Entertainment Theatre & Arts

Saturday 21 September 2019

A Spoonful of Spectacle from Sir Cameron

Sir Cameron Mackintosh is the world's most successful theatre producer and a self-made billionaire. He spoke with our reporter about sex, love and the lonely passions of 'Mary Poppins' author Pamela Travers

Impressive impresario: Sir Cameron Mackintosh says musicals are his 'children'.
Impressive impresario: Sir Cameron Mackintosh says musicals are his 'children'.
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

Within a few moments of speaking to Sir Cameron Mackintosh, one begins to understand why he has retained his place at the vanguard of musical theatre for so many decades. Like Madonna, he knows how to cannily reinvent for each new generation.

And so in the retelling, his version of Mary Poppins, which opens at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre next week, is transmogrified from saccharine parable about childhood neglect and adult fortitude into an acute commentary on the downfall of the financial system, just in time for the publication of the Banking Inquiry's report.

"I was coming over to Dublin years ago and it was the start of the euro boom and I looked around and thought, 'Wow, there really is a lot of money here,'" he recalls.

"And I commented on this and the fellow next to me turned around and said, 'There is, to be sure, and when we run out, we'll just keep spending!'"

Mary Poppins the musical was being written around this time and Julian Fellowes, who would go on to create and produce Downton Abbey, was drafted in.

"He came up with a very prescient tale about the evils of the banking system and indeed it could relate to the running of certain banks in Dublin," Sir Cameron says.

It's masterful linking and probably part of the reason why for his shows - amongst them Cats, Miss Saigon and Phantom Of The Opera - there really was no recession.

Broadway and the West End continued to boom through the bad years, as audiences, weary of reality, glutted themselves on moonlit fantasy of musical theatre.

It all helped to sustain Sir Cameron's position as one of the richest men in the world: he's a billionaire (in dollars, but still. . .). He's also a witty, likeable sort who was 'out' and proud way before it was fashionable, although, like Irish theatre legends Hilton Edwards and Michael MacLiammoir, whom he knew, he says he was "insulated somewhat" from the homophobia of his era by his long life in the theatre.

That life in the business started at a very precocious age. Cameron was born in Enfield, London, the son of a timber merchant and jazz trumpeter and an immigrant lady from Malta, now in her nineties, from whom he inherited his sense of humour.

"My mother's family were Italian, Spanish and French and my father is English and Scottish. They met after the war and got married in Florence. My mother recently found an old picture of their wedding and she wrote on the back of the photo, 'You were started in a very nice room in the Excelsior hotel in Florence.' I appeared nine months to the day later, my mother being a good Catholic girl."

He grew up in a sort of matriarchy, with his mother, grandmother and aunts in an old house in north London. It was a happy childhood, he tells me, albeit one marked out by wartime poverty.

"My aunts brought me up as much as my mother did. I was brought up in rationing, which lasted for the first 10 years of my life. My parents didn't have a lot of money."

Perhaps the defining moment of his early life came when he was eight and his aunt took him to the West End, to his second show, (the first being "Frankie Howard in drag in Charlie's Aunt"), which was Salad Days.

"Julian Slade (who wrote Salad Days) took me backstage and I told him outright that I wanted to produce theatre. It seemed like that was what I was born to do. I was in my early twenties before I realised how unusual it is for someone to be that sure that young that this is what they want to do in life."

Sir Cameron's own salad days were spent mostly at a Christian Brothers public school and in his teen years he had girlfriends but also always knew he liked boys.

"I always jokingly say that the moment I left public school my sex life went dramatically downhill. In those days, when you were mostly isolated from girls, it was much more prevalent to experiment. My parents may have suspected. It wasn't like (homosexuality) was entirely unknown, we just didn't talk about it.

"I'm pretty sure my grandmother's brother was gay. He only used to have 'nephews' around and he used to send us all of the first pressings of albums of all the great shows, because you could get them in the States. I owe him a lot for introducing me to the great musicals."

It wasn't until he went out on tour with Oliver! when he was 19 that Cameron had his first boyfriend.

"I think my mother found a letter and she said, 'Oh this is terrible, just terrible' and I said, 'Oh well, it's an easy choice: if it's too terrible I won't come home again.' And half-an-hour later she asked me when he (the boyfriend) was coming to stay.

"My parents had met in the war, you have to understand, and my father's commanding officer in the army was an outrageous man who brought Noel Coward to the Cafe De Paris after the war.

"My father knew all that was going on but he just didn't like talking about it. Every time he tried to talk to me about the birds and the bees, he needed so much whiskey that he'd virtually pass out."

Later, Sir Cameron became engaged to be married to a woman, "but I realised I wasn't ready for marriage and so that didn't happen. In the end, I was lucky to meet my partner, Michael. We met across a crowded room in Adelaide in 1990, I was there for a production of Oklahoma. We fell in love. We were very lucky to meet each other."

He would also go on to forge a career as the most successful musical producer in the world, teaming up with Andrew Lloyd Webber to produce Cats, Les Miserables and Phantom Of The Opera, which has still made more money than any stage play or film in the world.

There were occasional missteps along the way too. His least successful London productions include Moby Dick and Martin Guerre, although in the year the latter came out he was given his knighthood, not that he uses the title much. ("It's only really useful in terms of getting a good table at a restaurant," he tells me).

He had long yearned to make a musical of Mary ­Poppins but the rights were held, not by Disney, who made the film, but cantankerous ("that sounds about right" he hoots when I use this word) old Pamela Travers, who wrote the original book.

"She was a very old lady when I met her. Her mind was as sharp as ever. I realised that she was interviewing me and not the other way around. She was trying to ascertain if I wanted to adapt her book or whether I wanted to make another version of the film."

Pamela eventually granted her consent and Sir Cameron would learn a lot more about her. "She had lots of friends in the 1930s who were pillars of the Irish literati, including WB Yeats. It was they who recognised her talent and it was her Irish friends who found her the child she brought up.

"There was a set of twins she was invited to see and she only wanted one of them. Which was quite ironic, since she wrote such a famous book about bringing families together. Purely by chance, one of the brothers bumped into his twin as an adult."

I wonder if he and Michael ever thought about adopting children together.

"He did, I didn't", he answers, quick as a flash. "My children are my shows. I knew that I would never, ever have the time with the amount of work I've done. I give birth to musicals and I love seeing everything through."

These days he lives mostly on his farm in Somerset, although he also has an estate in Scotland and a home in Malta.

He has been active in politics in the past - he donated £50,000 to the Labour Party because he felt the "Conservatives, which I naturally am, needed to go and there needed to be a new broom. Little did I know the broom would be profligate. A lot of the country's current problems started then. I'm talking about Blair and Brown."

Profligacy is one of the worst sins for Sir Cameron. He says that despite his zillions, he still carefully minds his money and insists that every pound he puts into his musicals "looks like five (pounds) on the stage".

He'll turn 70 next year but can't ever imagine hanging up his boots. "I'll never stop doing this, it's been my life, it's brought me so much happiness, I'll always keep going."

Mary Poppins will play at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre from December 3, 2015 to January 9, 2016. Tickets from €25 are on sale now. For more information, see www.bordgaisenergytheatre.ie or www.ticketmaster.ie.

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