie and Tim Brooke-Taylor got their first taste of the West End in their varsity revue Cambridge Circus. 

Perhaps White’s biggest hits with musicals came in 1973 and his productions of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and The Rocky Horror Show. The first began life as a school concert piece by the pupils of Colet Court School in London in 1968. It was expanded for further performances in Westminster Central Hall and St Paul’s Cathedral and then Decca recorded it as a concept album. By 1972 it had reached the Edinburgh Festival with the Young Vic Theatre company, and then it transferred to the Young Vic’s own theatre in London. The following year Michael White and Robert Stigwood brought it into the West End and it has been a perennial hit ever since, enjoying many revivals including the London Palladium stagings in 2003 and 2007.

English model Kate Moss and actor NIgel Planer (L) pose for pictures with the Olivier Special Award winner Michael White during the Lawrence Olivier Awards for theatre at the Royal Opera House in central London on April 13, 2014. AFP PHOTO/ANDREW COWIE

Nigel Planer and Kate Moss pose for pictures with the Olivier Special Award winner Michael White in 2014. Picture: Andrew Cowie

The Rocky Horror Show came about in 1973 while actor Richard O’Brien was out of work. He devised a camp send-up of US horror B-movies which was tried out at the tiny 63-seater Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court on Sloane Square, Chelsea. White came on board and the show was a sell-out and after a month the Court transferred it to the former Chelsea Classic cinema in the Kings Road, which had 230 seats, for another two months. It then moved again to the former 500-seater Essoldo cinema further down Kings Road (thereafter renamed the Kings Road Theatre) where it stayed for more than five years.

From April 1979 it transferred to the West End, the Comedy Theatre as it then was, and had a further run of 18 months. With a cast including Tim Curry, Patricia Quinn, Julie Covington, Little Nell and O’Brien himself, it was an out and out success, opened all over the world, has been revived umpteen times, and became a film project, The Rocky Horror Picture Show in 1975.

Some of White’s musical shows were less successful than Rocky Horror. Joe Brooks and Dusty Hughes’ Metropolis, the 1989 musical based on Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent film, was not a hit but it was an honourable failure and quite spectacular. The revival of Bock & Harnick’s She Loves Me, with Ruthie Henshall, John Gordon Sinclair and Tracie Bennett ran for a year in 1994. Notre Dame de Paris, a musical version of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame has travelled the world but fared badly in London in 2000.

One very odd show called Y played at the Piccadilly Theatre during 1983 and 1984, when the theatre was dressed out as a cabaret room with tables and chairs for a show that looked like a mix of circus and athletics with magic and illusion thrown in. Much of it featured Arturo Brachetti, an amazing Italian quick-change artist who had been known to play in a hundred different guises over two hours. I believe it was revised and renamed i but nothing could save it – another honourable failure for Mr White.

With over a hundred stage shows to his name, White also became involved in nearly 30 films, including Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Jabberwocky, My Dinner with André, John Waters’ Polyester, with Divine and the scratch-and-sniff cards for the Odorama episodes, Shock Treatment, the sequel to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Heat and Dust, a Merchant-Ivory production with Greta Scacchi, Moonlighting with Jeremy Irons directed by Jerzy Skolimowski, Ian McEwan’s The Ploughman’s Lunch directed by Richard Eyre, White Mischief, with Greta Scacchi again, and many others including Enigma, about the Bletchley Park codebreakers, one of the best films White helped to finance.

White made a lot of money and lost a lot too. He was an inveterate gambler and was declared bankrupt in 2005. Perhaps his one major mistake was to sell the rights of The Rocky Horror Show in a moment of madness or lack of ready money perhaps. But he had a great life, enjoyed himself at what he did and put on splendidly lavish parties.

He was married twice, first to the model and designer Sarah Hilsdon, with whom he had three children, and then to heiress Louise Moores, with whom he had a son. In 2013 Gracie Otto made a documentary film about the life of Michael White called The Last Impresario in which many of his friends and colleagues were interviewed. It is a fascinating film and acts as a fitting tribute to a great man of the British theatre, television and the film industry. The Society of West End Theatre gave Michael White a Lifetime Achievement gong in the 2014 Olivier Awards.

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