Nick Allott OBE on bringing theatre back to life, grief and the art of recovery.
June 18, 2021. Series 4. Episode 24
Nick Allott OBE is one of Britain’s most successful theatre executives. For over 40 years he’s been at the forefront of some of the biggest West End and Broadway shows, including Oliver! Cats, Miss Saigon and Les Misérables. He was executive producer of the Oscar winning Les Mis film and was one of the team who brought Hamilton to London.
Now as Vice Chairman of Cameron Macintosh, Nick has also led the fight to save theatre – an industry stricken by the pandemic. In this episode he talks in detail about his approach to crisis management. But he’s also candid about a life peppered with personal crises, from the loss of his father in a helicopter accident at 15, the subsequent devastating impact on his family, his own near-death experiences and how he has approached the impact of grief.
Nick’s eloquence, honesty and humour provide a brilliant start to series 4.
Nick’s Crisis Cures:
1 – Having a morning routine and sticking to it. My dog wakes me up 7am – she makes a little whimper and I ruffle her ears then we both go outside. Cup of tea, then it’s back to bed with the iPad to read all the papers. Then it’s back up for some vigorous exercise on the Peleton bike. Finally, to finish – a really cold shower and no matter how bad you feel when you wake up, you’re set up for the day.
2 – Cooking. I had to learn to cook as neither of the key partners in my life cooked – my kids all do, so I love it when we all collaborate to make something together. Half are vegetarian and half eat meat so it’s a big meal. Number one dish is an Asian curry.
3 – Music. It’s underpinned my whole life. For me the best experience is live music. I really miss crowds – I love it! I’ve seen all the great rock bands. If I’m depressed or worried, I listen to a live recording. If I had to commit myself to one, it would be – Pink Floyd – Comfortably Numb. The first band I fell in love with. Nick Mason is a very close friend and for air guitar players it has the best guitar solo ever done. It never fails to thrill me. I cannot wait to get back into a room or field full of people.
4 – The one piece of theatre I could watch over and over and over again, and it would endlessly sustain me, would be the end of the first act of “Les Misérables” a song called ‘One Day More’ … as much for the audience’s reaction.
The Theatre Artists Fund: https://theatreartists.fund/
Comfortably Numb, Pink Floyd: https://music.apple.com/gb/album/comfortably-numb-live-at-knebworth-1990-2021-edit-single/1560394595
It’s clear from the start of my conversation with Nick Allott, that he cares deeply about the industry he has devoted over 40 years of his life to. He speaks passionately about the fight for survival as we reach yet another critical moment in this pandemic, with the delay on restrictions being lifted.
Nick takes us through the impact of that decision layer by layer from disappointed audiences, politicians struggling to understand the impact on the business, to the people forced to leave the industry – many never to return. He puts a human face on the devastation being faced by the performers, musicians, technicians – the huge community of ordinary people whose lives have been wrecked by Covid. Nick paints a picture of the hand to mouth reality of theatre, detailing how one couple went from leading roles in the West End to sharing a Hermes driving job.
Nick’s own life has also been occasionally interrupted by crisis, losing his father at the age of just 15 in a helicopter accident, which triggered anorexia in both his sisters. He later was to lose one of those sisters, Serena followed by a number of close friends and then finally his beloved mother at the start of the pandemic as he was battling a bout of Covid himself.
There’s so much in this chat for anyone looking for lessons for when life goes wrong. Nick quotes an article written by his late sister Serena who said: “There’s a reason in aeroplane that you’re told to fit your own oxygen mask before helping others.” As Nick says, in his life, he’s too often failed to do that and paid the price as a result. A strong believer in therapy he is now retracing some of the steps of his life – including his father’s death – to gain a better and deeper understanding of the crises he has faced.
A fascinating chat with a brilliant man.
Stream/Buy ‘Allies’ by Some Velvet Morning: https://ampl.ink/qp6bm
Some Velvet Morning Website: www.somevelvetmorning.co.uk
Host – Andy Coulson
Producer – Louise Difford
00:00:00.00 Intro music
00:00:19.04 Andy Coulson:
Hello and welcome to Crisis What Crisis? I’m Andy Coulson, former newspaper editor, Downing Street Director of Communications and one time inmate of HMP Belmarsh. Over the last six years I’ve put all of my experience, the good and the bad, to use as a strategic advisor to business leaders and I can tell you that the bad has been just as useful as the good. And that got me thinking that there are plenty of great podcasts out there where you can hear stories of success but there far fewer where you can benefit from the experiences of those whose lives have properly unravelled.
00:00:47.18 Andy Coulson:
So, on this podcast you’ll hear from the embattled and stoic, the shamed, courageous, ruined, damaged, unlucky and lucky survivors of crisis. All talking in the hope that they might serve as a useful guide to anyone facing down their own demons and challenges. Crisis What Crisis? is generously supported by Myndstream, a brilliant company who harness the power of music for personal wellbeing and improving human performance. Just search for Myndstream, that’s mind with a Y, on Spotify and you’ll find some great playlists.
00:01:18.10 Andy Coulson:
I’m delighted that my first guest of this new series is the brilliant Nick Allott, theatre producer, impresario and serial crisis survivor. Name a hit show, West End, Broadway or elsewhere in the world, it’s likely that Nick had a hand in it somewhere from Cats to Les Mis and Hamilton, for forty years Nick has been the man making it all happen. And from the moment that Covid struck he’s also led theatre’s fight for survival. A fight which, as we speak this week, has hit another critical moment with the delay of restrictions being lifted, a catastrophic decision for every theatre in Britain.
00:01:52.12 Andy Coulson:
Nick, talks us through how he approached all elements of that crisis. Dealing with disappointed audiences, politicians and most importantly the men and women who make theatre happen; performers, musicians, technicians, the huge community of ordinary people whose lives and livelihoods have been wrecked by Covid. It’s easy I think, to dismiss the impact of Covid on theatre after all some of the shows that Nick and his boss, Cameron Mackintosh, have created and developed are among the biggest earners in showbiz making billions. But one of the really interesting aspects of this conversation is how Nick explains the hand to mouth reality of theatre. And how it is that one couple, both playing leading roles in the West End, could end up sharing a Hermes driving job.
00:02:38.16 Andy Coulson:
Nick reckons about twenty-five to thirty thousand people have now left theatre and will never come back. The theatre’s crisis is just one element of this conversation. Nick’s life has been peppered with tragedy and real drama; losing his dad at fifteen in a helicopter crash, the subsequent impact on his sisters who fell seriously ill with anorexia. His own close scrapes with death and the loss of close friends and family, not least his beloved mum just as the pandemic began to take hold of the country. Nick really is well-placed to talk to us about crisis. And as a result there’s so much in this chat for anyone who’s looking for lessons for when life goes wrong for whatever reason.
00:03:18.16 Andy Coulson:
Nick provides one when he quotes from an article written, in fact, by his late sister Serena, ‘there’s a reason in an aeroplane that you’re told to fit your own oxygen mask before helping others’ and yet as Nick says, in life we so rarely do that. In his case that led to him rushing head-long into all manner of crisis, immediate and long-running without ever really taking the time to look after himself. But despite the litany of crisis we discuss there’s a lot to laugh about here as well; a brilliant sense of humour also being one of Nick’s crisis management techniques.
00:03:52.13 Andy Coulson:
So, a really great conversation to get us started with this fourth series. I hope you find it useful and if you do please subscribe and give us a rating and a review, it really helps make sure these stories reach a wider audience and that, in the end, is what it’s all about. You can also follow us on Instagram or Facebook, our handle is @crisiswhatcrisispodcast. Nick Allott, it’s great to have you with us today, how are you, sir?
