On hearing that plans are advancing for a new theatre in London's West End, some may be tempted to echo the fictional civil servant Humphrey Appleby and declare it a "courageous move". In this context, of course, "courageous" means "foolhardy".

Co-Founders of Trafalgar Entertainment, Dame Rosemary Squire
Co-Founders of Trafalgar Entertainment, Dame Rosemary Squire and Sir Howard Panter. Trafalgar Entertainment

Sir Howard Panter, who, with his wife and business partner Dame Rosemary Squire, is the moving force behind the project, does not agree. The coronavirus and its accompanying restrictions, he says, have not changed the elemental need that has always drawn people to the performing arts.

"People are social animals," he says. "They want to be with other people. Safely, yes, and we will provide a safe environment. They want to be with others to enjoy performances."

This desire, says Sir Howard, is as old as the theatre itself, and stretches from the ancient world across the millennia to our own time. Looking post-epidemic, he sees great opportunities for live drama.

International hit musical
International hit musical, Jersey Boys, coming to Trafalgar Theatre on London’s West End in April 2021. Trafalgar Entertainment

The Trafalgar Theatre sits on Whitehall, just off Trafalgar Square, and will open in the Spring. He has little doubt that theatregoers will come, undaunted by the unavoidable precautions needed in the Covid-19 era.

"There is a real pent-up demand," he says. "People want to return to public venues rather than be stuck inside all the time, looking at a screen.

"It is not just a theatre thing. Recently, I was outside a fish and chip restaurant and people were queueing to get in."

But, Sir Howard believes, the arts have a special appeal, not least at times like this. "In terms of live performance, people want to have stories told to them and to listen to great music."

He added: "On a voluntary basis, I am chair of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. On Friday October 23, I saw the Birmingham Royal Ballet. It was socially distanced but they got a standing ovation which, when you think about it, is always an extraordinary event – large numbers of people who do not know each other standing up and applauding.

"People were delighted to be back in a live environment."

International hit musical
International hit musical, Jersey Boys, coming to Trafalgar Theatre on London’s West End in April 2021. Trafalgar Entertainment

The Trafalgar Theatre has a long and varied history. For some time in the Eighties, it was a "theatre of war", essentially a military exhibition, with occasional blasts of battlefield sound effects from outside loudspeakers enlivening the working environment of ministerial mandarins.

This came to an end when the planning authorities reminded the then owner that it was licensed only for live performances. Sir Howard recalls that, under the ownership of his previous company, Ambassador Theatre Group, the venue was renamed Trafalgar Studios and featured two performance spaces, the "studios" of the name, one larger than the other but both small by the standards of the London stage.

He says: "The studios were a shop window for the work of various writers. We are proud of what was achieved there."

So why change? "There is now plenty of competition in terms of the provision of smaller studios, so we decided it was time to upgrade."

This upgrade is, in one sense, a case of "back to the future". The Grade II listed building is being converted into a single, larger auditorium and its original Art Deco interior is being restored. This, in turn, brings echoes of the building's glory days as the Whitehall Theatre, opened in 1930 and with an illustrious record of productions ranging from Brian Rix's renowned Whitehall Farces to Anyone for Denis?, which poked fun at Prime Ministerial consort Denis Thatcher, then living a brisk walk away in Downing Street.

But in another sense, this is a brand-new, 21st Century theatre, with all the seats being replaced, a new stalls bar installed and a much more spacious foyer. Sir Howard says: "We need to be responsive to the demands of an ever-changing theatre landscape and consider the expectations of a modern London theatre-going audience."

Today, the theatre gives it name to Trafalgar Entertainment, Sir Howard and Dame Rosemary's international live entertainment business. It takes in the Theatre Royal Sydney and live broadcast interests, Trafalgar Releasing, that transmit theatrical productions via cinema screens. This last activity may sound as if Trafalgar Entertainments has set up in competition with itself, but Sir Howard is adamant that this is not the case.

Quite the contrary.

"The live performance broadcasts through cinemas do not cannibalise the actual live performances," he says. "In fact, they grow the audience. Over more than 25 years, we have found it can increase the live audience by up to one third.

"Trafalgar produces a virtuous circle in which the different parts leverage off each other."

Theatre impresario, Sir Howard Panter.
Theatre impresario, Sir Howard Panter. Trafalgar Entertainment

Another aspect of Trafalgar's activities is the Stagecoach Performing Arts Education Company, the country's largest network of part-time acting schools for children aged from four years upwards. In its 30-year history, Stagecoach has worked with more than a million young people.

In its own words: "We teach our students so much more than how to sing, dance and act. We help them blossom into well-rounded individuals, ready to embrace life and all its opportunities." It tells them: "Be creative and have the courage to be yourself, whatever you do."

As Stagecoach readies the next generation of performers, it urges them not to be afraid to take a risk. And mention of risk brings us back to where we started and the question that, even assuming some improvement in the economic and social outlook by Spring 2021, is the time of the coronavirus really the right moment to open a major new West End theatre? Sir Howard is confident that it will be.

"Trafalgar Theatre will comply with Covid-19 secure guidelines," he says. "In addition to hand sanitation, face coverings and track and trace, other measures will include contactless tickets, temperature testing and the deep clean and sanitation of the theatre."

He concludes: "There will be bumps in the road, but live performance is definitely coming back. It is all about people with a common interest sharing it together. Sport is very similar."

Perhaps most important of all, says Sir Howard: "Tickets are selling." For the country's foremost theatre impresario, that is good news indeed.

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