Denise Silvey

DENISE SILVEY: Theatre producer

How long have you lived in the area?

Since 2007. We've been in this house since 2008. John Thaw's daughter used to live here.

Your varied CV lists jobs including opera singer, actress, agent, coach and theatre producer. Do you come from a theatrical family?

No, I don't. My father took me to a pantomime when I was two and I just thought, oh my god, I love this. I wanted to be Julie Andrews. There's nothing else I ever wanted to do. I always wanted to be a performer.

Are you a bit of a show-off?

I wasn't at all. I was painfully shy. I was an only child and my parents were much older so I used to live in my own world.

Did they approve of you pursuing an artistic career?

Yeah, they were amazing really. I tried everything not to do it. I went to teacher training college and I lasted two months. My father had to pay my grant back. He made me pay it back.

Which of your varied jobs has brought you the most joy?

Singing's my first love and I'm very lucky that I had what they call a natural voice. I knew I could sing like Julie Andrews, and when I auditioned for college, I sang a Julie Andrews song. I can't believe I did that. I was that naïve. At least I didn't twirl. But between singing and acting? Whenever I did a musical, I wanted to do a straight play and whenever I did a straight play I wanted to go back to a musical. I think I like them both the same.

How did you become a producer?

Production I fell into. It was a sort of a therapy because my mother died and I needed to take my mind off it. I was on tour (with the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company) and I thought, okay, I'm going to do something else as well, so I got the rights to a Stephen Sondheim two-hander, 'Marry Me A Little', and myself and one of the other boys did late night studio performances and it was actually very successful. And I thought, I quite like doing this. You've got the power of working for yourself, of making things happen.

And which job has given you the most heartache?

All of them have their pitfalls, but it's the lows and highs that make it exciting.

How do you handle rejection?

You get a very, very thick skin. You expect to be rejected. I go in there – and I suppose it's the wrong attitude – but I go in thinking I am going to be rejected and then you think, this person's actually listening to me. Wow!

Are you stubborn?

I am actually. I always think, well, if that's not going to work, let's try another way. You currently run the West End production of Agatha Christie's 'The Mousetrap', the longest running show ever.

Why is a 1950s murder mystery still so popular?

Because it's got so much humour in it. It's funny, it's witty, and Agatha Christie is a huge seller. There's so much Agatha Christie on television, the audiences are bigger than ever. It's self-perpetuating now.

Has it always played at its current home, St Martin's Theatre in Covent Garden?

No, it moved there in April 1974. It opened originally in The Ambassadors next door, which is a smaller venue, where Stomp is playing at the moment. It was there for the first 21 and a half years and then moved to where we are now. It closed on the Saturday night and re-opened on the Monday.

Is it based on a true story?

Yes, it is, about a child who was killed in the early 40s. It's about child abuse really. She originally wrote it as a short radio play ('Three Blind Mice' broadcast in 1947). It was commissioned for Queen Mary's (consort of King George V) 80th birthday. And it was so successful, she (Christie) extended it into full play.

Didn't Christie give away the rights?

She gave them to her grandson, Matthew (Prichard), for his 9th birthday present. He says he'd have rather had a train set. He's still very much involved. He runs the Agatha Christie charities.

When's the movie coming out?

It's not allowed to be filmed. The film rights were sold in 1956 but a film can only be made six months after the West End production comes off.

Have any household names acted in 'The Mousetrap'?

Richard Attenborough was in the original cast, and his wife Shiela Sim. He had shares in the play and sold them to make 'Ghandi'. The 60th anniversary was wonderful. We decided to do a charity gala for Mousetrap Theatre Projects, a fantastic charity that brings disadvantaged children to the theatre. Sir Stephen Waley Cohen (Mousetrap producer) and Susan Whiddington set it up in 1997. We did this amazing gala performance starring Hugh Bonneville, Iain Glen, Tamsin Grieg, Julie Walters, Miranda Hart, and Patrick Stewart, who was hilarious.

The play opened in 1952. Should it be brought up to date?

No. All sorts of very strange things have been tried, playing around with the time, but it's now back to the original script of 1952. It works much better as a period piece. Has the set ever been changed?

We've changed the set a couple of times and have done that over the weekend. How often does the cast change?

Every 10 months. It keeps it fresh. I've acted in it and I know you hit a wall about six months in. I call it repetitive stress syndrome because you don't know whether it's Arthur or Tuesday, but you come out the other side.

Didn't you get sick of it?

I never did actually. I had so much fun. It's like a little family, like going back to how theatre used to be when I started off. 'The Mousetrap' is a family and everyone who's been involved in it stays involved in it.

When were you in it?

I did it for 6 months in 1994. And then 10 months in 2002. Then we took it to China about five years ago and the girl playing Miss Casewell dropped out, so I did it again. It was a laugh. In China, Agatha Christie is bigger than Shakespeare. We had subtitles, but god knows what they put down because one line referred to a dreadful murder, but that prompted howls of laughter.

It's been performed over 25,000 times and even has a counter by the front door. What are the oddest records the show has broken?

