Nick Hern and Matt Applewhite (The Nick Hern Books Anniversary Interviews)

Rounding off our Anniversary Interviews series, theatre journalist Al Senter talks to Publisher Nick Hern and Managing Director Matt Applewhite about thirty years of Nick Hern Books, and what lies ahead for the company…

In the thirty years since it came into being, Nick Hern Books has grown into a considerable force, not just in theatre publishing – where it’s undoubtedly a leading player – but arguably in the whole ecology of theatre in the UK and beyond. Without Nick Hern Books, the livelihoods of many playwrights, and consequently many theatres, would be severely diminished.

And yet, while he is hugely liked and respected amongst playwrights and their agents, and in the world of theatre professionals in general, the company’s Publisher, Nick Hern, keeps a relatively low profile. He’s not to be found on Wikipedia, and some people still confess a degree of surprise when they learn that Nick Hern is in fact a real, living person.

I know for sure that he is, because I recently met up with him, along with the company’s Managing Director and Commissioning Editor, Matt Applewhite, at their offices in Shepherd’s Bush in West London, not far from the venerable Bush Theatre, one of London’s great crucibles of new writing.

Nick is in his seventies now, but his commitment to the theatre and to his company is undiminished. He came to theatre publishing from academia, joining Methuen as Drama Editor in 1974. When he left Methuen to set up his own theatre imprint at Walker Books in 1988, it was Sebastian Walker who came up with a name for the fledgling imprint. ‘I was at a bit of a loss about what to call it,’ recalls Nick. ‘Sebastian said, “I call my company ‘Walker Books’, so you’ll be Nick Hern Books”. I thought it rather self-aggrandising, but I’ve got used to it now.’

Nick Hern (left) and Howard Brenton at the launch of Nick Hern Books in 1988

For five years, after leaving Walker Books and setting up as a self-financing limited company, Nick ran things out of his back bedroom. But now, after thirty years, it’s thankfully on much firmer footing. In 2013, Matt Applewhite was appointed as the company’s youthful and enterprising Managing Director, and the two continue to work closely together, along with a core team of eleven staff. They have every intention that the company will embrace another thirty years and more of theatre publishing. ‘We’re prepared for the future,’ says Nick, ‘whatever that will bring.’

Matt first joined the company in 2003 as Editorial and Production Assistant, not long after getting a good degree from Cambridge and finishing a Masters at RADA. Nick recalls how, when his future employee turned up for interview, it was in the middle of a torrential downpour. ‘He was like a drowned Bob Cratchit!’ he recalls. ‘But it was clear that, of the ten or twelve people we interviewed, he was head and shoulders above the opposition.’ They connected immediately.

Matt spent his childhood in Chichester, getting his first fix of drama at the esteemed Festival Theatre, and sometimes venturing up to London. ‘Chichester is a great place to grow up – if you like theatre,’ he says. For a while he had ambitions to become a stage director, ‘But I think I lacked the courage to cope with the challenges of being a freelance. On the other hand, I wasn’t absolutely smitten at the time by the idea of going into publishing. I eventually settled for giving the job six months, maybe a year, and seeing where that got me.’

Once he’d started working at Nick Hern Books, however, Matt realised that theatre publishing was the perfect fit. ‘I’d spent my whole youth watching plays and buying theatre books, so nothing had really changed.’ Over the next few years, he tackled just about every job it’s possible to do at NHB. Within that time he spent six months at Currency Press, Australia’s chief publisher of plays, having swapped jobs – and lifestyles – with his opposite number there, which included living in a flat just a stone’s throw from Bondi Beach. The experience gave him a new perspective on theatre publishing, and NHB’s association with Currency Press remains strong. ‘The world of theatre publishing can be insular, with rival publishers competing for the same small pool of talent,’ says Matt. ‘But being immersed in a very different theatre culture is a great reminder that there’s equally important work going on elsewhere. It’s vital to remind ourselves of that, especially at times like the present.’ NHB prides itself on having a list of contemporary playwrights that spans the globe, and Matt is particularly pleased to have so many talented Australian playwrights on the list, including Joanna Murray-Smith, Andrew Bovell, Tommy Murphy and Melissa Bubnic.

