Gordon Stratford RIP

Once in a while I have found myself in the right place, at the right time, supported by the right colleagues, and encouraged by the right boss to make stuff happen. Never was that truer than arriving in the disused bank building beside the construction site of Plymouth Theatre Royal in September 1981.  I was hired by the General Manager/CEO of the theatre, Gordon Stratford, and for 40 years I have used, and passed on the wisdom he taught.  Sadly yesterday he died.  He caught the pesky virus and very quickly, and as I understand it from his daughter very painlessly, passed away with children Beccy and Mich having been there to show their love when he was in hospital. [Unsuprisingly for an old West End company manager, he had made detailed lists of how to deal with stuff, which his family are steadily working through]

His career was quietly important. Without him The Meadow Players which was the producing company at Oxford Playhouse would not have produced 18 years of major classic plays, tours and West End transfers. [The very first book on Theatre Administration which I bought was by Elizabeth Sweeting, the venue manager of the Playhouse, who had the next door office to Frank Hauser (artistic director) and Gordon].  I suspect without him Nottingham Playhouse under Richard Eyre would have been a poorer place. Without him modern day Arts Marketing would have taken even more years to be recognised as he worked with Glyn Robbins in Nottingham.  And without him Plymouth Theatre Royal would not have been such an extraordinary place to work, and have opened despite many of the Council’s best attempts to bungle the finances.  He delivered show after show to the people of Plymouth and, with his trusty marketing department empowered by his leadership, made the theatre a beacon for Devon and Cornwall.   

What made him special for me, as a boss, was his passion for the theatre, his quick understanding of potential audiences, and his willingness to give his marketing team the chance to challenge him on proposed prices, deals, and even show choices.  You’d know he was on his way down the corridor by the cigar smell, and then he’d pop into the office and say “Glyndebourne Opera, La Cenerentola and a new Oliver Knussen piece, how will that sell ?” and then wander onward to see other departments and deal with other challenges.  We’d settle down and predict what we thought the shows would do. What prices to charge, what discounts, what % capacity. I’d head back to his office with a predicted weekly take. He’d compare it to his costs, and think about the numbers.  We were involved in decisions.

Sometimes he completely overruled us. Another day, another cigar trail, “Ben Vereen, tap dancer, you know the one, American, just playing Plymouth and the Albert Hall, how will that sell ?”  As he left we went who ?  No internet to look at, no-one in our office had heard of him, I don’t think any of us had even heard of Pippin.  I went back saying it won’t sell, no-one has heard of him.  He told us we were wrong and just watch.   It was a complete sellout. People travelled from all over the UK to see this Broadway legend.  He was amazing,  Gordon was right.

I went to an early TMA (now UKTheatre) conference at Harrogate in 1982 and there was a big gathering of publicity people from theatres all over the UK.  The speaker asked who in the room felt they had an influence on programming and pricing. I put my hand up – of course.  I was the only person in the room with my hand up. No other publicity or marketing person in any other theatre felt that their Chief Exec gave them that influence. Gordon did.

So thank you Gordon for kickstarting my love of marketing. I went from you to Edinburgh International Festival, leaving behind a glorious team of in house and district publicity assistants, to lead on the marketing of the 1984 Edinburgh Festival.  That was the start of many involvements with the City, and now I live once again in an EH postcode and love continuing to work with different aspects of the festival.   And then in 1987 I became a General Manager myself at Buxton Opera House. I was chosen the Board told me because they were impressed by the marketing we did to make Plymouth work in those early days.  There I spent 5 years trying to put into practice what I had seen Gordon do so well.  We took risks. We aimed for excellent partnerships. And the marketing team were really important.  [ I also continued my love/hate relationships with early box office computer systems, having also been given the unenviable additional task by Gordon of overseeing the installation and support for one of the first BOCS system in the UK].

I’m sorry we didn’t stay in touch more in later years.  I’m glad I could be there at the funeral of his beloved Jan Bailey in 2016 who was his PA in Plymouth and then lifelong partner.  Jan wasn’t meant to die first, but she did. And the last few years he has been supported wonderfully by his family. I never did spend the time I wanted with him going through his amazing archives. I will pull down some of my Plymouth files and have a look.  

Thank you Gordon.  And may I raise a glass to all the quietly important theatre managers, executives, whatever title, who day in day out lead teams of people to make theatres beacons for their community.  You were one of the best.

PS – My wordpress site seems a little problematic. If anyone wants to add a message memory about Gordon, then feel free to email me chris [at] chrisgrady [dot] org and I will add it here, and pass it on to the family.

2 Comments

  1. A lovely tribute Chris – we look forward to celebrating his life and enormous contribution to British theatre when we can!

  2. Don Chapman sent me this response to add:

    Thanks for that. I got know him when he took over as manager of Frank Hauser’s Meadow Players at Oxford Playhouse in 1961, after it became the University Theatre and Frank’s first manager, Elizabeth Sweeting, became Administrator and Secretary to the Curators. He was 34 and already widely experienced. He had much wider knowledge of the theatre and had managed the transfer of two of Hauser’s hit productions, Dinner With the Family and A Passage to India, in the West End. He was responsible for introducing Larry Nolan, as resident stage carpenter, vital he insisted if productions were to tour, and was responsible for the company taking over the former Oxfordshire County Fire Service’s hq, the Old Fire Station in nearby George Street, in 1970 as its base with one engine room for scene painting, one for rehearsals, several offices and a capacious basement for the wardrobe run by Betty and Sheila Robbins. The trouble was the company acquired it just as the Arts Council was ceasing to regard Hauser as its golden boy. The growth of other regional rep companies on the same model meant the demand for its funds was much greater and they were no longer prepared to back him on the same scale. Although Meadow Players were still producing hit productions like Sartre’s Kean with Alan Badel and Felicity Kendal, of which Gordon came across a copy in a poor translation in Blackwell’s Bookshop, they insisted Hauser wipe out his debts and rather than retrench he decided to call it a day. Characteristicly one of the productions of his farewell summer season in 1973, Molnar’s The Wolf with Judi Dench, Leo McKern and Edward Woodward transferred to London!

    As Chris Grady rightly says, Gordon became Richard Eyre’s company manager at Nottingham Playhouse before moving to Plymouth Theatre Royal.

    I did an in depth taped interwiew with him when I was writing my history, Oxford Playhouse: High and low drama in a university city but I gave that and the other 100-odd interviews to the Oxfordshire History Centre so of course because of lockdown I can’t access them and hear his voice again. But a true man of the theatre.

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