PAUL Iles, who has died aged 59 of cancer, was the founder general manager of Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre who oversaw the £22m transformation of a bingo hall into one of Scotland’s brightest theatrical spaces
He ensured the very act of attending the Nicolson Street venue was a dramatic act in itself. Having been put in charge of the former Empire Theatre in 1992, Mr Iles oversaw the theatre’s opening in 1994, shaping it into a gloriously flamboyant affair. Even ordering a drink or some confectionary in the Cafe Lucia, its menu awash with all manner of sticky tarts, was an exercise in sensory sumptuousness to accompany the theatre’s programme. But such excesses were not to last, however, and in 1996 he fell out with the city fathers over issues of revenue, which the local authority claimed were unsupportable. By the time the council had been proved wrong, however, Mr Iles had resigned, having left Edinburgh’s arts scene a brighter place to play in. It is telling that on the announcement of his death, the Festival Theatre flag was draped at half-mast in his honour.
Over a 40-year career, Mr Iles did more than most to understand the value of theatrical entertainment, and could put on programmes which at the Festival Theatre included one night stands by Ken Dodd and avant-garde performance from Rose English (and a horse) without any noticeable conflict.
While what went onstage was paramount, he understood what a night out meant to an audience. Perhaps his razor-sharp instincts had been honed after leaving school aged 15 and running away to sea before becoming a cleaner in a theatre. This was one of many stories Iles told his staff, whom he spoke to with a florid sense of passion and inspiration in meetings that fostered loyalty and trust.
Prior to the Festival Theatre, he had worked at several regional theatres, including the Watermill in Newbury, Manchester Royal Exchange, the Oxford Playhouse and the Blackpool Grand, where he returned in 2004, persuading Equity to name it National Theatre of Variety just as the National Theatre of Scotland was launched.
In Australia, Mr Iles had worked as general manager and director of Nimrod Theatre in Sydney, was general manager of the State Theatre Company at the Adelaide Festival Centre and was a founding producer of the North Queensland Theatre Company.
After leaving the Festival Theatre, Mr Iles moved into consultancy, applying his vast knowledge of theatre and theatre buildings with a mix of pragmatism and passion to a range of clientele who trusted his expertise implicitly. He also went back to university, acquiring two research degrees from the University of Glasgow before becoming a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and the Royal Society of Arts.
At the time of his death he was principal lecturer in arts management at Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, associate director of the Georgian Theatre Royal, Richmond, North Yorkshire, and chairman of Barrie Rutter’s Northern Broadsides company and Leeds Grand Theatre and Opera House.
Mr Iles served nine years as a trustee of the Theatres Trust, the national advisory public body for theatres, and was associate director of the Scottish Centre for Cultural Management and Policy at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh. He became a director of assorted companies, including Neil Bartlett’s Gloria Theatre, Rambert Dance Company and the Duke’s Playhouse at Lancaster.
Mr Iles was a glorious bundle of contradictions that co-existed happily in his working life. First and foremost he was a scholar, who knew the subject he was passionate about inside out, and whose studies of the history of theatre and theatre management were defining reference points for anyone in the industry.
Beyond this, though, he understood that a healthy irreverence was also important, and he carried around with him a sense of mischief wherever he went. In some respects, particularly during his Edinburgh tenure, this caused him to resemble one of the old-time actor-managers he knew so much about. Yet Mr Iles was a private and shy man, who would rather avoid the public spotlight in deference to the work he was putting on stage.
His home in Thistle Street, Edinburgh, was the treasure trove of a lifelong theatre devotee. Books, posters and memorabilia of every description filled the place. Much of it was rare, but some of it, as with all things he loved, was acquired for the pure fun of it.
The website for his theatrical management consultancy was an invaluable source for researchers and students, with historical insights into Edinburgh’s old Gateway Theatre and the Royal Lyceum amongst others, as well as his numerous reports in his capacity as a consultant, the most recent being on Ayr’s Gaiety Theatre, His Majesty’s in Aberdeen and Pitlochry Festival Theatre.
Then there are the cheeky insights into 18th century marketing techniques, and excerpts from letters sent to him while at the Festival Theatre, and set alongside his replies. One was from a lady of some vintage whose frock she claimed to have ripped on one of the theatre’s seats.
Iles took pains to point out that no less a personage than the Queen had sat on the very same seats and had managed to get through the show without coming to any harm, sartorially or otherwise.
Such levity is rare in such documentation, yet, while all of his reports are full of gimlet-eyed observations and painstakingly asccurate research, they are also eminently readable, going way beyond the usual impenetrable tedium of such tomes.
The material gathered on Mr Iles’ website is to be treasured much as he treasured his own collection. More importantly, budding theatre managers, producers and administrators should learn from his collected experience in a world in which he loved nothing better than to see audiences captivated by something joyous and unexpected taking place on the stage in front of them.