NHB playwright Jack Thorne, Indhu Rubasingham (Artistic Director of the Kiln Theatre), Nick Hern and Matt Applewhite at the Nick Hern Books anniversary party, July 2018 (photo by Dan Wooller)

There’s something of a family atmosphere about NHB. It’s a small, tightly knit company, with employees who are noticeably passionate about the theatre. Many of them have been with the company for over a decade. What’s the secret? ‘There’s no secret, really,’ says Nick. ‘Though certainly, when we take someone on at Nick Hern Books, the most important thing is that they like theatre. If what you really want to do is get on in publishing, you’re probably better off elsewhere.’ Matt agrees. ‘In many ways, I think of us as part of the theatre world, working alongside theatres, if you like. We do a lot of things differently from a conventional publishing company.’

For one thing, much of the company’s publishing schedule is dictated by the theatres that produce their authors’ work. ‘When I first started in theatre publishing,’ remembers Nick, ‘plays were being published some months after their premiere. I’d come from teaching in the provinces, and what we needed most was immediate access to the plays that London was seeing. So I wanted to speed the whole process up. And I’m pleased to say that it’s now more or less expected that a playtext is available on opening night.’ ‘Which means we have to move fast,’ adds Matt, ‘because understandably our authors want to be able to make changes to their text as late as possible in the rehearsal process. We have to go from final text to finished copies in a matter of days – sometimes less than that. I don’t know if many conventional publishing companies would be able to compete with the turnaround times we can achieve.’

Another difference is that the company handles the licensing of amateur productions of its plays. ‘It was something I wanted to do from the start,’ says Nick, ‘to extend that relationship between the play on the page, and its future life on the stage. We have an in-house Performing Rights team actively promoting the plays we publish to the amateur community, which includes students and drama schools, as well as the many, many amateur groups who do brilliant work. It has become a huge part of what we do. Amateur theatre is really flourishing at the moment, which is so pleasing.’ ‘And authors like it too,’ says Matt. ‘It means their plays have an ongoing life, which is so important. We’re publishing plays not just as a record of the first production – but also as a blueprint for future ones.

Nick Hern Books’ staff at Amateur Theatre Fest, a one-day event for amateur theatre practitioners at Questors Theatre, Ealing, in September 2018 (photo by Ben Copping)

For their own part, Nick and Matt have a relaxed and informal working relationship. It’s easy to see why Nick and his wife Jane were mistaken for Matt’s parents while they were visiting him during his stint in Australia. ‘I already saw him as my successor,’ says Nick. Matt claims to have learned everything he knows about publishing from Nick, and in return, Matt has overseen the expansion of the company’s activities into ebooks, apps, audiobooks, and online publishing, alongside developing an enviable social media presence. ‘We’ve got further plans in that direction,’ says Matt. ‘It’s hugely important to connect with new readers, and especially new generations of drama students, who are using exciting new platforms to access our titles – and we want to support them in doing that.’

Matt Applewhite interviewing NHB author Mike Bartlett at Amateur Theatre Fest, September 2018 (photo by Ben Copping)

Can Nick point to other examples of Matt making a difference to the firm? ‘Yes. I’d always assumed that in a publishing company, design and typesetting was something you outsourced. But Matt assured me that it would be much quicker and more efficient to take these functions in-house. And he was right.’ ‘It’s about being able to respond quickly when you’re up against a tight deadline,’ says Matt. ‘And knowing that your designer or your typesetter is focused on the job, and not squeezing you in between other assignments.’

Both insist that there’s never been a cross word between them. ‘Nick operates with a combination of charm and iron,’ says Matt. ‘The authors he’s worked with all know that he’ll be candid with them about their work. They expect and appreciate that. And it’s the same in the office. Though he’s yet to wield the big stick!’ ‘We have the same taste in plays,’ adds Nick. ‘We talk about plays in the same way, even though we’re from very different generations. And we trust each other’s judgements. He has a great understanding of the work of younger theatre-makers – he really gets them. Yet the fact that NHB has survived for thirty years means I must have been doing something right.’

