Bill Kenwright: The West End icon who owned his boyhood football club

Bill Kenwright the West End icon who realised his dream of owning his boyhood club: How the Everton chairman got his first break in acting aged 18, starred in Coronation Street and produced theatre shows including Blood Brothers, Joseph and Fame

  • Tributes flood in for Bill Kenwright following his death at the age of 78 

Part multi-millionaire footballer’s pad, part theatrical shrine, Bill Kenwright’s grandiose offices on Shaftesbury Avenue in the West End of London spanned both halves of his character — the flamboyant impresario and the sports-mad Scouser.

Even the magnificent staircase up to his lair, with its piano, sprawling sofas and desk like the deck of an aircraft carrier, reflected his personality. Kenwright loved to tell stories about himself, studded with famous names, and the stairway was crowded with pictures of the shows he produced with the stars whose careers he helped to build.

Prominently displayed was a portrait of actress Jenny Seagrove, his partner for nearly 30 years. But Kenwright’s string of amours with actresses and pop stars in his younger life was no more a secret than his devotion to Everton football club — ‘The one love affair I’ve been totally faithful in,’ he admitted.

It was his ambition, he joked, to die on the pitch at Goodison Park, as he headed in the winning goal. That romantic streak never left him, not even during an eight-year battle against the cancer that killed him today, aged 78.

Kenwright’s passion for Everton saw him become a director in 1989, and chairman 15 years later. By then, with more than 500 productions to his name, he could claim to be the most prolific showman in theatre. Among his successes were Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita, Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and Jesus Christ Superstar, as well as Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers.

Kenwright was last pictured watching Everton playing Liverpool on February 13 this year 

Bill Kenwright is pictured with Jenny Seagrove, his partner for nearly 30 years, in 1999

Kenwright in 1978 with his ex wife, the New Zealand actress Anouska Hempel

Kenwright playing Gordon Clegg in Coronation Street alongside Jennifer Moss as Lucille Hewitt 

He imagined himself as a swaggering cowboy hero, bringing a flavour of the Wild West into the West End — so much so that he bought the costume worn by Hollywood actor Alan Ladd in his favourite movie, Shane. The Sotheby’s auctioneer teased him, ‘Mr Kenwright, you won’t be able to get into that,’ but he put it on display in a cabinet at his study at home.

Shane is a saviour who rescues a community at great personal cost. ‘When he rides into the sunset, he’s got a bullet in him,’ Kenwright would say. There was a touch of Shane in the way he sheltered Miss Seagrove, star of the mini-series A Woman Of Substance, after her break-up from the controlling and domineering film producer Michael Winner. She was appearing in his production at the Globe theatre of Noel Coward’s Private Lives.

Shortly after her new relationship became public in 1993, a devastating fire ripped through Kenwright’s offices. Bill joked that investigators had found the source: the smouldering butt of one of Winner’s trademark Havana cigars. Winner issued an ambiguous denial: ‘I haven’t touched a cigar in weeks.’

It was far from the first time Kenwright’s love life made headlines. In the late 1970s he was briefly married to the New Zealand-born actress Anouska Hempel, a former Bond girl (she appeared beside Joanna Lumley in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service).

He also had a daughter, Lucy, with the actress Virginia Stride, and was briefly linked in the 1980s to singer Lynsey de Paul, whose consorts at that time included major stars such as Dudley Moore and Sean Connery.

With typical panache, he cashed in on the actress Koo Stark’s notoriety following her fling with Prince Andrew. He cast her in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None… and staged it at the Duke of York’s theatre.

His addiction to risk and danger came close to ruining him on several occasions. The first eight years of his career as a producer were hand-to-mouth, with cash from one night’s takings borrowed to pay the cast and crew on another show.

Gambling became a compulsion, one that saw him at the card tables playing blackjack every night and sometimes losing heavily. He quit in 1978, when he married.

The director with Andrew Lloyd Webber at a party following the press night for Whistle Down The Wind at the Hilton Green Park in 2006 

The producer with stage and screen star Virginia Stride in 1971. He had one daughter with her her and two grandchildren

Bill Kenwright was a lifelong Evertonian and had been on the club’s board since 1989

Everton chairman Bill Kenwright, pictured with his long-term partner actress Jenny Seagrove, has died at the age of 78 

Wayne Rooney is pictured with Bill Kenwright in August 2015

Bill Kenwright after he received a CBE from Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace in London in March 2001

Even into his 50s, with a personal wealth of millions, he pushed his empire to the brink by backing productions with dubious public appeal, such as a national tour of the Greek tragedy Medea, starring Diana Rigg.