The longest running understudy for 15 years or something like that, Nancy Seabrooke. And David Raven played Major Metcalfe for 11 years. Both were in 'The Guinness Book Of Records'. And Deryck Guyler, who recorded the radio announcement, he's been in it since the start. We had him digitalized 2 or 3 years ago. He sounds like he's in the next room, but he's been dead 15 years.

In this age of spoilers, how do you keep the twist ending secret?

Well, you know it's on Wikipedia. I've taken it off three times and I've had rude emails from Wikipedia saying I can't, but we do ask people to "keep the secret locked in your heart" and people do. I would never say.

Do you think you would have liked Agatha Christie?

I think so. I think she was shy. We know she didn't particularly like all the publicity. There was always a party at the anniversaries. Noël Coward once sent her a telegram saying, much as it pains me I really must congratulate you.

Will The Mousetrap last another 60 years?

I hope so.

Your household is used to long-running plays because your husband, Graham Seed, was in 'The Archers' which has also passed its 60 year anniversary. Graham played Nigel Pargetter, who came to a sudden end falling from his mansion roof. Have you got over it?

Only just. Actually it was dreadful at the time. It was like losing half of him. He's taken longer to get over it. It was a hell of a shock. We were given three weeks' notice. It was November the 5th. I remember it vividly. He's on the audition panel at RADA and was there that day so his phone was switched off. He rang me and said, oh my god, I've had a message from the then editor (Vanessa Whitburn). So he had to call her and pay for the phone call to be told, I've got a very exciting storyline – it's so exciting. Unfortunately, you won’t be there for most of it. But it's terribly exciting. That's how it was done. And you mustn't tell anyone. And he walked down from RADA to The Mousetrap, what, 15 minutes, and I watched him walk straight past my theatre and he was completely blinkered by the whole thing. And then he had to do a load of interviews about how exciting the 60th anniversary episode was going to be – that it was going to shock Ambridge to the core – without saying he was going to die. It was pretty dreadful. They let me sit in the studio for the final episode. It was pretty awful really, but he's been very loyal. The other thing that nobody gets is you're only contracted for the episodes you are in. You're not on a retainer. So if you're not used for six months, you're not paid. They can talk about you... He always did theatre, and television and film.

How did he get the time off?

They record them in a lump, about six days a month, three or four episodes a day. There's about 80 regulars in it now but only about six in each episode. It's all scheduled.

Was Nigel's death a cheap BBC shot at privilege?

Well, it's certainly left a huge void in Ambridge. There's now no old true country gentleman there. It's been referred to as ‘cultural vandalism’. Many listeners still resent the then editor's decision to kill off such a popular character simply to create a 60th anniversary story.

Were you jealous of Nigel's wife, Lizzie, and her mansion, Lower Loxley?

I was more jealous of her mansion than her. No, I don't think so. And that affair she's having with Roy... I don't think so.

Does Graham still see Alison Dowling (the actress who plays his now radio widow)?

They talk occasionally but not as much. We see some of the others.

Graham played Nigel for 28 years. How are they different?

Nigel's more boyish, but it's all scripted. The actors used to have more say. They wanted to marry him off to Shula but he said, no, I'd rather marry the younger one.

Do you think Graham handled the decision to sack him with Nigel's good grace?

Yes, I do. I'm immensely proud of him.

Is he under your feet now?

No. Actually, it was the best thing that could have happened because Nigel Havers saw him across a crowded gym at The Hogarth. Nigel had commissioned a play called 'Basket Case' and Graham did that. And then he was 'Yes, Prime Minister' (playing Jim Hacker). He was brilliant. And now he's doing 'Bedroom Farce' (by Alan Ayckbourn) and then 'Separate Tables' (by Terence Rattigan) in Salisbury. He still does 'What The Papers Say' every second Sunday, which I think was the BBC's way of saying sorry, but he finds it difficult to get radio plays because people think he sounds so much like Nigel. He loves radio and he can lift it off the page so well. He's fantastic.

Could you and Graham work together?

We have done. I produced a little tour called 'Don't Call Me Nigel' and it was really rather good. I did everything, putting up the set and taking it down, and he'd be swanning about with all these Archers' fans in the bar and they're buying him drinks, while I'm filthy and lugging... Very funny. Hopefully we're doing something together next year.

You took two plays to The Edinburgh Festival this year. Is touring a relief from a fixed play like 'The Mousetrap'?

It's different. It's fun. It's creative. I've got two plays (directed by local resident, Gareth Armstrong) up there at the moment that have just moved to a bigger venue, the Assembly Rooms, which is great. It's one actor, a Welsh actor, Rhodri Miles, and he's alternating, one day doing a play about Dylan Thomas and then one about Richard Burton. He's fabulous and it's sold out completely.

Dead Sheep PosterHow do you find the time to do so much?

Graham says, why can't you sit down and relax? I have to compartmentalize, but I sometimes have my Macbook, and my iPad, and my mobile on the go at the same time, answering emails on one while writing an email on another, and then the phone goes.

Can you switch off?

Yes, I can. Watching 'Coronation Street'. Is that awful?

Thank you, Denise. It's been a real pleasure to meet you.

Interview by Jo Reynolds (August 2014)

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