Nick Hern with NHB authors Howard Brenton (left) and Nicholas Wright (right), July 2018 (photo by Dan Wooller)

Are there ever any differences between them? ‘Matt is much more collegiate that I am,’ says Nick. ‘He seeks consent from the rest of the office, whereas I’m much more autocratic. However, I do look around me at organisations where the leadership is ageing but where they are simply not preparing for the future. I feel incredibly relieved and happy that NHB’s future is assured in Matt’s hands.’

‘There are some differences between us,’ admits Matt. ‘But I really value the fact that Nick is still very much involved with the running of the business. He’s so knowledgeable about plays and playwrights, and he still goes to the theatre more than anyone I know. His indefatigable, undimmed passion for it is inspiring.’

So, no regrets? ‘Occasionally I wonder what might have happened if I hadn’t got the job at Nick Hern Books, and gone into theatre-making instead,’ confesses Matt. ‘But actually, I think I can make more of a genuine contribution to theatre in my current role, through publishing the plays that people will go on reading and performing, and the books that make such a difference to other theatre-makers learning their craft. That’s the contribution we all make at Nick Hern Books.’ Apparently, he still has the advert for the Editorial and Production Assistant role that he cut out from The Guardian’s Media section, sixteen years ago. ‘Sometimes I wonder where I’d be now if I hadn’t bought The Guardian that day!’

Nick Hern interviewing NHB author Jez Butterworth at Amateur Theatre Fest, September 2018 (photos by Ben Copping)

As for Nick, he’s spent most of his career working behind the scenes, the midwife to other, starrier careers. Does he ever crave the limelight himself? ‘Not really. I did a bit of acting when I was at university. I have no great desire to inflict myself on the public.’ Still, he can certainly rise to the occasion when it calls. At the recent Amateur Theatre Fest – a day of talks and workshops for anyone involved in amateur theatre, organised by Nick Hern Books as part of their thirtieth-anniversary celebrations – one of the headline speakers was the playwright Jez Butterworth, whose plays, including Jerusalem and The Ferryman, are published by NHB. When Nick followed Butterworth onto the stage in order to conduct the interview, there was a second roar of approval – this time for the publisher who has brought so many great plays to so many different stages, simply by putting them in print.

The Nick Hern Books team, July 2018 (photo by Dan Wooller)


 

The Nick Hern Books Anniversary Interviews series includes interviews with Harriet Walter, Rona Munro, Lucy Kirkwood, Jack Thorne and Howard Brenton. Catch up with them all here.

Photograph of Nick Hern and Matt Applewhite by Dan Wooller.

Howard Brenton (The Nick Hern Books Anniversary Interviews)

Howard Brenton’s career as a playwright encompasses an extraordinary variety of subjects and many glittering successes, from Pravda and The Romans in Britain to Paul and Never So Good. But, as he tells theatre journalist Al Senter, there have been tricky times too, and he owes the revival of his career to a stint on TV’s Spooks

As a playwright, Howard Brenton has long been associated with a certain kind of politicised, radical and uncompromising sensibility. It’s a view epitomised by his state-of-the-nation collaborations with David Hare (Brassneck and Pravda), his work with Joint Stock (Epsom Downs) and his succès de scandale, The Romans in Britain, which Mary Whitehouse tried – and failed – to close down by launching a criminal prosecution.

So it comes as a shock to discover that, in person, Brenton has a genial charm that belies his reputation and his formidable oeuvre. He has an extensive fund of stories, which he plunders with many a gleeful chuckle. And what is more, he credits his survival as a writer to his work on the television espionage series Spooks.

‘The 1990s were not a good time for me,’ he recalls. ‘There were new people running the Royal Court [which had staged several of his plays, including Magnificence, Greenland, and Berlin Bertie], and I was out of fashion at the National [where Pravda and Romans in Britain had been staged].

‘I’d written a version of Goethe’s Faust for Michael Bogdanov and the RSC, but there was nothing else being offered, and I could see that I was really in trouble. I taught for a while in America and then I wrote a play for RADA [the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art], and it was at a performance of this play at RADA that I met the producer Jane Featherstone, who was putting together a team for what turned out to be Spooks. There was a scene in the play that satirised spies, and Jane asked me if I’d be interested in writing a trial episode – which I did.’