00:04:15.09 Nick Allott:
I’m great thanks, Andy, yeah. It’s, look, the sun is almost shining, summer has been a long time in coming but I think it’s around the corner. There are some green shoots of recovery all over to be seen. There’s a lot of uncertainty but I think, as a snapshot today, I’m feeling great and very happy to be talking to you.
00:04:33.08 Andy Coulson:
Well thanks for that, thanks joining us. As you mentioned there we’re sort of stepping towards summer, we’re also stepping, somewhat tentatively, toward freedom. Minds are focused now on the bounce back, if you like. But how deep is the damage in relation to your world, Nick, to theatre? How worried are you still right now?
00:04:56.08 Nick Allott:
It’s probably sensible to go back eighteen months, fifteen months to see where we were. About fifteen months ago the theatre was really at sort of peak performance. We were in a really, really great space. We continued to be a big ecumenic driver for the economy, audiences were growing every year, the West End was full. There was a queue of new work. There were pretty good levels of employment and the idea of being where we are now, fifteen months later, was totally inconceivable.
00:05:30.17 Nick Allott:
The pandemic wasn’t a pandemic, it was a threat that was coming from overseas; we heard rumours of it. We have productions all over the world so we were getting feedback from Korea, feedback from Australia and feedback from America. But nobody, except perhaps the Koreans and to a degree the Chinese, where I have a lot of friends, were really taking this seriously. I didn’t even take it that seriously when I received a box of a thousand masks from a Chinese friend of mine saying ‘you’re going to need these’. And I was going to give them away but thank god I didn’t.
00:06:12.03 Nick Allott:
Theatre was in a strong place. Then it became apparent that we were going to be in for a difficult time. Audiences, they didn’t stop coming dead, they started to drift away, we started to get enquiries, we started to get people going, ‘you know, I’m not totally comfortable about coming into London, so if you don’t mind I’ll have a refund’. And theatre has a very bad record, or did at that point, of refunding people. And then, almost without, I won’t say without warning, but the shock was still considerable, then suddenly it was upon us big time. And it hit New York first, Broadway was shut down totally on March 12th. I have a friend who had a show opening that night and he had flown over a bunch of friends, the first night party, the glasses were laid out, the food was being prepared. The cast were about to go on stage and he had to go on stage and say to them, ‘you’re not, the audience aren’t coming in and you’re off’.
00:07:15.20 Nick Allott:
And four days later in the UK we had our equivalent of it, which unfortunately, I think, was handled very badly. We had advice from the Prime Minister and the Cabinet, well we didn’t have advice, the audience was told, was advised, it’s probably not wise to go into enclosed spaces whether it be theatres, restaurants, whatever. So that happened in the middle of the afternoon of March 16th. We had to decide what to do. And the decision, collectively, taken very quickly, thank god for modern communication, was that we wouldn’t perform that night. As it turned out that proved to be a very damaging decision for a lot of people because we weren’t mandated to shut it was a voluntary thing, a lot of people struggled to get their insurance pay outs. And a lot of people are still struggling to get that.
00:08:14.12 Andy Coulson:
And the insurance issue in simple terms is that there was advice, there was not an order.
00:08:20.18 Nick Allott:
Yeah, yeah, exactly. Had we been told, you cannot play, then that… unless the insurance company were very wriggly they probably would have had to pay out. Anyway, that was March 16th
00:08:34.24 Nick Allott:
If you can imagine, I mean, we own eight theatres in London, we had six productions running in the UK and probably about another ten worldwide, that’s just us, that’s just one company. There were hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of organisations who voluntarily shut down and then a week later were mandated to shut down. Now, the thing is, nothing had prepared us for that. There was no… You know we have emergency drills for fire, we have emergency… I know how to evacuate a theatre, and we might talk a little bit about that later on, I know what to do if your leading person is off. I know, I think, what to do if a show is not proving successful enough and you have to take decisions about that. Nothing prepared us for the extent of this problem.
00:09:30.17 Andy Coulson:
How did manifest itself, if you like? Aside from the obvious basic problem of you not being able to put a show on, how quickly did the human impact of it, in terms of the people that you work with begin to manifest itself?
00:09:48.11 Nick Allott:
Well it’s immediate. And I think really the heart of it is the way that our business is constructed and run. And for a lot of people it’s quite hard to understand. I mean, in broad brushstroke numbers the performing arts employs about 290,000 people. Of those 290,000 people 200,000 are freelance. And they are the people, they’re the play makers, the directors, the actors, the musicians, in some cases technicians, sound designers, light designers. If you like, the creative and beating heart of our industry are people who are self-employed by and large and we employ a lot of them. So the first thing they do is, is they go, ‘what’s happening?’
00:10:40.17 Nick Allott:
Now, this is a resilient bunch of people. You know, you don’t go into the theatre because you’ve got no choice. It’s not like being forced into a factory because it’s the only place you can work to keep your family alive. People who go into our business do so because it’s a passion, it’s a commitment, the training’s very tough. When you’re in there, unless you’re one of the handful of very lucky people, the salaries aren’t huge, there’s very little security. There’s quite a high level of unemployment but the standard of work is by and large huge and as I said, we are big, big, big contributors to the economy in various forms.
00:11:17.22 Nick Allott:
This is a bunch of people who are used to making their own way. But faced with this, where do you turn? And it’s the same question that we all asked. I mean, I was having my own crisis at that moment in terms of the fact that I was at peak Covid at the time we were shut down. So wasn’t necessarily able to contribute as much as I could to the argument. Our company is a very tight bunch of people. You know Cameron Mackintosh, he’s an extraordinary creative, energetic, dynamic, successful person who he’s a tough employer and needs to be, who has a group of people around him who’ve all worked together for a very long time. So we all know each other very well. There’s a sort of second, there’s an understanding, you know, an unspoken thing where if we’re going to put a show together we will, the cogs will mesh together. Something like this, you all look around and go, ‘What do we do? What the hell?’
00:12:20.16 Andy Coulson:
Sorry to jump in there but one of the misconceptions about the economics of theatre, I suspect, is that you know, particularly looking at someone like Cameron who’s had so much success, you know, some of the big mega-musicals that changed the face of theatre, perhaps we’ll talk about that in a little bit more detail later, because you were right there for all that. And some of these shows are among the biggest revenue drivers in entertainment, you know, generating billions. So when the, I suppose when the pandemic came, I suspect there were a number of people who were thinking, well why did the industry end up on its knees quite so quickly? And you understand the economics of it, just explain why that [was].
00:13:05.22 Nick Allott:
Okay, well, look, I mean to understand the ecology of the theatre, essentially we’re divided into two parts; the commercial and the subsidised. And the British were one of the pioneers of subsidising the theatre at a national level, national and local level. Look, for generations there’s always been patronage and sponsorship. You know, Mozart was looked after by various kings and artists have had supporters in the past. But it was after the Second World War when the infrastructure that supports us today was created by the government, who appreciated the importance of cultural enjoyment restoring the national mood, you know, the humour. And then from that came all of the social and economic and educational values.
00:13:53.12 Nick Allott:
So there’s the subsidised side and then there’s the commercial side. The subsidised side, if you like, they’re underpinned by a guarantee of revenue over a period of time provided by the government. In the commercial theatre’s case you eat what you shoot, basically. You’re out there, you come up with the idea of play, you put it all together, you raise money from outside investors or in some cases using your own and then you stand or fall by the success of that. There are a handful, Andy, I mean a really small handful of people who have made a spectacularly good living out of that and one is Cameron Mackintosh and the other is Andrew Lloyd Webber. There are other quite successful producers but by and large the producers that drive the London and UK theatre are a small bunch of very hard working, I won’t say hand to mouth, that’s rather insulting but put it this way, they’re not living on huge reserves.
