By Jeremy Miles
WITH his silvery swept back hair and gold-topped cane Charles Vance - "the last of the actor managers" - cuts quite a dash.
From his neck hangs a 15th century Indian hunting whistle. Indira Ghandi gave it to him. "It's my talisman," he says. "I never take it off. I'd be terrified."
There are those who will say that 76-year-old Vance will be well advised to cling as tightly as possible to his lucky charm as he embarks on a summer repertory season at Bournemouth's Pier Theatre.
Next week his company will stage the vintage Marc Camelotti farce Boeing Boeing - the first of four plays destined for the old theatre in the next month. It's classic end-of-the-pier stuff. Scheming bachelor Robert has the perfect set up - a smart Paris flat and three air-hostess fiances. As one flies out another flies in. They never meet. Then one day fog grounds all their planes at Charles de Gaulle Airport.
This will be followed by a couple of thrillers and an Ayckbourn. Vance - an actor and manager for more than 50 years - reckons he'll make a killing. Others mutter darkly about the curse of the pier theatre.
That "curse" has in recent years found actors performing to near empty houses. At least one show - No Sex Please We're British - did such dreadful business that it was forced to close weeks before the end of its run.
In 1993 the IRA tried (unsuccessfully) to blow up the theatre midway through a run of Don't Dress For Dinner and a decade later Avengers actor Gareth Hunt collapsed on stage from a suspected heart attack mid way through the Press night of Absurd Person Singular. It would seem to be jinxed.
Charles Vance is having none of it. "If you give people good theatre they'll go and see it. It's as simple as that," he booms. And that, he says, is precisely what he intends to do, stage hand-picked plays with a hand-picked cast.
He dismisses suggestions that end-of-the-pier rep is a thing of the past with a sweep of the hand and a series of expletives.
"We don't stop doing Shakespeare because his plays were written 450 years ago. Quality is what counts."
His methods have paid dividends in Wolverhampton where his repertory company has been resident for the past 15 years. In that time the season has doubled in length to two months every summer and is so popular that people buy season tickets before they even know what the plays are. This year it is 70 per cent sold out already.
These are the kind of sales figures that in recent years Bournemouth's Pier Theatre has barely dared dream of.
Vance says the town could do much to help improve the theatre's appeal. "The approach to the seafront is a disgrace. Walking down by the back of the Pavilion to the Pier is absolutely horrible. It looks like the Bronx. It's covered in litter and detritus and has all the appeal of a fun-fair that closed down 20 years ago."
Mind you he has his own secret weapon in the form of his leading actor Nick Barclay "My prodigy", he says. Nick, he assures, me drives the women of Wolverhampton wild. "They go berserk if he doesn't autograph their programmes."
Lock up your daughters, he's heading for Bournemouth. "He's the Viagra of my company," beams Vance.
Boeing Boeing opens for a five night run at Bournemouth Pier Theatre on Tuesday, May 23. Tickets: 08701 113000.