Remembering Theo

2016 marks the twenty-fifth year since Theo Cowan’s death. This most cherished friend and associate joined the Namara Group in September 1981 when I quietly acquired the controlling interest in one of the best established theatre PR agencies in the West End. This was Theo Cowan Ltd, which had recently changed its name to Cowan Bellew Associates.

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Theo was a legend who had founded his company some sixteen years earlier after working as the publicity supremo of the Rank Organization in its heyday in the film industry. During that time he enjoyed a lavish lifestyle, entertaining the stars and earning himself the reputation of a ladies’ man. At one time he had a close relationship with Margaret Lockwood and it hit him very hard when they broke up. In the 1950s he helped to groom the likes of Diana Dors and Joan Collins. The firm of Theo Cowan Ltd had undergone internal changes following the departure of the publicist Sue Hyman and the elevation to associate status of Laurie Bellew, Theo’s assistant for a decade. Among the shows it had been responsible for launching were A Little Night Music, Company and Fiddler on the Roof.

Both Theo and I were reticent about the nature of our association when we faced the press at its start. It was imperative to maintain that Theo’s autonomy was in no way at risk. The goodwill generated by his name was a key factor in the success of the business and neither of us was going to give an impression that the new development would compromise Theo’s ability to operate in total freedom. I was also aware that my crusade for a just solution to the problem of the dispossessed Palestinian people was unlikely to win me universal approval in show-business circles. Hence the low profile we kept at the outset. Our strategy was simply to let the dust settle, and then there would be no more questions to answer; but it did not quite work out that way. The nature of the relationship gave rise to all sorts of speculation. The press called it ‘Publicist’s Mystery Link’ after I conceded a new association had been formed and hinted at a financial tie-up, while adding, ‘I would not say that I am the new owner.’ Theo, on the other hand, went so far as to say it mattered not at all who owned what so long as the service remained the same, stressing that he would be retaining his independence.

Cowan Bellew duly moved to Namara House, my new headquarters at 45 Poland Street, where they occupied an entire floor. (My previous office at Wellington Court was now vacated, although we had a good lease on it. It would yet play a further role.) Namara House was a place buzzing with events.The basement, which served as a dining-room as well as a boardroom, was spacious and elegantly furnished, and there I entertained to luncheon a wide variety of people. Theo was also able to take advantage of the facilities to receive his clients. In the entrance hall to Namara House stood a large sculpture of a Palestinian fighter by Nicholas Dimbleby, which had been inspired by his brother Jonathan’s book, The Palestinians. It was a powerful work and occasionally provoked caustic mutterings, but they were never so audible as to cause offence.

The fresh financial backing Cowan Bellew obtained from Namara enabled them to expand their list of clients, the most important addition being Channel4 Television. From my own point of view it was a most useful association. They handled publicity for the group and often coordinated activities with Namara Public Relations, which had its own clients, though they were drawn from a different field. The group was now able to move towards becoming self-sufficient, with its own art and design studios – a set-up of mutual benefit to every division. It was the start of another new era.

Theo died in his office at Namara House at the age of seventy-three. It happened just after lunch when, following his usual custom, he had taken a snooze for half an hour in his favourite chair opposite his long-time friend and assistant Jane Harker, with whom he shared his desk. That same morning Theo had  been to see me at Regent Street to discuss various issues that were pending with regard to Namara Cowan. He was jolly, and as usual kept me au courant with what was happening in our show-business arm. We were then in a difficult period compounded by Theo’s generosity in giving ample time to many of the famous stars he represented without receiving a commensurate return for his services. He wanted my reassurance that my support would continue till the dawn of better days, which we were likely to see soon. He left my office happy and reassured, and reported the gist of our conversation to Jane Harker before settling for his forty winks. When it was time for him to wake up, Claudia Ward shook him gently and he keeled over, quite dead. He had departed peacefully, having ended his journey discreetly, just as he would have wished.

