Bob Swash obituary

West End theatre producer behind a string of hits including Evita and Blood Brothers

The theatre producer Bob Swash, who has died aged 91, took his experience of operating in the West End of the 1960s to the business of the pop music impresario Robert Stigwood, where he created a new theatre division for the company. Although Stigwood had a financial stake in the London presentations of Hair and Oh, Calcutta! he wasn’t a “nuts and bolts” creative theatre producer as was Swash.

But he did own the management contract of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, and after the unhappy premiere of their Jesus Christ Superstar in New York in 1971, the executive responsibility for the London opening fell to Swash. He would go on to produce, under the Stigwood banner, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and, in 1978, Evita starring Elaine Paige and David Essex.

Swash’s other outstanding producing relationship was with Willy Russell, easing the progress to the West End of three of Russell’s hit shows in Liverpool – John, Paul, George, Ringo … and Bert (1974), Blood Brothers (1983) and Shirley Valentine (1986).

Bob Swash
Bob Swash in 1972. He went on to produce Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Evita. Photograph: James Gray/ANL/Rex/Shutterstock

His theatrical nous and experience were invaluable on all these ventures. His family background was in variety and music hall, which qualified him to produce Barbara Windsor’s Marie Lloyd show, Sing a Rude Song, when it hit the West End in 1970. His admiration for, and friendship with, the director Joan Littlewood led him towards making a commercial success of plays by Arnold Wesker and Shelagh Delaney. Swash was a self-deprecating champagne socialist who thought of himself as a Marxist – and owned, by his own toil, properties in Trafalgar Square, Venice and Gozo, and Piltown in County Kilkenny.

He was born in Margate, Kent, the son of Walter Swash – one half of a down-the-bill music hall double act, whose sister married Arthur Askey – and his wife, Elisse Relnah, a classically trained pianist who played in concert parties. The family – Bob had an older sister, Irene – lived in south-west London and he was educated at Raynes Park grammar school. He was always known as Bob, though his father had chosen the name of Robert Arthur for him as he felt it would serve him well if he went on the stage as a “legit” actor.

Straight from school, Swash went to work for the Reeves & Lamport theatrical agency, which was owned by the dance-band leader and producer Jack Hylton. After completing his national service in the army – where, he said, he learned how to drink due to the availability of duty-free liquor – he joined Hylton’s office in Pall Mall as an apprentice in theatrical production, succeeding his future friend and fellow producer Michael Codron in that position.

His first time above the title on a theatre bill was as co-producer, with the author Wolf Mankowitz, on Mankowitz’s Dr Crippen musical, Belle (music and lyrics by Monty Norman), at the Strand (now the Novello) in May 1961. Before it folded after just six weeks, Mankowitz tried desperately to drum up more publicity by handing out leaflets at the FA Cup final.

Swash licked his wounds before relaunching with Wesker’s Chips With Everything (1962) and a classy touring revival at the Vaudeville in 1963 of John Vanbrugh’s The Provoked Wife with Eileen Atkins as Lady Brute. A second production at the Vaudeville in the following year, Everybody Loves Opal, garnered reviews suggesting that nobody even liked Opal. Swash reimbursed Warren Mitchell’s understudy, Ken Campbell, the cost of the tickets he had bought for his parents at the first (and last) Saturday matinee, saying: “I don’t see why you should be the only one forking out tonight.”

Elaine Page in Evita
Elaine Page as Evita in 1978. Photograph: Bill Cross/Daily Mail/Rex/Shutterstock

Even Walter Kerr’s New York Times review of The Dirtiest Show in Town (“The undress job that someone named Tom Eyen has both written and directed pretends to a great many things during its prolonged investigation of the trouser fly and the land beneath the bra”) did not deter Swash from producing it in London in 1971, just as he joined Stigwood. But then he really got down to business.

Swash knew how to handle people and always dealt authoritatively with those we now call “creatives”. He was not a standoffish producer. He loved being on the inside. I first met him at the very first night of Russell’s John, Paul, George, Ringo … and Bert in Liverpool, sitting informally with cast and crew backstage before the curtain up. He had a knack of catching the latest “thing”, producing Bob Fosse’s original West End production of Pippin (to critical indifference) in 1973, the sensational comeback of Max Wall at the Garrick theatre in 1975 and even a risky, but excellent, Oxford Playhouse revival of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s Happy End starring Bob Hoskins and Angela Richards at the Lyric on Shaftesbury Avenue also in 1975.

Russell’s Blood Brothers faltered at first at the West End box office, but when Swash asked his landlord, Bernard Delfont, to cancel his notice to quit as word of mouth and popular interest suddenly took off, he lost the theatre because Delfont had booked another show. But he remained involved as Bill Kenwright picked up the pieces, took Blood Brothers on tour in 1988 and then restaged it at the Phoenix theatre where it ran for more than two decades. His last work with Stigwood was organising the first UK tour of Evita in 1987.

His constant companion at work was his sister, Irene, who had worked as a PA to the actor and director José Ferrer; she ran Bob’s day-to-day office life and was described by others as an iron fist in a velvet glove. Swash himself was averse to the micromanagement side of things, and Irene dealt with bureaucratic detail and awkward personal employment issues wherever possible. After she died in 1988, he could not function in the same way and gradually retreated from the West End, though he did serve as president of the Society of London Theatres and was instrumental in getting the society’s annual awards renamed after Laurence Olivier.

He is survived by Irene’s children, Simon and Susan.

Robert Arthur Swash, theatrical producer, born 14 September 1929; died 1 March 2021


Michael Coveney

The GuardianTramp

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