The theatre industry - and it is an industry, but one whose business happens to be making art and money, not necessarily always in that order, together or at all - is made up of of a lot of disparate factions, who are inevitably subject to a lot frictions. Producers, for example, are forever in competition with each other for theatres to put their shows on in, for audiences to see them, and for recognition in the annual rounds of awards.
Yet someone needs to pull them all together around the same table from time to time to pursue matters of mutual interest, like labour negotiations with the relevant unions, co-ordinated publicity initiatives (and the avoidance of first night clashes) and managing things like the TKTS booths in Leicester Square and at Brent Cross to serve them all.
That person is the chief executive of SOLT (the Society of London Theatres), who has to be equal parts skilled negotiator, spokesman, diplomat, publicist, co-ordinator and producer (of the annual Olivier Awards, as well as other events throughout the year). That’s only half the job: the other half is fulfilling the same functions for the Theatrical Management Association.
And until his retirement last year, after nine years in the post that had followed a career in the civil service, the Arts Council, the South Bank Centre and freelance consultancy, that person was Richard Pulford. He sadly died earlier this year in August after living with HIV/AIDS for some 20 years. (One of the chastening things about his death is the reminder that HIV still kills; he may have had his life extended for 20 years thanks to the cocktails of combination therapies that have evolved, but the virus still eventually claimed him).
But the amazing thing about him was an extraordinary intellectual vitality that never left him, and a personal rigour and vigour that endeared him to nearly everyone he met, critics like myself included.
And at a moving memorial and celebration to his life and career held yesterday at the Duke of York’s, hosted by former SOLT president Rosemary Squire and organised by friends that included The Stage’s own Alistair Smith, his Dolphin Square neighbour, one of the recurring themes of those who spoke was his ability to embrace both sides of any argument — not least in a brilliant anecdote by Ruth Mackenzie who remembered him helping to draft a public reply from arts organisations to the Arts Council’s Glory of the Garden proposal at a conference to discuss its implications, when it was he who had drafted the original Arts Council document itself.
Ruth also revealed his taste for exotic holiday destinations that she accompanied him on, including trips to remote parts of Morocco and Thailand. She also remembered going to the Taj Mahal with him, which he insisted on seeing at both sunset and sunrise, when she said that sunset would have been quite sufficient for her.
Now a new dawn has broken out over the Society of London Theatre, and as sad as it was to send Richard off yesterday (his trademark fedora occupying an empty chair onstage, like the opening moments of Chicago), it is great to see that his own creative legacy has been so firmly seized by his successor Julian Bird.
In his first year in the post, he secured headline sponsorship funding from Mastercard and totally revamped the Olivier Awards, and this weekend continues by relaunching what used to the be TMA Awards as the Theatre Awards UK, with a lunchtime ceremony on Sunday at the Banqueting House in Whitehall. Last night, too, Julian was at the Guildhall, hosting a West End presentation for the world press launch for next year’s Olympics.