Brenton went on to become a lead writer on the BBC One drama series, penning thirteen episodes between 2002 and 2005, and winning a BAFTA for Best Drama Series in 2003.

‘In a sense Spooks was my rebirth, and it was a tremendous source of discipline for me. Because I was so much older than everybody else on the show, nobody knew me and it meant that I didn’t bring any baggage to the party. There were no pre-conceptions.

‘Then I got a call from Nick Hytner at the National, who’d seen one of my Spooks episodes. He asked me why I wasn’t writing for the theatre, and commissioned a play from me that became Paul.’

That play, staged at the National Theatre in 2005, was a stunning return to form. A provocative inquiry into the life of the apostle Paul, it questions the whole basis of Christianity by presenting Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus as a trick, and even overturning the received facts about Jesus’s death on the cross.

Adam Godley in Howard Brenton’s Paul at the National Theatre, 2005 (photo by Catherine Ashmore)

In the thirteen years since Paul was premiered, Brenton has enjoyed a remarkable period of sustained creativity, averaging a play a year – no mean feat for a playwright, especially one whose imaginative scope and historical subject matter make you think he must have permanent residence at the British Library. Amongst those plays are major achievements such as Never So Good (National Theatre, 2008), about Harold Macmillan and the decline of British imperial power; Anne Boleyn (Shakespeare’s Globe, 2010), about Henry VIII’s second wife and her reckless, passionate espousal of the Protestant Reformation; 55 Days (Hampstead Theatre, 2012), about Oliver Cromwell and the momentous decision to execute King Charles I; Drawing the Line (Hampstead Theatre, 2013), about the partition of India; and Lawrence After Arabia (Hampstead Theatre, 2013), about T.E. Lawrence and his struggle to divest himself of the mythology surrounding him.

There are also such glittering gems as In Extremis (Shakespeare’s Globe, 2006, later revived as Eternal Love), about the 12th-century love affair between Abelard and Heloise; #aiww: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei (Hampstead Theatre, 2013), about the imprisonment of the Chinese artist by state authorities; The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (Liverpool Everyman, 2010), an adaptation of Robert Tressell’s classic and very funny novel about the working lives of a group of housepainters; and The Blinding Light (Jermyn Street Theatre, 2017), about Swedish playwright August Strindberg’s so-called ‘Inferno’ period, when he took leave of his senses and devoted himself to the practise of alchemy.

Iranian Nights by Tariq Ali and Howard Brenton, the first of Brenton’s plays to be published by Nick Hern Books

All of those plays and more have been published by Nick Hern Books. Brenton has had a working relationship with Nick Hern since Hern was drama editor at Methuen Drama, which published Brenton’s early plays. When Hern, increasingly dismayed at the way Methuen was being handled by a series of consortia, broke away in 1988 to form his own imprint, Brenton went with him, one of a quartet of writers that also included Caryl Churchill, David Edgar and Nicholas Wright. It was a vote of confidence in his editor, and without it, Nick Hern Books might well not have survived. One of the first titles published by the fledgling imprint was Brenton’s Iranian Nights, written with Tariq Ali and premiered at the Royal Court in 1989. ‘I remember going to see Nick when he was part of Random House,’ recalls Brenton. ‘I have a vivid memory of walking down an endless corridor in a building on the Vauxhall Bridge Road, and then finding Nick in a corner at the end of it.’ Small beginnings, but Brenton has stuck with his editor, praising his habit of plain-speaking whenever they are discussing one of his plays.

Howard Brenton (left) with Nick Hern (centre) and Nicholas Wright (right) at the Nick Hern Books 30th anniversary party in July 2018 (photo by Dan Wooller)

Brenton is charmingly vague about the number of plays he’s actually written – he’ll leave that to the theatre historians. Meanwhile, it’s the real business of history, the stuff that changes people’s lives, that interests him.

