Lord Lloyd Webber has agreed to sell four of his West End theatres to a consortium headed by Michael Grade, according to The Stage newspaper.
The deal for the theatres, rumoured to be around £50 million, was brokered earlier this week. The consortium buying the theatres is led by former BBC Chairman and ITV Chief Executive Michael Grade and theatre agent Michael Linnit.
The deal includes the New London Theatre, current home to War Horse, the Palace Theatre, where Priscilla Queen of the Desert is playing, Chicago venue the Cambridge Theatre and Her Majesty’s Theatre, which has run Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera since 1986.
Andrew Lloyd Webber and his Really Useful Group will continue to own West End flagship venues the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, currently housing Oliver! and then Shrek The Musical, the London Palladium, which sees Sister Act close on Saturday and Lloyd Webber’s The Wizard of Oz open in February, and a 50% stake in the Adelphi Theatre, home to Lloyd Webber’s Love Never Dies.
Final contracts are still to be signed. Really Useful Group chief executive Andre Ptaszynski has told staff at the venues that “we are fully committed to a process of information provision and consultation, where appropriate, with staff (and trade unions) to make sure that we cover all employee issues and concerns.”
Michael Grade’s family history is entwined with London theatre, with his uncle Lew Grade staging Sunday Night at the London Palladium in the 1950s and 60s for his ATV network. Michael has recently recorded a Radio 2 history of the venue timed for its centenary this December.
His uncle Bernard Delfont converted the London Hippodrome into the Talk of the Town restaurant in 1958, bringing in a host of entertainers including Frank Sinatra, Eartha Kitt and Judy Garland, and staging the Folies Bergère. In the early 1990s Bernard Delfont struck a deal with Cameron Mackintosh to take on his Prince Edward and Prince of Wales theatres, creating the company Delfont Mackintosh, which today owns seven West End theatres.
Michael Grade’s ability to run leisure and entertainment companies has often come under fierce criticism. He took over Bernard Delfont’s First Leisure Corporation, set up with Max Payne, in 1997, leaving in 1999 after a turbulent few years. He received harsh criticism from Delfont’s widow, Lady Delfont, who told the Daily Telegraph in 1999 that, “At no time did we understand that Michael Grade’s job was to asset-strip a thriving company.”
His recent tenure at ITV was during a troubled time for the broadcaster and, as Chairman of Pinewood Shepperton studios, he recently faced calls to step down by one of its leading investors, the funds group Crystal Amber, charged with an unconvincing performance since the company floated six years ago and a lack of adequate direction.
Lloyd Webber has been slowly divesting of his theatre assets. In 2005 Really Useful sold four theatres to Nimax Theatres – the Lyric, Apollo, Garrick and Duchess for £11.5 million. And in a frank interview with the Daily Mail in July, Lloyd Webber talked of the stress involved in keeping the theatres going and the large debt owed on them: “We’ve got an overdraft of about £100 million against the theatres, which is too much… it’s simply beyond me.”
Lloyd Webber has a close association with all four venues he is divesting: the Palace Theatre was famously the office of Prince Edward, who worked for Lord Webber on a number of his shows from the venue; the Cambridge Theatre housed his production of The Beautiful Game in 2000; the New London was where his acclaimed, internationally successful production of Cats started in 1981; and Her Majesty’s Theatre has been home to his most successful ever production, The Phantom of the Opera, which celebrated its 10,000th performance at the venue this week.