Entrepreneurs: Jamie Hendry is re-writing the rule book on West End theatre
Jamie Hendry does not look like an archetypal West End theatre type. A slightly geeky, quietly spoken, besuited 30-year-old who boasts a computer science and management degree, he is more thoughtful businessman than flowery, aged thespian.
“There’s a difference between what I call a business producer and an artistic producer. I’m not interested in rolling around on the floor with a cast,” he explains.
Instead, he has spent a decade-long career building up an eponymous business that ensures his name reverberates around the West End’s biggest theatres.
With musicals including Legally Blonde and Beatles tribute Let It Be, as well as blockbuster magic show Impossible under his belt, he has deliberately specialised in big, brash and lucrative shows.
He targets the tourists, day trippers and good-timers who provide the majority of bums on red seats across London each night, rather than the chin-stroking readers of The Stage.
“I’ll take the commercial over the Olivier Award every day, recognition is great but I much prefer we pay investors back, develop new work and the awards will follow,” Hendry says.
His journey has been, well, short. Work experience backstage at Wembley Arena during a Rod Stewart residency was followed by managing the sound and lighting for acts including the Scissor Sisters and Amy Winehouse at university.
Having caught the bug for staging, he took a show, The Last Five Years, to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2006. Unusually, Hendry debuted it at the Apollo, Shaftesbury Avenue, before heading north and, even more remarkably, it didn’t lose money.
“That’s when I knew this is what was I wanted to do,” he says.
A stint working from a home office using his and family cash to co-produce shows with larger theatre firms quickly gave way to the company developing its own shows and setting up in plush Regent Street.
Hendry’s office occupies the top floor, and, entering straight into it from the lift as in the apartment of Mad Men’s Don Draper, the glamour is understated but noticeable.
Bottles of champagne sit idly by, Michael Gambon and David Walliams (appearing in Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land) are framed on the wall and a giant sculpture of a toad peers back at Hendry’s desk.
The entrepreneur is clear in his strategy to develop shows that become marketable “brands”.
The biggest test of this plan comes later this year, with Wind in the Willows (hence the toad). Having commissioned Downton Abbey writer Julian Fellowes to pen the musical, the company hopes its creation, inspired by the original Kenneth Grahame stories, will spawn TV, music and book offshoots and appeal internationally (with America, Australia, Europe and China in its sights). The show will be tested in Plymouth in October before an expected West End run.
“Those performances are an investment, you can’t open a brand new musical hoping to make all your money back quickly, you’re creating a brand. Your brand is most visible in the West End,” he says, adding that, while he firmly believes it’s important to understand the audience beyond the West End, the “very few gatekeepers” within its bubble are important to know too.
The adventures of Ratty, Mole, Badger and Toad have provided opportunity to test another model — crowdfunding.
After building its own platform, £1 million was raised with perks including opening-night tickets and meeting Fellowes.
“You can’t open a little black book any more. You have to look to businesses, younger demographics and sponsorship for arts funding,” says Hendry.
Experienced investors are tapped up for their knowledge while some simply write cheques to gain cachet. Raising cash hasn’t always been easy, the aptly-titled Impossible appeared an improbable hit in the face of a sneering old guard.
But, buoyed by the resurgence of “Saturday night television type shows”, Hendry took a bet and will this week kick off a tour that will take the magic show around the UK and overseas to an audience with appetites also whetted by Dynamo and Derren Brown’s shows .
To complement the theatre arm, the group has other businesses used to raise money for productions. From tour booking and ticketing to representation (of everyone from directors to technical staff) and stage production, the aim is to become a one-stop shop for live entertainment.
Hendry also wants to tap the growing numbers of plays and musicals broadcast live on TV and in cinemas.
The youthful producer has had a decade of being patronised by more experienced theatre stakeholders (“I often say, ‘half our audience are my age, so you need to listen’”).
“I’m still the youngest producer in our industry. Most producers started as an actor or manager, no one decided at 21 this is what they wanted to do so I can write the rule book.”
It might well be worth reading.