Remembering 'romantic and hard-headed' Tony Thornton - special concert to honour former chairman of Sheffield theatre's trust

Here's an image you might not expect: on a Sunday morning in early summer a long, lean figure rides a bicycle down Fulwood Road in Sheffield ... wearing a nightshirt.

Thursday, 8th July 2021, 6:00 am
Pictured left to right actors Michael Irving and Deborah Findlay, set designer Roger Glossop, author Rony Robinson, and Clare Venables serving champagne, December 29, 1981.
Pictured left to right actors Michael Irving and Deborah Findlay, set designer Roger Glossop, author Rony Robinson, and Clare Venables serving champagne, December 29, 1981.

He's on his way not from a party but to one and it's Tony Thornton, a man with a sharp business brain who turned the family confectionery firm into an immediately recognisable presence on the country's high streets, the first chairman of the Crucible Theatre Trust to understand marketing. And a man generally sharply turned out.

But Tony, who died this year aged 91 and will be celebrated at a uniquely special concert in the Crucible Studio on July 10, was complex. Romantic, but hard-headed; passionate about theatre and classical music but fiercely intolerant of “artistic flim-flam”. He wasn't a politician or an arts professional and he brought a fresh mind and heart to the scene.

Famously, he heard the Lindsay String Quartet in a Beethoven festival in Sydney and asked himself and them why we couldn't have something like it in Sheffield where they all lived.

Tony Thornton (right), Chairman of the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, pictured in October 1984

It's less well-known that the Crucible leadership – artistic director Clare Venables and administrator Geoffrey Rowe weren't at all keen on the idea. “We were indifferent,” as Rowe diplomatically put it to me recently.

But Tony was also an operator. David Brown, chair of the libraries and arts committee of Sheffield Council, faced bitter opposition when he proposed backing Tony's appointment as Crucible chair: Sheffield was still heavily unionised and Thornton's was a non-union company. But Brown won, and provided a route to Yorkshire Arts and Music Officer David Whelton and so to funding in support of the first Sheffield Chamber Music Festival.

Tony didn't go to university. When his father and uncle took over the family firm on their father's early death they needed Tony on the factory floor.

Hence perhaps his commitment to making music and theatre available to young people. The Mayfield Valley Arts Trust, which he and his second wife 'Scilla founded, would support organisations which shared this aim, Music in the Round, York Early Music Festival and Leeds Lieder among them.

Clare Venables pictured outside the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, July 1981.

When he took on the financially-challenged Crucible in the 1980s, Tudor Square was a poorly-surfaced car park and the Lyceum was a wreck neither the owners nor the city council wanted to rebuild.

A subscription ticket sales scheme was introduced – basically you got a “free” show or two if you bought a whole package, like a bargain box of chocolates where you might give (say) the occasional marzipan ones to someone else if you didn't like them. For a year the Crucible had more ticket buyers than would have filled to capacity any other producing theatre in the north.

The scheme ceases to work when the programming gets too adventurous and the box seems to be full of marzipans. But Tony also spotted the ways money can leak out of artistic organisations and plugged the holes.

His key relationship was with Clare Venables, a glamorous figure often dressed in flowing white outfits. He loved being her friend and would send her flowers, but when she overspent on a production at the last minute he threatened to intervene if it happened again: the hard-headed romantic.

The other key relationship was with Peter Cropper. The visionary leader of the Lindsay String Quartet was a hugely distinctive violinist whose emotional style and chatty introductions could divide critic ,but he could break your heart with a Beethoven phrase.

That relationship could be volatile too, and occasionally required appeasing telephone calls on both sides.

Tony and 'Scilla moved to Arizona and in due course he resigned from the Crucible but in the 1990s he was on hand to support the extension of capacity in the Studio to make it financially viable.

His relationships with administrators were calmer. Geoffrey Rowe got on well with him, as did Delma Tomlin who went from the Sheffield Chamber Music Festival to found what became the National Centre for Early Music in York.

She describes Tony as “a friend, a mentor, a business advisor, all over a nice lunch. Pete (Cropper) and I were extraordinarily fortunate to have him.”

So the concert on July 10 in the Studio, and streamed on Vimeo: a rich mix with Tony's favourite composers and artists representing the institutions he supported: soprano Sarah Fox, the young men of The Gesualdo Six, and the fabulous home team of Ensemble 360. The music includes Schubert's Trout in song and string quintet versions, Mozart and – to finish where the journey began – Beethoven.

Oh, and that bike ride. Pre-lockdown, May Festivals tended to end in a small-hours party, but back when the Lindsays had young children to get home to, Peter and Nina Cropper suggested a pyjama party at breakfast the following morning. And that was what Tony Thornton and his wife 'Scilla were cycling to in their night attire.

Live concerts are back! Tickets for the autumn season of Music in the Round, one of the organisations for whom Tony Thornton’s sustained support has been critical, go on sale at noon on Tuesday (July 13). Featured performers include Roderick Williams, possibly Britain's most popular baritone, jazz pianist and Radio 3 presenter Julian Joseph and the regular stars of Ensemble 360. Music ranges from Bach and Beethoven to classical guitar and accordion and some world premieres.