profiles - a light-hearted look at industry personalities

No. 49 in a continuing series

Caricatures by

David Lewis

Philip Sparkes

Managing Director, Maltbury Ltd

In his school days, Philip Sparkes was best known for treading the boards rather than making them, but we all have to start somewhere! This interest in drama stemmed from taking part in a number of school productions, including playing Birdboot in Tom Stoppard's The Real Inspector Hound, the MC in Oh! What a Lovely War and, more amusingly, explains Philip "as a butterfly in the Capek Brothers' The Insect Play - a serious play performed in a hippy-ish, 70s style with extraordinary music and costumes".

Although he had no specific ambitions except to do ‘something' in the world of theatre, reading English at Cambridge gave him the opportunity to explore his acting talents further. His claim to fame was being upstaged by a youthful Stephen Fry in an undergraduate production of Stephen Poliakoff's City Sugar. But not one to bear a grudge, Philip is philosophical, believing that "I am probably not the only person to whom this has happened!"

In 1979, his dedication to acting paid off when he was chosen to join the cast of the Almeida Theatre Company's first production, Woyzeck in Edinburgh. The experience proved to be enlightening, with Philip soon realising that acting wasn't for him.

But he didn't turn his back on the drama scene altogether, and on leaving Cambridge tried his hand front of house at Hampstead Theatre, where he met his partner Jane, who was Box Office Manager there.

Philip then moved into the world of scenery making, where he stayed for a couple of years, learning a variety of practical skills that were previously alien to him. Not only did his creations adorn productions in the West End and at the National Theatre, but he got paid a real salary for the first time! The money gave him the chance to save - not for a house, but to go travelling, and in 1985 he and Jane visited the USSR, China and Tibet, ending up in Japan. Initial plans had been to stay in Japan for a few weeks, but the weeks turned out to be four years. To earn a living, they both taught English in Tokyo and Sapporo, where Philip became director of a school.

Japan taught him some useful lessons for running a business, not least of which is that good service should be a given, not something for which one is expected to pay extra. Memories include the wonder of sitting outside in a hot spring while surrounded by a landscape covered in snow - and being able to ski every winter weekend for two seasons!

But the time came to swap his kimono for his backpack and Philip returned to London in 1990, where he soon gave up teaching to re-visit the world of theatre, working for Steeldeck.

Five years later, he decided to go it alone and set up Maltbury. His experience with Steeldeck had taught him that staging products tend to be a balance between the various elements of cost, weight, strength, size, etc, and he wondered what would happen if he altered the balance of the elements. The result was Metrodeck, the most popular of all the Maltbury range of staging products, which has been used in such prestigious venues as the Barbican, the National Indoor Arena and Westminster Cathedral - as well as schools and regional theatres and numerous other venues up and down the country.

Although he has acted since Almeida, Philip is sure now that his thespian days are over for good and is content to ensure the boards are safe, strong and sound for other people to tread!

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