00:14:50.15 Nick Allott:
So in the case of when the pandemic struck a lot of people said, ‘Well that’s okay, you’ve got Cameron and Andrew and they can bail themselves out and bail out others as well.’ But the fact is if you look at the number of people that we actually employ, I mean, we’re not talking tens or hundreds, we’re talking thousands. You know, thousands of people that we employed on that day, on the 23rd March, that needed to be taken care of. Cameron has always ploughed back his wealth, as it were, into the business. So into countless projects like buying theatres, restoring theatres, I’d like to think our theatres are really, really, really beautifully looked after. So there’s not buckets and buckets of cash sloshing around.
00:15:39.06 Nick Allott:
So, what we had to do was decide how to look after our people while the government was deciding how they would help us do that. And so the furlough scheme was introduced which was great. You know, it’s very important for a building-based organisation with permanent employees, that was a life-line for an awful lot of people and you know we took advantage of that for as long as it felt appropriate. We stopped after a while because, I mean, it’s another longer story but when there seemed to be no end to this it seemed irresponsible to continue to furlough people when there was no guarantee when we were going to come back. But that left the vast rump of our employees uncovered. And I mean, without boring you with technicalities, the big, big majority of the freelance artist community in our industry were not able to access any government help.
00:16:39.22 Andy Coulson:
What I think will surprise people is that that included talent, you know, and quite well-known talent, right? Because that’s the other, perhaps, element of the kind of economics of theatre is that a lot of the leading actors and actresses who are living pretty, hand to mouth is perhaps not the right phrase to use but actually it’s not a tremendous amount of security and therefore not a tremendous amount of savings, right?
00:17:10.16 Nick Allott:
You know, I mean, £50,000 to you sounds and is a lot of money for a lot of people. But the fact is if, you know, you’re at a certain stage at your life and you have big responsibilities, you’ve got a mortgage, you’ve got kids and all of that and perhaps not a lot of savings because you haven’t earned £50,000 a year for the whole of your life. That was a trigger, if you’d earned above that in three years, you couldn’t get it. More at risk were the people, the younger people below that. The people, if you like, who’d come out of training, who were new to the business, who perhaps had their first job in the West End earning quite a good salary for the first time in their life, who were then required to present three years’ worth of accounts to access the Self Employed Scheme and couldn’t.
00:17:55.00 Nick Allott:
You know, they may have only have been out of drama school for two years, so they went from earning a reasonable salary in the West End and having made commitments on the back of that because, you know, we book people a long time in advance, suddenly going to zero and then having to access universal credit, if they could get it. And for a lot of people that proved very, very difficult.
00:18:14.10 Andy Coulson:
Without naming any names, give us a bit of colour on that Nick.
00:18:18.14 Nick Allott:
Well, I mean, look I’ll give you an example, there were two, and I won’t name their names, there were two… an actor and actress who I know quite well, who worked their way up through the West End and they were both playing leads at the time that they shut down. And they had a young family and they sort of juggled that to make that work together. They, neither of them, because of the way their accounts were structured, were able to access the SEISS support which as you know was a percentage of your turnover from the last few years. So they had to go onto Universal Credit. And they had, because they had worked steadily, built up significant commitments. And so what they decided to do was share a job. They both became a Hermes van driver and they shared that responsibility.
00:19:12.12 Nick Allott:
And I remember talking to her and going, ‘How was it?’ And she said, ‘You know, we threw ourselves into it with total commitment and we did it and you know we did it to support the family’ she said, ‘but it was one day when I was making a drop and I knocked on the door and I hadn’t really looked at the name on the parcel and I looked at it and realised that it was someone that had, that was employing me that I was delivering a parcel to. And they just looked at me and I looked at them and we both just burst into tears.’ And you think, you know, it’s not humiliating because there’s nothing humiliating about driving a van but to come from that to that so quickly.
00:19:54.01 Nick Allott:
The simple answer to your question about what is the impact of… there are about 70,000 people, something like that I reckon, who have been able to get no help at all. And I would say somewhere, we think, we don’t know yet, time will tell, somewhere between 25,000 and 30,000 people have left the business. They’ve given up the idea of being able to make a living.
00:20:19.20 Andy Coulson:
And will not come back?
00:20:20.17 Nick Allott:
And will not come back. You know, they’ll retrain as nurses, they’ll retrain as drivers, they’ll, you know, they’ll get other skills if they’re particularly loquacious and bright then they might be a lawyer or something like that. There’s a generation, and primarily young people, there’s a generation, I think, that have been lost to this. And only time will tell whether we’re able to replace them.
00:20:43.21 Andy Coulson:
So you know, an extraordinary bit of crisis management for you and for others and I know that you absolutely put yourself at the coalface of that battle because you’ve summarised it very eloquently. But I know that it was a painful process from the political perspective.
00:21:00.18 Nick Allott:
Well from, I mean…
00:21:02.11 Andy Coulson:
You know, you got there.
00:21:04.14 Nick Allott:
Yeah, well, we’re not there yet. And the interesting thing is, and it’s probably at the heart of crisis managing something on this scale, is collaboration. And it’s the realisation when you all stop running around like chickens with your heads cut off in the first few weeks, as we did, everyone’s running around going, ‘oh my god, oh my god, oh my god, what are we going to do?’ That you sit down calmly and start to talk to each other. And obviously our line through to government is the DCMS. And let’s be frank about the DCMS, it has always been something of an underpowered department. Which if you think about its responsibilities is kind of crazy because they’re dealing with: culture, which is massive; sport, which is even more massive and then media, which is digital and I mean, it’s a huge level of responsibility.
00:21:51.12 Nick Allott:
And Oliver Dowden, who’s a generally good, I think, decent, hard-working guy, by his own admission was very, very inexperienced at the beginning of this. You know, I was able to get Cameron Mackintosh to sit down with him fairly early on in the discussion and Cameron sort of gave him a masterclass on why it was, if the government shut us down at three months, and then said ‘Fine, on Saturday night you can go’ we couldn’t start again on Monday. You know, we were faced with having to re-cast, re-rehearse but more importantly in the period of time, in the first sort of five to six months after shutdown we had to refund millions of pounds worth of tickets.
00:22:34.19 Nick Allott:
You know we tried to keep the audience’s confidence and enthusiasm and keep the bookings in the business as it were but ultimately when it became clear we weren’t able to give them a new start date you give the money back. Now, your advance bookings are your working capital if you like in a business like ours. So if you’ve given all that back you’ve got to start again from scratch and that’s what’s been happening now over this summer as we work towards recovery in the autumn. We’ve had to drive a lot of it. We’ve had to drive the science you know, we’re told ‘listen to the data, listen to the science’. A lot of the science that came back was just wrong.
00:23:09.11 Andy Coulson:
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
00:23:10.07 Nick Allott:
And we said, ‘Look, we’re going to, sorry, we’re going to take our own advice’ and a classic example was all through last summer we were told, ‘If you want to kill your granny take her to a brass band concert’ because brass and woodwind players are the most lethal people around because of what comes out of the end of their instruments. And we said, ‘No, no that’s wrong’ and they went, ‘No, I’m sorry it is…’ And it took one of the world’s great trombone players to demonstrate on a video that he cannot blow a ping-pong ball across a table with his trombone. Because it’s not wind that’s coming out of this thing, it’s vibration. And there’s this fabulous thing, I think it’s still there, of him blowing like that and…
00:23:55.24 Andy Coulson:
And that happened in a government meeting did it?
00:23:57.21 Nick Allott:
Yeah, yeah, it happened, we were able to see. And you know, not immediately because nothing happens immediately, but as a result of that, you know, woodwind and brass players are predominantly safe. Singers are considered…
00:24:11.03 Andy Coulson:
That’s a great bit of crisis management. I take your point about the steep learning curve in government and you’re right, I’m sure that there are a number of them now who could get a second career as a producer. We’re talking, of course, in the immediate aftermath of Dominic Cummings select committee evidence. And there’s definitely clear that they can do a pantomime. Right, Nick, I know that aside from the professional crisis management that you’ve described for us there, I know that it’s also been a time of crisis for you, a wretched series of personal events during, I know, actually a very short period of time involving family and friends and others. And you touched on, also, yourself, you know you came down with a very serious dose of Covid very early on.