Theo was a legend in his own lifetime, considered by many to be the doyen of Britain’s show-business publicists. He was judged by his peers to be the best and, as The Times said, was admired by stars and scribblers alike. For more than four decades he projected or protected an élite stable of clients, including the veteran actor Joseph Cotton, Sir Richard Attenborough, Dirk Bogarde, Sir John Mills, Michael Caine, Jeremy Irons, Bob Hoskins, Jenny Agutter, Julian Lloyd Webber and, until their deaths, David Niven and Peter Sellers. In his letters to his clients, continued The Times, ‘he would usually sign himself “Beau-nosh” – a reference to his prodigious enthusiasm for food of almost any description. “A legend in his own lunchtime,” they would joke.’

The Daily Telegraph remarked that ‘the supreme publicity agent was himself something of a mystery’: his public persona was universally loved, his private one hardly known. His life, it appeared, was his work; and the discretion which his clients valued was never applied more rigorously than to himself. Women adored him as much as he loved them, but he never married. It was known that he had nursed a special tendresse for the late Margaret Lockwood, and in the actress’s reclusive years he was the only man who could break into her isolation.

Dirk Bogarde added his personal tribute, addressing Theo’s departed shade directly with his memories of the many years they had got through together with ‘good movies, bad movies, and here and there a reasonably respectable one’. Theo had always been there on the journeys all over the country: Red carpets and station-masters in top hats. Black ties and eternal dinners with Mayors. Day after day from one city to another. You and me. Everything planned like clockwork, ready on time, never once late, not even the train . . . Discipline you taught; patience, humility and tact. You did amazingly well by doing not what you were engaged to do – keeping me away from the worst excesses of the popular press. Keeping me ‘out of ’ rather than ‘in’ the public eye for which I will ever be grateful. Those subtle warnings about X and Y who might look kind but couldn’t be trusted with a fly-swat or a feather duster. The ‘killers’ of their time. How frightened we all were of them! But it was you who said: ‘What they say today you’ll eat your chips from tomorrow. Remember that through your tears.’

Like most of those who were well-acquainted with Theo, I can never forget him. His presence alone was a joy. At parties he knew most of the guests and his popularity was something uniquely apparent. For a number of years my wife Maria and I, accompanied by our son, went to the film festival at Cannes to be looked after by Theo, where he was king of ‘The Croisette’. We attended many film premières and were treated regally by everyone we encountered for being merely in his company. Together we raided all the famous restaurants in town and the surrounding hills. It was truly a memorable experience to watch Theo as he devoured one after another of the exquisite dishes he could not resist even after being fully satisfied. I miss him often for his wise counsel, but even more for his kindness and generosity of spirit.

The memorial service for Theo was held at St Martin-in-the-Fields. It was conducted by the Reverend Albert Watson: a most moving occasion with figures from the world of entertainment there in force to pay tribute to one of the best loved publicity agents of his generation, whose popularity among the show-business fraternity was unparalleled. Readings were given at the service by Joss Ackland and Jeremy Irons, while tributes were paid by Donald Sinden, Michael Parkinson and Jenny Agutter, who also read warm appreciations from some who could not be there – Joseph Cotton, James Stewart, Lillian Gish and Barry Cryer. Ron Goodwin introduced a recording of Peter Sellers reading ‘Help’; Petula Clark sang ‘I’ll See You Again’; and Larry Adler, accompanied by Roy Budd on piano, played the theme music from the film Genevieve. Other music was provided by a jazz band made up of Mr Budd with Ian Christie on clarinet, Richard Willcox of BBC Light Entertainment on trombone, Mike Wheeler of Rank Film Distributors on double bass, Bryan Jones on trumpet and Lon Sanger as vocalist. The organist was Mark Stringer and the whole congregation joined in singing ‘OnThe Sunny Side Of The Street’ and ‘When You’re Smiling’.

In fact it turned out to be more of a gig than a memorial service, but that was the way Theo would have liked his life celebrated, with the merriment that was his hallmark. The ceremony was a joyous interlude for remembering a man whose legacy was laced with good memories. I left the church and went out into Trafalgar Square with feelings of mixed happiness and sadness. Theo was no more, but his unobtrusive shade would always remain with those who had had the privilege of knowing him.

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