Kenwright admitted he sank a fortune into that play without even going to see its previous run, at the arty Almeida theatre. The only recommendation came from Rigg herself: that’s all it took to convince him.

‘She said: “It’s very good, you should produce it.” And I said: “I will if you want me to.” It wasn’t an easy ride,’ he remembered. ‘The curtain went up on the first night with three wailing women dressed in black and I’m sure the entire audience thought, “What in the name of God is this?”

‘Then Diana comes on and she was phenomenal. And when she says the line about going to murder her children, you could feel a hush go right across the auditorium. I slid out of my side seat and went to director, standing at the back of the Liverpool Playhouse, and I said: “We’ve got a hit. Just listen to the silence.”

Silence in theatres was something of a personal crusade for Kenwright. One of his first productions was The Miracle Worker, starring Pat Phoenix who was known to the nation as Elsie Tanner in Coronation Street. ‘She’d walk on stage,’ he complained, ‘and Mrs Jones in the front row would nudge Mrs Smith next to her and say in a voice that carried, “There’s Elsie”. They thought they were at home in front of the television.’ His solution was to hang notices all around the auditorium, asking theatre-goers to stop talking, despite his business model relying on ordinary people buying tickets — the type for whom the theatre was a rare treat and who might prefer a more convivial atmosphere.

His love of showmanship was born from a family ritual when he was growing up of Saturday evenings around the piano, following an afternoon at the football. As a boy, Bill’s party piece was to sing He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands, while his mother Hope, grandmother Lily, auntie Mary, big brother Tom and uncles George and Cyril would all perform.

The same jokes would be retold every week, growing with repetition, a technique he applied to his tall stories all his life.

Born in 1945, he was two years below George Harrison at the ‘Inny’ or Liverpool Institute, where Paul McCartney was also an older pupil. The Cavern Club was a short walk away and, inspired in part by The Beatles, Bill bought a guitar and joined a Merseybeat group, the Chevrolets. Later in the 1960s, he recorded a single with the Runaways, I Want To Go Back There Again, written by Berry Gordy. It failed to chart.

But it was theatre that had him hooked, from the age of 14. When a Saturday football match was postponed by bad weather, he took shelter in the Liverpool Empire and sat entranced through West Side Story. ‘That turned me on to theatre in a massive way,’ he said.

Bill Kenwright (as Gordon Clegg) and Jennifer Moss (as Lucille Hewitt) Coronation Street

Kenwright sold his majority stake in Everton to Farhad Moshiri in 2016 but remained chairman

Bill Kenwright and Jenny Seagrove attend the first night of Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber and Sir Tim Rice’s musical Evita, at the Adelphi Theatre, central London in June 2006

Kenwright been instrumental in the running of Everton, and is pictured announcing Roberto Martinez as the club’s manager in 2013

Chairman Bill Kenwright of Everton reacts as he speaks at the 24th Hillsborough Anniversary Memorial Service at Anfield on April 15, 2013 in Liverpool

Arriving in Manchester to start university in 1964, he walked out of the station to see the Granada TV studios. On an impulse, he walked up to the main entrance and told the commissioner he had an appointment with a casting director.

Knocking on a director’s office door, he announced: ‘I’m an actor, have you got any jobs?’ By sheer chance, in that day’s post, a script had arrived for a one-off play called Big Fleas Have Little Fleas — with a small part for an 18-year-old. He accepted the role and the 65 guinea fee. It was perhaps the most valuable lesson of his life: brass neck and good luck can take you anywhere.

It took him to Coronation Street, where he played Gordon Clegg in more than 100 episodes in the 1960s — with a one-off reprise in 2012. He also appeared four times in Z Cars, the police drama whose theme tune became the anthem of Everton fans.

‘Someone once asked me,’ he said, ‘who I thought would miss me most when I’m not around any more. I listed the dancers, the choreographers, actors, theatre owners, writers… and my friend said: “No. It’ll be the audiences.”‘

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