00:24:57.16 Andy Coulson:
So could you just tell us a little bit about that chain of event and how you got through it.
00:25:03.23 Nick Allott:
Yeah, just before I do, you know when you very kindly asked me to do this I obviously started to think about it and you start to think about the different crises. And everyone has their own crisis and for some people it is a crisis and for other people you go, ‘come on, pull yourself together’. One of my favourite Alan Ayckbourn lines comes from an old one of his plays where, I think it was Richard Briars, calls out from the bathroom, ‘Darling, crisis, crisis, we’re out of bathroom stationery.’ Which, you know, for him at that moment was max crisis whereas at the other end of the scale…
00:25:44.16 Andy Coulson:
Crisis is not a competition Nick, that’s the golden rule on this podcast.
00:25:48.20 Nick Allott:
Yeah, and you’ll have your way of dealing with that and then you go to the other end of the scale and you know, I remember sitting in my office with two American friends on 9/11 watching them watch the towers come down knowing they had three friends in that building at that moment. And that was a crisis at untold level. I mean, look, going back to me, I think over a long period of time, yeah, I’ve had a lot of things happen in my life. Some of which I think I’ve managed better than others but I do think probably the result of that is that I am naturally a pretty calm person and my broad, general maxim is stay calm, you know that old cliché.
00:26:38.15 Nick Allott:
But look, there are degrees. You know, you need to respond to crises in different ways. I mean, look, going back to what happened to me on March 16th, we were shut down, I was, as I said to you at peak Covid, I didn’t know enough about it to be scared, I just knew I was really sick. I didn’t know anyone else who had it. I had a raging temperature; I was lying in bed shivering in a darkened room. And four days later my mother died. She was quite old and you know, I loved her to bits and we were very, very close, you know had been for years because my father died when I was very young which is, you know, another story we might touch on.
00:27:20.13 Nick Allott:
So I’m there, she died, which is something I didn’t want to happen, on her own, a hundred miles from where I was because I’d fled down to where I am now to stay away from…
00:27:31.12 Andy Coulson:
In a care home or…?
00:27:32.21 Nick Allott:
Yeah, she was in a care home. She lived in her own house for fifty years in Surrey and then I had brought her up to London to be near me for what I perceived to be her last months, year, whatever it was. Anyway, she was there on her own, she died on her own. I was sort of semi-delirious and the world was shutting down around us as we knew. I took a very foolish decision, in hindsight, to go to London to try and register her death because there was nobody else I felt that was able to do it. And you know, I felt well enough, if you like, to get behind a car wheel albeit not feeling a hundred percent. And again, the serious nature of one’s illness wasn’t really apparent at that point, we didn’t know about it. And I was going up and I was going to multi-task and collect my son from… He was coming back early from Australia, he’d got, literally, the last flight out of Sydney and I was going to meet him. And I was half way up the motorway, sort of a hundred miles from London, and I lost my sight.
00:28:42.11 Andy Coulson:
00:28:43.19 Nick Allott:
Well, not a black screen descended but the ability to focus, the ability to see straight lines went completely. And I thought, oh my god. The really good thing was because we were early days of not quite shut down… well it was, it was sort of that… it was the morning of the 23rd and we were shut down that evening. But already people were disappearing so there wasn’t a lot of traffic on the road. I discovered, I had no one else to call, I didn’t want to call the police. So I discovered if I half closed one eye and if I closed on eye and put my head on one side and looked up I could see enough to get through. And I was near Heathrow, I managed to negotiate into Heathrow, which was deserted. Work your way through those very sort of narrow, concrete barriers and collect my son, who can’t drive unfortunately, and we went into London and I sort of collapsed in a heap.
00:29:43.05 Nick Allott:
My instinct was, as always, as with hindsight, stupidly to push on, carry on, do it yourself, do it yourself, you know, don’t seek help. And it was only when another son of mine, my second son whose a documentary maker, rang me and said, ‘What the F are you doing?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’ve got to go and register mum’s death and collect Finn…’ he said, ‘Dad, you have no idea how serious this illness is.’ And he had just finished making a documentary about Covid, early stage documentary about Covid. And he, in fact, got it himself. He’d been in a room all day with someone sneezing through ultra-violet light. But he was the one that first revealed by interviewing one of those extraordinary doctors about what the R number means and the maths of the R number and how infectious it was. And I suddenly realised, yeah, okay, you’re being an idiot. That was for me, the first time that I’ve actually reigned back on my own style of crisis management which is okay, let other people help you.
00:30:42.12 Andy Coulson:
But Nick, I know that there’d been a number of other, you know, crisis in your life in the period leading up to Covid. Do you think that that was part of what was causing you to behave in the way that you did? I mean, when you now reflect back on the last year, eighteen months of it, do you see it as a sort of series of dominoes that have kind of fallen down, if you like?
00:31:11.20 Nick Allott:
Yes, I think that’s a very fair way of putting it. I mean, you know, something happens, something bad happens in your life, you deal with it. Something bad and then something different happens in your life and you deal with it. And after a while you begin to think there’s a pattern emerging here and am I dealing with it in the right way? And in my case the collective disasters, if you like, fell into two categories. One was death and one was the aftermath’s prediction. And for one reasons or another… I mean, okay, let’s go way, way back very quickly to the beginning of my…
00:31:47.09 Nick Allott:
My father was an army officer, we were a very close family, we travelled all over the world. He was killed very unexpectedly, well obviously unexpectedly in a helicopter crash as a passenger when I was fifteen. And it just knocked us all for six. But this is in the late 1960s where still the, not stiff upper lip, but British backbone, you don’t make a big fuss. And I was lucky enough to have an extraordinary resilient, amazing woman as a mother but she found it very difficult to demonstrate emotion. She told me years later that she used to cry herself to sleep at night but she didn’t ever want us as children to see that.
00:32:38.20 Andy Coulson:
Yes, yes, you have two sisters, yes?
00:32:41.12 Nick Allott:
Yeah, well I had, I mean, then I had two sisters, I was the oldest and I was fifteen and Serena was twelve and Lulu was nine. So we were there, you know, making the best of it and dealing with Dad’s death. And the Army, though it’s a wonderful family, you know, it’s a machine, it’s got to get on. So we were in the commanding officer’s house which was very big and very grand and we had various helpers and batmen and house staff and stuff. And all that went and they said, ‘I’m really sorry but you’ve…’
00:33:12.20 Andy Coulson:
It’s time to move?
00:33:13.16 Nick Allott:
‘…We’ve got to move you on.’ And you know, we’d never owned a house, you know, you don’t in the Army. You know, where do you go? It’s not like an MP where you’ve got a constituency home and your London base. So my mother had to deal with that.
00:33:29.24 Andy Coulson:
And you’re aged fifteen?
00:33:32.03 Nick Allott:
I’m aged fifteen and…
00:33:34.13 Andy Coulson:
And you are now man of the house.
00:33:36.22 Nick Allott:
You talk about me being man of the house, the fullest, bizarre thought that flashed through my head was, do you know, I know Dad used to put the dustbins out on a Sunday night and I don’t know where he puts them. And now that’s my job, there was this sort of panic, this sort of crunching realisation that my father had actually been dead for, at that point, nine hours and I had not felt anything. You know you think when you lose someone that you’d go, where’s the thunderbolt or the twitch. But nothing. And that was my first experience of death of any sort really. Most of my grandparents had died before I was born and I had one grandmother I was very close to.
