Duncan Weldon obituary

‘Old school’ theatre producer behind successes such as Stones in His Pockets, Waiting for Godot and No, No Nanette

The image of the West End theatre producer has changed radically in the past half century but Duncan Weldon, who has died aged 77, was “old school” in his devotion to star names and familiar play titles in a career that saw him create a powerful commercial nexus between the Chichester Festival theatre and the Theatre Royal Haymarket.

Although he operated as a solo producer, his greatest contribution was achieved in partnership with Paul Elliott. Together with the actor Richard Todd, they launched Triumph Theatre Productions in 1970 with a superb revival of JB Priestley’s When We Are Married, starring Peggy Mount and Fred Emney. The show started at the Yvonne Arnaud theatre, Guildford, Surrey, and transferred to the Strand (now the Novello), London.

That show, said Weldon, cost £15,000 to put on. The problem, he complained 40 years later, was that a similar sort of production would now cost £500,000, and a new musical at least £2m. Without subsidy of any kind, the days of a modest West End success were over.

“In the old days,” he said in 2003, “there were flops, break-evens and successes. The problem now is that the ‘doing all right’ plays have joined the flops. You win or lose, there’s nothing in between.”

David Yelland and Penelope Keith in The Deep Blue Sea, by Terence Rattigan, at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, London.
David Yelland and Penelope Keith in The Deep Blue Sea, by Terence Rattigan, at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, London. Photograph: Jenny Goodall/ANL/Rex/Shutterstock

The other big change in his professional lifetime was that the box-office stars who once signed up for a six-month contract would now sign for only 12 weeks, so making money was even harder. Even the notoriously curmudgeonly Rex Harrison signed up to Weldon in 1973 for six months at Her Majesty’s as Pirandello’s Henry IV; it had taken Weldon years of “wooing” to land his big fish, but Harrison then did eight more shows for him, including Frederick Lonsdale’s Aren’t We All? with Claudette Colbert in 1984 and JM Barrie’s The Admirable Crichton with Edward Fox (Lonsdale’s grandson) in 1988.

These last were two of the 63 consecutive plays Weldon produced at the Haymarket after he signed a 1978 contract with Louis Michaels, who had acquired the lease of the theatre from the Crown Commission, making him responsible for the next 25 years.

During this period, Weldon and Elliott went their separate ways. When Michaels died in 1981, Weldon continued his Haymarket association (with the theatre now under the control of Enid Chanelle, Michaels’s business partner) while founding Triumph Apollo Productions with two friends, Lionel Becker and Paul Gregg, both of them with money and connections in Weldon’s native Southport, Merseyside, and produced shows starring Liza Minnelli, Dean Martin, Omar Sharif, Charlton Heston and Jack Lemmon.

His plays in this period included Alan Bates in John Osborne’s A Patriot for Me, Glenda Jackson in Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude, Lauren Bacall in Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth, Paul Scofield in Shaw’s Heartbreak House, Penelope Keith in Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea and Peter O’Toole in Shaw’s The Apple Cart.

Alan Bates and Sheila Gish in A Patriot for Me at the Chichester Festival theatre.
Alan Bates and Sheila Gish in A Patriot for Me at the Chichester Festival theatre. Photograph: Reg Wilson/Rex/Shutterstock

Weldon was born in Southport, into a Russian-Jewish immigrant family. His father, Clarence Weldon, ran a chain of photographic shops. His mother, Margaret (nee Andrew), had converted from Catholicism to Judaism. Duncan was educated at King George V grammar school, Southport, and the Northern School of Speech and Drama; he also ran amateur theatre groups in both Southport synagogues, orthodox and reform.

He was star-struck from the outset, working as a call boy in the Southport Garrick for 10 shillings (50p) a week (plus tips) and collecting the autographs of Laurel and Hardy, Kay Kendall, Ted Ray and countless other stars who passed through. He left school in 1959 to run one of his father’s shops in Wigan and take a photography course at the Manchester college of technology.