Anne Boleyn by Howard Brenton, published by Nick Hern Books

‘I like setting my plays at times of crisis, at times of great social change,’ he says. ‘I’m also a great believer in the “Schiller Manoeuvre”. In his play Maria Stuart, Friedrich Schiller brings together Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots in a pivotal scene, despite the fact that in real life they never met. I did the same in my play Anne Boleyn, bringing together Anne and William Tyndale, although they too never met.’

As a dramatist, Brenton is clearly drawn to characters who, grappling with the big ideas of their day, find their idealism compromised by the messy business of reality: Oliver Cromwell  in 55 Days, trying to reconcile revolutionary fervour with constitutional necessity, and finding himself having to compromise with a king who will do no such thing; Cyril Radcliffe, the lawyer who, in Drawing the Line, is given six weeks to draw the border that will divide the Indian sub-continent in two and determine the fate of millions of people; Harold Macmillan, who, in Never So Good, finds himself woefully out of his depth as an empire begins to crumble around him; and Paul, the erstwhile scourge of Christians who becomes one of Christ’s most devout disciples. ‘I call them “dirty saints”,’ says Brenton: those who reach for the stars, despite having feet of clay.

Jeremy Irons as Harold Macmillan in Howard Brenton’s Never So Good at the National Theatre, 2008 (photo by Catherine Ashmore)

He is responsible for one of the most charismatic figures in modern drama, the monstrous media tycoon Lambert Le Roux in Pravda, co-written with David Hare. The mesmerising performance by Anthony Hopkins in the 1985 National Theatre production  became, in retrospect, a dry run for Hopkins’ portrayal of another monster: Hannibal Lecter in the 1991 film The Silence of the Lambs.

‘With Pravda, something happened that can occur with writers and their characters. We had intended to do a version of Faust, with Andrew the newspaper editor tempted by Le Roux as Mephistopheles; but we fell in love with Lambert in the way that Shakespeare makes audiences complicit with Richard III or Macbeth.’

Brenton recalls, too, how the play was steered towards its eventual form through the intervention of Peter Hall, who was then running the National Theatre. ‘David [Hare] and I rented a flat in Brighton, and every Monday I’d take the train to Brighton and David would drive down and we’d start by telling each other our favourite jokes. Yet at the dress rehearsal the play barely got a laugh. So then Peter Hall gave us a very useful note. He advised us to “meet the Monster plot”. In other words, the play had a tremendous appetite for plot, so we should feed it accordingly.’

Anthony Hopkins (left) in Howard Brenton and David Hare’s Pravda at the National Theatre, 1985 (photo by Nobby Clark)

Perhaps this ability to handle the complexities of plot – not always a component of the modern playwright’s skill set – is one of the reasons Brenton succeeded in the plot-hungry environment of the television drama series.

‘I firmly believe that a television audience will accept complex ideas if the quality of the writing is good enough,’ he argues. ‘After Spooks, I was something of a Golden Boy. I was commissioned to tour all over China for one project, and there was also a Hollywood movie and a four-part television series that never got made. I recently spoke to one of our most successful writers in theatre, films and television, and he estimates that only one in three of his projects ever gets made.’ This must be one of the most maddening aspect of Brenton’s trade, and yet he dismisses it with a shrug. Perhaps, for a writer of his prolific qualities, it poses no real problem. More likely, he’s learned how to cope with the exigencies of the business and is happiest when he’s hard at work on a new play. He jokingly refers to himself when he’s at work as ‘The Man in the Bunker’. He insists, however, that he’s no workaholic.

‘I remember Shaw’s biographer, Michael Holroyd, remarking that Shaw, for all his massive output, was actually comparatively lazy, and would prefer to waste his time on some minor pursuit rather that getting on with the job in hand. We writers refer to this phenomenon as “Teach Yourself Spanish” syndrome. I’m certainly very lazy: work for me comes in spasms.’

Brenton is currently writing a new play for Hampstead Theatre, and there will be a revival next year of his most recent play, The Shadow Factory, about the wartime Government’s requisitioning of local businesses in Southampton to use as covert factories for the production of Spitfires. The play was commissioned to open Southampton’s new theatre, NST City, where it premiered in February 2018.

Spasmodic or otherwise, let’s hope that Brenton won’t have cause to venture far from the Bunker in future.