00:34:19.14 Nick Allott:
But then as a result, probably, of us making the best of things and dealing with business and getting with it, no one had any concept of PTSD or aftershock or stuff like that. My sisters both became very ill and they became ill with something that everyone knows everything about now anorexia nervosa. But in the sixties no one had any idea what it was.
00:34:41.10 Andy Coulson:
00:34:41.17 Nick Allott:
It was known as the eating disease. And watching your sisters basically shrivel up before your eyes with this extraordinary steely determination to destroy themselves, you know, it’s a terrifying illness. And accelerated by their wish to accelerate the process. So my younger sister, nine or ten, would sometimes come down in the morning and lift up the hot plate of the Aga and put her face on the hot plate. Or Mum had a little swimming pool in the garden of the house we did end up in and I watched her break the ice in the middle of winter and climb into the pool. Look, it was two and a half years of family nightmare.
00:35:28.14 Andy Coulson:
And your mother dealing with the worst type of grief already then…
00:35:33.18 Nick Allott:
Yeah, she’d lost her husband and look, and again, Andy, these were the days before… I’m just now, after her death, researching all that period around then and I won’t say I’m doing battle because they’re being very helpful, but they’ve been rather bureaucratic trying to get hold of the accident report around my father’s death. And I’m on Layer Five in the armed forces at the moment so I am have to yet call on any of our friends but I might. Because I just, I’m cur-, I want to know what happened. And I was curious because I found a piece of paper in my mother’s things which was essentially an opinion by a barrister which said that probably we had a very strong case as a family to make a claim against the Army. Not for negligence but, you know, in the way that…
00:36:16.15 Andy Coulson:
Some kind of mechanical failure.
00:36:18.00 Nick Allott:
Yeah, absolutely. You know the accident happened because the pilot of one helicopter didn’t look and flew straight into the helicopter that my father was in. I mean, he literally took off without looking. Anyway, the barrister said, look there is a strong case to make but the truth is if you make this case against the Army they’ve made it clear that you will no longer be eligible for a pension. And my mother opted for the security of the Widow’s Pension at that point which was the princely sum of £450 a year.
00:36:48.00 Andy Coulson:
Interesting though, Nick, that you’ve, I mean, I assume prompted by your Mum dying very sadly, but interesting that you’ve decided to kind of bury yourself in the detail of that now.
00:36:58.02 Nick Allott:
Well I’ll tell you what, and I’m only just getting to… I could talk much longer about this but I won’t but I won’t because it’s not what we’re really talking about. I discovered after my aunt died and after my mother died that no one in my family has ever thrown away a piece of correspondence. So I assembled with the help of a friend a file that takes my father from 1930 something, at prep school when he can barely write through his school holidays, through his ambitions to follow his father into the Army. Struggling slightly academically, coming out of school, going into the Army, going to Italy at the end of the war. Being in Palestine at the time of the massive Israeli immigration, his views on the Palestine situation then, which were extraordinarily prescient in terms of where we are now. Right through to his, you know, when we lived in Hong Kong, when we lived in Germany, when we lived in Australia and the last letter is dated the day before he died. So I’ve got this extraordinary tapestry, if you like, of his life which I’m trying to fill in the gaps because, you know, when your father dies when you’re fifteen you don’t know them very well.
00:38:05.11 Andy Coulson:
So how helpful to you though, Nick, in terms of your state of mind, your management of a crisis that happened when you were fifteen but you’re now immersing yourself in again, how helpful is that kind of process to you? From a practical point of view would you, do you find that as you are now putting that kind of jigsaw together in the way that you are, is a useful, practical, useful thing in terms of your state of mind?
00:38:37.14 Nick Allott:
Totally and I’ll tell you why; I think that when somebody dies that’s close to you your immediate reaction is to help those around them. You know, so I lost, I mean, I lost my middle sister, Serena, she died very sadly of a heart attack I think over time she’d damaged herself with anorexia. She lived a wonderfully active and productive and fruitful life as a journalist and had two lovely boys and swam every day in the Isle of Wight but she dropped dead of a heart attack. And one’s instinct is to wrap up my nephews and her husband, who was a delightful guy, and her massive group of friends, all of whom then turned to me. And you know, you find you’re managing them and managing their emotions and probably not spending much time reflecting as you should.
00:39:32.18 Nick Allott:
And my younger sister unfortunately never really recovered from anorexia and it turned to bulimia, to alcoholism and then she stopped drinking and then in the way of these things, her anorexia came back and she went into a coma. She’s now in a home from where she’ll never really recover. She was not someone that I could share this with because she wasn’t really able to understand. And Serena my sister who died, was the only one who could really connect with her and she would sit by her bed day after day after day singing songs and telling sort of family stories. So that line had gone and I thought well how do I…?
00:40:10.05 Nick Allott:
So you’re thinking this, you’re thinking that about how do you deal with that. Then you talk about the run up as it were to where we are today and then I lost a very, very, very good friend. Someone who I think you know called Adrian Gill, AA Gill, who was the Sunday Times journalist. You know I never had a brother but he felt like my spiritual brother and we spoke almost every single day. And he got cancer and you know, very publicly he died very, very quickly. And again, he had young children and his wife, Nicola, is a dear, dear friend. And we all sort of rallied round to look after her and then what could we do to help with the twins? And that sort of thing. And again, it’s the situation where okay, you’re looking after them, you’re looking after that and what you’re not doing is paying attention to your own needs. And again, that’s probably dates back to the way I was brought up and the lessons I probably should have learned.
00:41:03.10 Andy Coulson:
00:41:03.24 Nick Allott:
But if I stop to think about it my sister, the one that died of a heart attack who was a very wise soul. She wrote, she had two heart attacks, and she wrote about the first one very movingly, comprehensively, in the Telegraph Magazine a few months later. And she used a line, and I never know whether it was hers but I’ve heard it since subsequently, which is she said, ‘there was a reason in an aeroplane that you’re told to fit your own oxygen mask before helping others’ and I have thought about that a lot. And I think in a lot of cases we would all do better to fit our own oxygen masks before helping others. Because if, let’s face it, if I’m running around helping you in a crisis and there’s no oxygen, I’m pretty soon going to be fairly useless.
00:41:51.08 Andy Coulson:
00:41:52.17 Nick Allott:
It’s like, you know, I’ve nearly drowned twice and I’ve rescued someone from drowning once. And as I rescued… you know, I was very small the twice when I drowned when we were living in Hong Kong. And I remember every second of the experience, you know, being rescued. And I was able to think about that when I then…
00:42:15.00 Andy Coulson:
What had happened? Had you…
00:42:18.03 Nick Allott:
Well I was… I was a kid, we were in Hong Kong, we sort of lived on the beach and I saw a friend of my mother’s who I was very fond of, standing talking to another friend of hers, probably be about ten, twelve feet from the beach. So I ran to them and what I didn’t realise was that the sand, and this is all audible so you’ll just have to let me describe, but the sand dipped and then came up again. And she was standing on the sandbar, if you like, about twelve, fifteen feet away. I went into the dip and straight underwater. And, you know, the way that drowning works is that the most noise and thrashing you do, it happens when you’re underwater. And you sort of come up and you gasp for air and before you can make any noise you’re going down again. So I was thrashing and I was literally four feet from her, she had her back to me and she was chatting to her friend. And you know her best friend, my mother’s son was drowning and she had no idea at all. And then I remember hearing this clang, clang, clang, clang bell and the Chinese life saver had seen me and sprinted down and dragged me and the first thing he said was, he put his arms around me and said, ‘Stay still’.
