Interview: Stephen Dando-Collins on Robert Stigwood

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Stephen Dando-Collins is a Tasmania-based writer of historical works – both fiction and non-fiction and, most recently The Hero Maker, the first ever biography of Paul Brickhill, the Australian-born author of The Great Escape, The Dam Busters, and Reach for the Sky.

His latest book is about a famous South Aussie, Robert Stigwood, born in Port Pirie and who is summed up nicely on Wikipedia as a “music entrepreneur, film producer and impresario, best known for managing Cream and the Bee Gees, theatrical productions like Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar and film productions including the extremely successful Grease and Saturday Night Fever.”

Mr. Showbiz – The Biography of Robert Stigwood was released earlier this month through Penguin Australia so our own Glen Christie caught up with Stephen Dando-Collins to chat about this new biography that highlights one of SA’s great exports!

Good afternoon, Stephen. Your previous works have been historical works, with a particular focus on war-time. What made you decide to move to writing a work about Robert Stigwood?

I had recently completed my work on Paul Brickell – who also had a connection to Port Pirie – and was looking for another Australian who had made their mark.

It was my wife who suggested Robert Stigwood. In my younger years, I played drums in a band (not a particularly well-known or successful one) and we used to play songs by The Who and Cream, so Robert Stigwood was responsible for the soundtrack of my life. I look to write about people with whom I have some emotional connection.

In researching the book, a lot of the contributors were obviously happy to talk about their relationship with Stigwood, but wanted to remain anonymous. Why was that?

One person that I spoke to was adamant about remaining anonymous, due to having spoken previously and it had significant legal ramifications, which they were keen to avoid repeating. There are also a number of people who are still connected to the industry – be it music, television or film – who are very aware of the professional impact that talking about Stigwood could have on their careers, today and into the future.

Robert Stigwood passed away, last year, just days before David Bowie – do you think this contributed to the lackluster attendance at Stigwood’s funeral and memorial services?

That was certainly part of it – but, also, Stigwood had become a recluse. He had been a recluse for over a decade at the time that he died. Most of the people who he knew and worked with had lost contact. Beryl Virtue, who was very close to Stigwood, hadn’t seen him and many people thought he was still living on the Isle of Wight, but he’d moved to Ascot.

If you look at the very last photo in the book, taken on Robert’s 76th birthday, it was taken in the kitchen of his home – with himself and his companion, Patrick Bywalski. The reason it was taken there was that there was no-one in attendance and it made the gathering look less sparse.

Stigwood didn’t have an entertainment industry background. What do you think gave him the ability to identify the opportunities and talents that he cultivated?

There were two things that it comes down to: first of all, Stigwood had total belief in his judgement. He always believed in everything and everyone he dealt with.

Secondly, and probably most importantly, he learned a lot of lessons from his first outing into Artist Management. The main lesson learnt was to use other people’s money. He began with a loan from his business partner, Stephen Komlosy’s parents but he learnt to find ways to fund his ventures with other people’s money.

What else do you think made him so successful and, indeed, tenacious – if you look at ‘Oscar/Paul Nicholas’, for instance – how did Stigwood ensure success?

He simply had a way with words – if you look at Cream, who were touring the US and ready to break up, he would say to them: “Give me one more week…” or “Do it for me..” and they continued touring for another seven months.

With business enterprises, if he could convince the boss of a major company, he’d go to the boss’s wife and shower her with gifts and theatre tickets and use her to get what he needed.

So Stigwood was a businessmen and a unique one for his time – what do you think he would make of the current instant fame, instant gratification, Simon Cowell-style approach?

The elder Stigwood would want not part of it, I think. I believe he would see nothing worthy in it. That said, the 21-year old Stigwood would find a way to make it work to his advantage. YouTube artists are always looking for a way to make money – I believe Stigwood would have been the kind of man who would’ve identified a unique and different avenue to make that work.

A lateral thinker, rather than a literal one.

Exactly! When Stigwood left Australia for the UK he saw an opportunity – and that was a key element of his success. He saw opportunities and went for them. In the UK, at the time, there was no commercial radio whereas, in Australia, commercial radio was accepted. It was all BBC Radio.

Stigwood went to ITV and started to market his commercial talent to them and the BBC didn’t expect commercial radio to have any longevity. He ended up with over 40% of the commercial talent market on his books, all thanks to having an understanding from his time in Australia.

He also took TV shows like ‘Til Death Us Do Part and Steptoe & Son and sold them to American TV, where they became as big as or bigger than the originals.

Stephen, it’s been a pleasure to talk to you and I loved the book. I look forward to seeing what’s next.

Mr. Showbiz – The Biography of Robert Stigwood, by Stephen Dando-Collins
Distributed by: Pengiun Australia
Release date: October 2017
RRP: $34.99 trade paperback, $14.99 eBook

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