He was soon working as a photographer at his local theatre and for Peter Hall at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon (Hall returned the compliment by working for him; and, as Weldon pointed out, losing him far more money than he ever cost Hall), and acting in weekly rep at the Garrick for £9 a week.

He befriended the director David Scase, who ran the Manchester Library theatre, and acted with him – and the unlikely duo of David Kossoff and Steven Berkoff – in 1965 at the Liverpool Playhouse in Siedman and Son, a play about a garment manufacturer in New York. Within a year, and encouraged by Kossoff, Weldon was producing six touring shows, with no office or secretary, but with a car and a telephone. Kossoff told him to visit an old London friend in a Southport nightclub. Thus he met the singer Helen Shapiro, whom he married in 1967.

His first show with Elliott, in 1968, was No, No Nanette, directed by Lionel Blair and starring Bob Monkhouse, in Bournemouth. Their first London show together was Tons of Money at the Mayfair. It lost a fortune. One night’s box office takings were £1, 11 shillings and sixpence. Eventually, this strangely compatible, but odd, couple – Weldon bearded and taciturn; Elliott, far brasher, a salesman turned actor with a good line in patter – had their hits on three continents (in the West End in London and on tour, in North America, Canada mostly, and in Australia) with shows ranging from Eric Sykes and Jimmy Edwards in Big Bad Mouse in the 1970s through to David Suchet leading a Vatican mystery thriller written by a New York lawyer, The Last Confession, with a large cast in 2007, and Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart packing out in 2009 in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, a play Weldon found both outlandish and incomprehensible.

From left: Patrick Stewart, Ronald Pickup, Simon Callow and Ian McKellen in Waiting for Godot at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, London, in 2009.
From left: Patrick Stewart, Ronald Pickup, Simon Callow and Ian McKellen in Waiting for Godot at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, London, in 2009. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Although he had a big hit – four years at the Shaftesbury – with a Dad’s Army musical, Weldon’s luck was running out in the mid-90s and he turned with relief to running the Chichester Festival theatre in 1995, appointing Derek Jacobi, whom he adored as an actor and colleague, as his artistic director. That did not last long. Debts accumulated until Weldon resigned in 1997, not returning to Chichester until 2006 when, after two rocky intermediate directorships, and a £7m Arts Council bailout, Jonathan Church placed Chichester back on an even keel.

Weldon and Elliott were prophetically pre-Thatcherite in developing a mixed economy, sharing production costs – first with the Billingham Forum arts centre, Stockton-on-Tees, then the Yvonne Arnaud, then Chichester – and harnessing talent from the subsidised sector. One of their unlikeliest, and most notable hits, in London and New York, was Marie Jones’s sparkish two-hander, Stones in His Pockets, with which they launched Triumph Entertainment in 2001.

In the following year, their production of Noël Coward’s Private Lives starring Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan won a Tony award for the best revival on Broadway. Weldon’s last co-producing credit was on Church’s acclaimed 2018 revival of The Price by Arthur Miller, starring Suchet and Brendan Coyle, which is due to transfer from the Theatre Royal Bath to Wyndham’s theatre next week. Last year Weldon and Elliott received Olivier Special Recognition awards for their contribution to British theatre.

For such a quiet, unassuming man, his career, and indeed his private life, was something of a rollercoaster. He and Shapiro divorced in 1971. His second wife, in 1974, was the actor Janet Mahoney, with whom he had a daughter, Lucy.

After their divorce, he lived alone until 2003 when, travelling to Australia to see Maggie Smith and Margaret Tyzack in his presentation of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads, he met by chance Ann Sidney, Miss World 1964, whom he had known as a youthful friend of Elliott and whom he had presented in pantomime at Chichester in the mid-90s. They married in 2008.

Weldon is survived by Ann, Lucy and his brother, Gordon.

• Duncan Clark Weldon, theatre producer, born 19 March 1941; died 30 January 2019

Contributor

Michael Coveney

The GuardianTramp

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