00:43:34.03 Nick Allott:
And the thing about drowning is, you know, you learn is that it needs to work in two ways. When you’re drowning you make as much noise as you possibly can and when you’re being rescued you stay as still as you possibly can. And sadly, if it works the other way round you ‘aint gonna survive. You know, a lot of people don’t do that. Then many, many years later… and the same thing happened another time in a river, not a beach. But I was swimming off the beach in Bondi in Australia years and years later and I heard someone say, ‘Excuse me’ and I looked around and I couldn’t see anything. And I was swimming quite a long way out and the currents there are very strong. And I heard again, ‘Excuse me’ and literally I thought, god, this is weird, I’m hearing voices. And the third time ‘Excuse me’ and I just saw the top of a blond head and she said, ‘I’m drowning…’ and went down. This incredibly polite Australian girl. And I swam over and grabbed her and that’s when she started to thrash around, you know, having been a polite, quiet thing. And I said, ‘stay calm, stay calm, please, please, please stay calm’ and she managed to and I managed to drag her out. And look…
00:44:46.23 Andy Coulson:
So the stay calm piece of those stories is a fundamental part of you, isn’t it?
00:44:53.07 Nick Allott:
Yeah, I think the authority to do that, I mean, I love you know, audiences and the way they behave. And I particularly love the sort of British phlegm of British audiences. You know, we had a… on the first night of Cats we had a bomb scare, now a famous story. I was theatre manager, I was very wet behind the ears, my first job in London and this extraordinary show was happening. And I got a call halfway through the curtain call and the stage door keeper said, ‘Mr Allott, we’ve had a call in an Irish accent and we’re told there’s a bomb in the building.’ And this was sort of not quite peak IRA but at the time of the height of car bombing and the bandstand. So you know, it was very much in one’s probably mind. So I thought how the hell do I get this, by now hysterical audience, because they were cheering and whistling and you know… how do I get them out? And I thought, okay, well you never say the word bomb in a theatre, nor do you ever say the word fire.
00:45:52.18 Nick Allott:
Normally I would just step on stage and stop the show and ask everyone to leave very quietly but there’s a curtain call going on and they’re screaming and they’re cheering. So I grabbed Brian Blessed who was playing the lead, you know the wonderful Mr Blessed, and said, ’Brian, we need to evacuate the theatre, we’ve had a bomb threat. You can’t say that word so will you please just quietly go on stage and you are playing Old Deuteronomy with great authority to pat, you know, you can lead.’ And he said, ‘Certainly, certainly!’ And he went on stage and he threw his arms up in the air and of course the audience thought he was milking the applause so they allowed that. And then he did it again and they cheered even louder. And eventually he realised that he was getting nowhere. So he whipped off his wig and he said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen you have to go, there’s a bomb!’ And I thought, oh my god, that’s so not what we need.
00:46:40.07 Nick Allott:
But, do you know, and as I say, this is peak IRA time, the audience left in such an orderly way, trying to buy programmes and ice creams on their way out. And that’s a very British thing. And over the years I’ve realised that audiences by and large are pretty resilient. The interesting thing was post-IRA when we moved in to the Gulf Wars and you know, post 9/11 terrorism attacks and where terrorism is of a different sort, then it changed completely. I mean, post the beginning of the Gulf War for a week two theatres a night were targeted by hoaxers doing bomb threats. And of course you have to take them seriously and you have to evacuate. And it was very, very, very hard to get audiences back in.
00:47:34.12 Andy Coulson:
Yeah, and actually the level of anxiety changed.
00:47:36.21 Nick Allott:
One thing I learned from that very quickly was, when you’re evacuating a theatre and you are then having to put it back together again with the bomb squad and the police, at the end of it they will say, ‘Well, Mr Allott, we’ve done a search and we can’t see anything here.’ At which point I would go, ‘Well, are we good to go then?’ And they’d go, ‘That’s your decision.’ And you go, right, okay, you know, we won’t take responsibility for that. So that, if you like, that, in my early twenties when I was running that, that was my first bit of crisis management where I thought, okay, I am taking the full responsibility for bringing 1,100, 1,500 people back into situation which as far as we can see is safe, but we don’t really know.
00:48:22.02 Andy Coulson:
Let’s just talk a little bit about that because I want to ask you more about crisis and theatre but we’ve skimmed over the kind of journey into theatre for you, I’m going to summarise it if I can, hopefully accurately very quickly. You were in face, sort of set to join the Army, to follow your father into the Army. And indeed I think you got accepted, you were set to get a commission but for the intervention of one of your father’s former colleagues who asked the question, one of those great sliding door moments that we often talk about on this podcast, but for that intervention, when someone said, ‘Are you absolutely sure, Nick, you want to do this?’ And you knew in your heart that you didn’t because you knew in your heart that you wanted to be in or work in the theatre.
00:49:12.00 Nick Allott:
You’re accurate, I did, I did know in my heart, I didn’t know in my head. That was the big different. And it was that moment of his wisdom, thank god, saying to me, ‘Do you really want to do this?’ And I thought and I thought, and I said, ‘Do know, sir, I don’t think I really do.’ And he said straightaway, ‘I could tell.’ And he said, ‘And let me tell you…’ he said, ‘…if I may give you some advice, I knew your father quite well, he was a very, very, very good officer and I’m sure you’d make a good officer too but he never would have wanted you to have done this unless your heart was really in it.’ And it was, if you like, that was an extraordinary get out of jail free card. And the only other hurdle I could see was that my mother, who had encouraged me like mad and she lost my father and my sisters were very ill and I thought, god, can she cope with another bit of disappointment. And I went back and told her and she just put her arms around me and said, ’Thank god.’
00:50:10.11 Andy Coulson:
Can we talk about Miss Saigon which I think is a really interesting study in crisis in your world? Jonathan Pryce cast as the Engineer, an Asian character here, a huge hit. You’re ready to take it to Broadway, I think the deal is done, it’s an enormous, kind of, financial move for the business. And then you’re blocked, I think, by American Equity because they take, they object to Jonathan Pryce and the casting as the Engineer in America.
00:50:44.00 Nick Allott:
00:50:45.15 Andy Coulson:
So from this distance and given where we are now as well, sort of culturally, how do you reflect on it. Give us a bit of detail about how much of a crisis that was. Because it exploded didn’t it, first and foremost. And how do you sort of look back on it now, Nick?
00:51:00.22 Nick Allott:
I look back on it now with a degree of embarrassment but also, you know, with the benefit of hindsight it taught us a really valuable lesson and a lesson that has been adopted by a lot of other people and I’m not being sanctimonious, we didn’t show the way as it were, we were taught the way. The truth was the character was a Eurasian as opposed to Asian and we opted to go for the Eur rather than the Asian side of casting because Jonathan was such an extraordinary actor. And he’d never done a musical before, he was this powerful classical actor and he was, when his eye makeup was put on, probably the most convincing representation of the character you could hope for. And mistake number one was putting the eye makeup on. You know, it was, if you like, a late eighties equivalent of black face which you’d never do now. You know, which was a standard part of English entertainment.
00:51:52.13 Nick Allott:
We created prosthetic eyes for him and it was only some… a member of the Asian cast, actually, I think, saying… because we had, you know, a lot of genuinely Asian actors playing the Vietnamese roles in the show, called from all over the world, ‘Don’t you think it’s a bit weird putting eye makeup on like him?’ And we thought, oh my god. And then someone wrote about it and then Jonathan said, ‘I’m taking this off.’ And he played the role and Cameron said, ‘We’re going to Broadway, it was a huge hit in London, we’re going to Broadway and we’re going to take Jonathan Pryce and Lea Salonga who was the brilliant Asian girlfriend. And Equity said, ‘No’. And Jonathan at this point was a big star. He’d won prizes and stuff like that. They said, ‘No, it’s an Asian character, it needs to be played by an Asian actor.’
