Howard Panter: leading the boom in British panto

Virtually unknown compared with the likes of Andrew Lloyd Webber or Cameron Mackintosh, impresario Howard Panter is the most powerful man in British theatre.

The panto season is in full swing. That means big business for the most powerful man in British theatre, says The Independent on Sunday. Howard Panter's Ambassador Theatre Group has 12 seasonal productions running this year. There's Barbara Windsor playing in Babes in the Wood in Bristol, Cilla Black as the Fairy Godmother in Aylesbury, and David Hasselhoff as Captain Hook in Wimbledon. That's on top of the usual roster of West End musicals and plays. Recession? What recession? booms Panter. "We are in a golden age for theatre."

They are virtually unknown compared with the likes of Andrew Lloyd Webber or Cameron Mackintosh, but Panter and his wife and business partner, Rosemary Squire, lead the field. With 50,000 seats in 40 theatres (equating to 400,000 tickets for sale each week), they're running the world's largest theatre company by venue, according to The New York Times. Not bad for a bloke who started out as a stage manager on the David Essex musical Mutiny! and opened his first theatre in a shopping centre in Woking.

A great bear of a man, Panter, 62, talks with gusto and "has the kind of projection that could reach the cheap seats", says The Guardian. After school, where he struggled with dyslexia, he went to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art and learned everything from stage management to lighting design and directing. These days he sees himself as a jack of all trades, rather like Shakespeare (see below). He first met Squire 30 years ago on the set of And A Nightingale Sang well reviewed, but a financial flop. "We were watching this lovely play dying but he used to buy us all gin and tonics and rally the troops. He has this fantastic team spirit," she told the Evening Standard.

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Panter has always been adept at wooing backers, says the Evening Standard. He secured support from property developers Peter and John Beckwith for his first theatre in Woking in 1992. He went on to recruit Greek shipping magnate Sir Eddie Kulukundis to help fund his push into the West End. Greg Dyke (currently Ambassador's chairman) was also an early investor. "We raised money to buy theatres in the same way we used to raise it for productions," says Panter. His portfolio now includes the Piccadilly, Phoenix, Savoy and Playhouse theatres, plus the Donmar Warehouse.

Ultimately, of course, it's the shows that count. Panter is unapologetic about the number of musicals he stages. But as well as blockbusters, such as The Lion King, he says the company has "a vested interest" in developing "serious talent". The recipe's clearly working, says The Independent on Sunday. This year turnover is set to hit £200m, with profits rising to £20m. Between them, the couple retain a 10% stake. Panter says he might one day sell up to an entertainment giant like Disney. "But not yet."

How the burly bard reinvented theatre

Don't put your daughter on the stage, Mrs Worthington buy her a theatre instead. It looks like good advice, says Lex in the FT. Putting on shows is a high-risk venture (for every ten musicals produced, for example, eight lose money). But even the biggest financial cataclysm in a generation has failed to break "a winning seven-year streak of record box office revenues in the West End".

Various theories have been advanced for this, observes The Guardian. These range from "the old chestnut" that punters want escapism in a recession, to the belief that a weak pound has pulled in foreign tourists. But "the curious truth is that no one in the industry really knows why".

Given the breadth of shows in London at present, the old charge that the West End survives merely by putting on "hoary old classics" doesn't hold water. As Panter noted in The Sunday Times in 2006, the success of the Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG) has always depended on "a blend of the commercial and the creative". These days, he says, the theatre-going population is broadening: middle-aged women are "a growing and new market for us", accounting for perhaps 10% of the rise in ticket sales.

Now looking to buy other venues in New York, Berlin and Sydney, Panter is a big fan of the "vertical integration" model (owning both theatres and the productions they host). The advantage with this approach, he says, is the ability to control the quality of the work as Shakespeare, who pioneered a similar model, discovered 500 years ago. Producer, manager, owner, creative director... Panter "even looks like a burlier version of the bard", says The Independent on Sunday. Arguably the only thing lacking is "the writing skills".