Howard Brenton’s The Shadow Factory at NST City, Southampton, 2018 (photo by Manuel Harlan)


Many of Howard Brenton’s plays are published by Nick Hern Books, including his most recent play, The Shadow Factory, which will be revived at NST City, Southampton, in January 2019.

For a full list of Brenton’s plays published by Nick Hern Books, visit our website here, where they are available in paperback or ebook formats with at least a 20% discount.

Nick Hern Books is celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2018 – visit our website to stay up to date with everything that’s happening throughout the year.

Other Nick Hern Books Anniversary Interviewees include Harriet Walter, Rona Munro, Lucy Kirkwood and Jack Thorne. Catch up with them all here.

Author photo by Dan Wooller.

THEATRE AWARDS ROUND-UP: with James Seabright

Olivier Awards logo
The annual awards season is drawing to a close, and we’re thrilled that so many NHB plays and theatrebooks have picked up gongs along the way. The King’s Speech won both the Bafta and Academy Award for Best Screenplay; Simon Callow beat off stiff competition to take the Sheridan Morley Prize for Theatre Biography with My Life in Pieces; and Howard Brenton’s Anne Boleyn was voted the Best Play of 2010 by the 45,000 theatre-going voters in the WhatsOnStage.com Awards.

Anne Boleyn jacket

This Sunday is the biggest theatre awards in the UK calendar – the Oliviers – and both Nina Raine’s Tribes and Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park are nominated for Best Play – the latter having already picked up the same prize at the Evening Standard and Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards. James Seabright, author of So You Want to be a Theatre Producer?, considers the impact of the Oliviers, and how he feels about being nominated for the first time…

‘This is an exciting year for the Olivier awards. A major relaunch funded by sponsorship from Mastercard has allowed its organisers, the Society of London Theatre, to give the whole event a much bigger public profile. This includes a red-carpet style ceremony this coming Sunday at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, with extensive coverage on the BBC both in advance – through the Audience Award promoted via Radio 2 – and on the night, as you can watch the whole thing via the red button at home, or listen in on the radio.  I see all of these as very welcome developments, especially for the selfish reason that for the first time one of my productions has been nominated in the awards: Potted Panto is up for Best Entertainment.

So on Sunday, I will be donning a tuxedo (the last time I did was a decade ago!), and joining several colleagues from the show – and several hundred from the industry as a whole – at my first-ever red carpet awards ‘do’. The hope is that, despite the considerable competition presented by major hits in our category like The Railway Children and Ghost Stories, our show is smiled upon by the mysterious panel of Olivier voters.  Whether or not that happens – it will be a great opportunity to celebrate the success of the show, which is the third in the series of “Potted Productions” that I have developed with Daniel Clarkson and Jefferson Turner since first seeing them perform an early version of Potted Potter at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2006.  Potted Panto is the first of these to transfer to a proper West End run, hence making it eligible for Olivier consideration. So whatever the envelope reveals on Sunday,  the awards will be a welcome celebration of five years’ hard work developing a fringe format into a mainstream, award-nominated one.

As well as this year’s awards taking on a new format and enhanced presence in the public eye, it feels like there are some exciting developments in terms of up-and-coming theatre practitioners being acknowledged through the Olivier shortlists – and not just the single category given over to ‘Affiliate venues’, as the off-West End houses are euphemistically known. It is particularly welcome to see the wonderful work of the team at Opera Up Close being recognised with a nomination for their production of La Bohème, which moved all the way from a pub theatre in Kilburn to two record-breaking runs at Soho Theatre. Now that would be a quite extraordinary achievement, to win an Olivier above the publicly-funded opera houses. So for a whole host of reasons, selfish and otherwise, I’m hoping that the underdog wins out on Sunday night!’

So You Want To Be A Theatre ProducerJames Seabright runs his own production company Seabright Productions and is the author of So You Want To Be a Theatre Producer? (£12.99, 9781854595379). You can order your copy of this title – plus any of the award-winning books featured in this post – through the NHB website with free P&P by adding ‘AWARDS blog offer’ in the comments field (UK customers only).

Potted Panto is currently touring the UK to June 2011, click here for more information and to book tickets.