00:52:39.07 Nick Allott:
And at that point, you know, the awareness, if you like, in America of the lack of diversity within our industry was far higher than it was in the UK. So to us it was like, what are you talking about? Come on. An actor’s an actor. And you hide behind that thing, you know, it should be the best person for the role. You know, don’t try and correct something that doesn’t need correcting. And so for basically the show was announced, we’d I think taken thirty-five million dollars’ worth of bookings which at that time was massive and a record. And they said, ‘No, it’s not going to happen.’ At which point having negotiated and negotiated and negotiated and night after night after night I would sit there with Cameron and with other people and with the head of British Equity and with the head of American Equity trying to work a way round this and the answer still came back no. So Cameron said, ‘I’m going to cancel the show, I just, I’m not prepared to go ahead and deliver this massive production unless I can cast it the way that I want to.’
00:53:39.19 Nick Allott:
And the result was, I mean, it sounded like bullying. I mean we put a whole ad in the New York Times, a whole page saying please apply for refunds at this number. Not one single person did by the way, no one asked for a refund. American Equity were forced to back down. They immediately responded by saying well Lea Salonga, this extraordinary Filipino girl who was playing the Asian lead, she can’t come in because she’s totally unknown and therefore you… And again, we said we’re not going to do this but this time we went for legal arbitration because there was precedent. And anyway a long story short, both parts were cast. But the first night was genuinely scary. There were police around the theatre and for several blocks there were protestors. And you know, the first night audience worked their way through that. And it really, really made us all think. And look, the result is that role has never been played by a European since. We’ve always veered towards the Asian and of course…
00:54:42.19 Andy Coulson:
Did it have a… do you now mark it as a moment that caused a broader change in your world?
00:54:50.24 Nick Allott:
Well first of all it made us conscious to the fact you do not… you don’t try and change someone’s natural ethnicity to play a role. There are people out there who can play the role. The second thing it did was it opened our eyes to the possibilities of far broader casting. You know it used to be called colour blind casting. We now call it casting. You know casting is casting. And there was a famous example where there was a black actor cast in a role in a very, very famous Broadway musical revival that we produced with the National Theatre and the estate that control the rights didn’t realise. And when they found out they said, ‘Well, sorry this is just not on and you can’t, you will not be able to transfer that role, transfer the show into the West End with that actor playing that role.’ I said, ‘Just wait, wait till you see it.’ Because they were coming from America. They came to America, I took them out to dinner afterwards and they said, ‘Do you know you just taught us this extraordinary lesson, I mean, that actor is brilliant.’
00:55:58.18 Nick Allott:
And you know, these were slow baby steps, Andy, towards something that we completely accept. You know, it’s not right yet and the Black Lives Matter movement that started in the mid-eighties, sorry middle of last year, I mean, didn’t start but the catalyst, the fire was lit, if you like, has made us all reconsider about the way we work, all think about it. All really, really pay attention.
00:56:24.11 Andy Coulson:
And it goes way beyond casting doesn’t it? There was a story a few days ago about the Globe Theatre’s project to de-racialise Shakespeare. That too much of his work is too white. You know, we’re seeing this debate in so many other aspects of our culture, statues, museums…
00:56:45.19 Nick Allott:
I mean, if you…
00:56:45.23 Andy Coulson:
The National Trust row that’s going on now. How does the world of theatre, sort of, in your view, deal with its cultural past?
00:56:55.01 Nick Allott:
Well look, we’ve made mistakes in the past and we have cast with blinkers on and many, many people I know and love have made stands which ten, twenty years ago that they probably wouldn’t have begun to think about making now. We’ve all learned to think in a different way. And we’ve been helped by brilliant, brilliant people like Kwame Kwei-Armah who runs the Young Vic, who’s probably the most articulate person on this subject I’ve ever heard speak. You know, he doesn’t bang you over the head with it, he gently gets inside your head and makes you understand. And that’s what we need to do. So I think we’ve taken huge steps as far as the casting is concerned. I think you know, there are probably more opportunities for people of different ethnic backgrounds to play roles that previously they wouldn’t have been able to at any time before.
00:57:45.20 Nick Allott:
Where we fall desperately short is in managerial roles and producorial roles, backstage roles and so on and so forth and there is a real concentrated energy now within our industry to put that right. You know new internship programmes, new training programmes and new organisations set up specifically to target various groups. To try and get balance. You know, it’s about creating balance. And Kwame says that, he says people say well do you think you should have quotas? And he goes, ‘ Well, do you know what? For a while if it helps get the balance right, yeah, quotas are good.’ And all the sort of pejorative stuff that we’ve thought around that. I mean what’s more dangerous is the current sort of backlash against that, the famous war on woke.
00:58:39.24 Nick Allott:
You know my friend Charles Dunstan who has just stepped down as Chair of the royal maritime museum in Greenwich over a row that a trustee of colour that he really liked and admired was refused a second term by the DCMS on the grounds of their political leanings not to do their ability as a trustee. And that I think if you start to interfere at that level you’re going to have a problem. But I do think there’s enough ground swell of support, there’s enough understanding and energy within our industry as well as everybody else’s, to get that balance right again.
00:59:21.14 Andy Coulson:
We’ve covered a real range, we could talk for so much longer, Nick, and maybe we’ll get you back if you’re kind enough because I think there’s more to discuss but what I’d like to try and do is to sort of distil all this down into the sort of Nick Allott recipe for a disaster, if you like. Your approach to crisis from all these angles, you’ve talked about your stoicism, you’ve talked about where that’s kind of come from but what’s the sort of dialogue in your head in a moment of crisis? What’s the sort of practical approach that you tend to take?
01:00:00.19 Nick Allott:
It’s probably very different now to if you’d asked me this question eighteen months ago when I was in a particular position, a position of authority which made me feel that I had to have the right answers, it had to be down to me. You know, if X happened, or Y happened, I was the one that had to sort it out. What this pandemic has taught me is you know, that old phrase many hands make light work, you know, collaboration in something in the scale of this is the key to getting things right. On an individual level you know you have to deal with a personal crisis in the way that works for you. And I think the mistakes I’ve made in the past, personally, is I’ve charged on and tried to live my life normally whilst processing whatever was happening, the death of my sister, the death of Adrian, the death of my mother, all of those disasters if you like, while trying to lead a normal life and carrying on being responsible for everyone else. I wasn’t, if you like, fitting my own oxygen mask.
01:01:11.06 Nick Allott:
And I think the first thing is, look, of course people look to figures of authority and if you’re able to convey the feeling of authority then you’re some way towards helping people to deal with it. Even if you don’t necessarily feel it. But don’t bullshit. I remember my children saying to me, ‘God, dad, every single time we asked you a question when we were little you had an answer for it. And it was only years later that I realised half the time you were talking bullshit.’ And I went, ‘Do you know what, I just felt I had to give you an answer even if I didn’t know the right one.’
01:01:45.16 Andy Coulson:
That is a father’s role though Nick, that is a father’s role.
01:01:47.19 Nick Allott:
It is, isn’t it? You’ve got to say. So I wouldn’t make that mistake again. I think, look, take time for yourself if it’s available because I think it will make you better at dealing with it. You know, really, really reflect and I’m actually now, through unravelling the story of my family’s past that wasn’t, you know, wasn’t shuttered to me we just didn’t talk about it, finding out a lot more about my parents. And in doing so you find out a lot more about yourself I think.
01:02:17.14 Andy Coulson:
Are you a believer in therapy?
01:02:20.07 Nick Allott:
Well I wasn’t no, no that’s not true. I was but not for me. I’ve seen, through my association with addiction, members of family, close members of my family, very dear friends. You know through my sisters from the sixties, I have seen how important therapy is. You know a very, very good friend of mine is an amazing person called Julia Samuel who runs the childhood…
01:02:43.01 Andy Coulson:
Yes, an incredible lady.
01:02:44.13 Nick Allott:
She’s incredible. And talking to her, I hadn’t been talking to her about me, but just talking to her about the ideas and reading her books and stuff and it was actually at the beginning of this year when effectively I’d gone into a different position consulting the company and the industry generally but not at the coalface in the same way…
01:03:05.12 Andy Coulson:
You’re being very modest Nick; you’d been elevated to Vice Chairman of Cameron Mackintosh.
01:03:11.12 Nick Allott:
You’re very kind but it’s a different sort of responsibility and it takes some getting used to. That, losing my mother, hindsight losing my sisters and friends and since then I’ve lost another very, very dear friend who I worked in the business with, who same age as me, dropped dead of a heart attack a few months ago. And you take, I now take the time to stop and think about that. Therapy, I’ve just started doing it and it’s amazing. You sound like a kid but it’s true, I talk to an extraordinary person once a week and she listens, which I don’t do enough of and she’s taught me to listen more. And she’s been able to go, ‘Well why do you think you think that?’ And I go ‘She said…’ and ‘No, go, go back to what you said before’ and she’s joining up the dots. And if you like I hope that by the time we come out of this, and pray god we will in the next couple of months, sort of partially there. And I’ve had eighteen months to reflect on this and grief and all that, that I will be a better balanced person and better able to do what I’m supposed to be doing which is giving advice to lots and lots of people based on my own experience.
01:04:24.18 Nick Allott:
And you do, you know, I’ve been in this business for forty-odd years and you know my address book is considerable and it’s not often that someone can say can you help me with meeting someone or doing something that I’m not able to do it. And it’s quite nice being able to be able join up those dots for other people. But going back to, I think calmness is… I mean there are times when, of course, you can’t be and you’ve got to go, like do it, shout loudly. But by and large most problems can be resolved by just calm strength but just stop for a second and think about it. You know I’ve listened to a lot of your very, very wise and senior politicians and their analytical brain is a really big asset when it comes to crisis management.
01:05:18.05 Andy Coulson:
Nick, just thanks so much for being so generous with your time today but generous with your story also. And some of the stuff you haven’t talked about before and we really appreciate it because I think the value of it is enormous. And as I say, there’s an awful lot more that we can talk about so I might try and persuade you to come back for part two.
01:05:41.24 Nick Allott:
Well, I mean, there are lots and lots… Theatre is a very dangerous place to work, I know that sounds ridiculous. But you’ve got a lot of people running around in the dark in a black box, working to a very tight deadline and accidents will happen. And actually there are lots and lots of stories of incidents and accidents within our business and how you deal with that individually. Because you know, managing human drama is really what is at the heart of everything. You know, at the end of the day theatre is two things, it’s copyrights and people. Copyrights look after themselves and it’s people that you need to manage.
01:06:20.23 Andy Coulson:
Let’s get you back then if you’re happy to. In the meantime I’d like to ask you for your crisis cures. So these are three things, can’t be another human being, three things that you kind of rely on, lean on, use in the difficult moments. But be as specific as you can.
01:06:41.18 Nick Allott:
Okay, I thought about this long and hard and people, of course, people are the heart of what I am and what I do so leaving them out is a difficult one. But then I drilled it down and I thought, as you say, three things that have sustained me over a long period of time, not just now. And the first is having a morning routine and sticking to it. And my morning is the same every day. My dog wakes me up at seven o’clock. She comes and sits by the bed, makes a little whimper, I ruffle her ears, we get up, we both go outside. I make her breakfast, I make myself tea, back to bed for half an hour with an iPad and reading all the papers. Then I get up and I do some vigorous exercise if I can force myself to.
01:07:20.09 Andy Coulson:
On that splendid peloton bike that we can see in the background.
01:07:22.24 Nick Allott:
Yeah, it’s splendid, what a wonderful device that is. And you know, I’m prone to all sorts of joint damage and stuff like that so I need to work on that. But the finish of the arc which is really, really important is you finish it with a really cold shower. And if you can get your head and body round that, no matter how bad you feel when you wake up and quite often the night times are bad times for you, no matter how bad you feel you feel set up for the day. Really do. And as cold as you can take it for as long as you can take it. That’s number one.
01:07:54.14 Nick Allott:
Number two is something I love doing and that’s cooking. And I really, really enjoy it. I had to learn to cook because both the key partners in my life, neither of them really cook. My kids all cook and it’s cheating slightly, I’ll cook on my own if I have to but I love it when they all come and collaborate, we all make something together.
01:08:13.14 Andy Coulson:
01:08:13.22 Nick Allott:
Half of them are vegetarian, half are meat eaters so we create a big meal.
01:08:20.02 Andy Coulson:
Number one dish?
01:08:22.04 Nick Allott:
Number one dish, well I suppose I would have said the traditional roast lunch but the fact is without the meat eaters now, veg on their own is a bit boring so we tend to cook Asian now. So very elaborate curries, I love doing that, all the sort of blended spices and things like that, all that kind of stuff. And the third thing is probably the most important part of my life and it has underpinned my whole life and that’s music. And I know a lot of people will say that. But for me the best experience, I really, really miss crowds, Andy. And I love, I’m a crowd nut, I love it. I live twenty minutes away from Glastonbury so the sad old fool that I am, I go every single year and have done for twenty years. I’ve seen all the great rock bands ten, twenty times. Football, I love football, going in crowds. But at the heart of it live music is really what sustains me and absent that, if I’m feeling depressed or worried I will go and listen to something but usually a live recording.
01:09:23.01 Andy Coulson:
Let’s not get all Desert Island Discs but I’m going to give you one piece of music.
01:09:33.00 Nick Allott:
Okay if I had to commit myself to one the first band I ever fell in love with is Pink Floyd. The band I will probably go to my grave with is Pink Floyd. And if you’re around long enough you meet your heroes. Nick Mason their drummer is a very good friend of mine and he’s given me all sorts of lovely bits and pieces over the years. There’s a song called Comfortably Numb which is sort of ironic given what we’re talking about but the reason I love it is for great, unfulfilled air guitar players like myself it’s probably got the best guitar solo ever done and it’s exquisite. And I’ve seen Pink Floyd and David Gilmour play it about twenty times and it never fails to thrill. And whether you watch a YouTube clip or listen to it on headphones or… it’s an incredibly thrilling, restorative, healing piece of music. Music tends to heal me as well as excite me and thrill me. And I cannot wait to get back into a room full of people, a field full of people all jumping up and down like loons and listening to a great band.
01:10:34.24 Andy Coulson:
I’m going to break the rules slightly and give you a fourth but I’m going to be quite prescriptive about it. So you’re allowed to watch one piece of theatre from any moment in time during your career, one performance that you get to watch again, what would it be?
01:10:55.05 Nick Allott:
I’m going to cheat and do a little prologue, the piece of theatre that affected me and really wanted… it got me into this business was watching Laurence Olivier on stage, I was lucky enough to do that, see the Long Day’s Journey into Night but the one piece of theatre that I could watch over and over and over again, that endlessly sustains, as much for the audience’s reaction as my own, is the end of the first act of Les Misérables, a song called One Day More, when everyone, all the strands of the first half come together. You know, if you go and see Les Mis now, and fortunately many people still do and will, it’s an extraordinarily powerful piece of theatre. And if I could only ever see one piece again, it would be that one.
01:11:38.02 Andy Coulson:
Wonderful. Nick Allott, thank you so much for giving us so much time, for sharing your crisis story.
01:11:47.10 Nick Allott:
I’ve loved it, it doesn’t feel like a crisis but you know, I’ve been very lucky, I’ve had a very, very good rich life. And of course, there’s been a lot of drama and I suppose crisis within it but I think it probably all contributes to making you a fully rounded person.
01:12:06.02 Andy Coulson:
Wonderful, Nick thanks so much for joining us.
01:12:08.08 Nick Allott:
01:12:32.05 End of transcription