How It All Began

Reporter: Peter Lathan

Dateline: 26th July, 2014

I first ventured on the Internet in 1995. I'd been involved in theatre since I was 12 (in 1955, for God's sake!) as an actor, director, playwright and photographer and, as at that time the occupation that kept the wolf from the door was teaching drama in a north east comprehensive school (the most pleasurable part of which was directing school shows), naturally I looked for web-based resources for that interest.

I couldn't find a thing! Yes, there were some theatre sites (most of which were online versions of current brochures) and a lot of education-related sites but none which specifically related to school plays.

I saw a niche in the market and decided to fill it and so the School Show Page was born. It was on CompuServe (remember CompuServe? It closed in July 1999) and it was slow—in those days download speeds were measured in kilo- rather than megabytes—with chunky (and clunky!) graphics but it was new and exciting and I threw myself into it with vigour.

The SSP had how-to articles, news stories, links to other resources and copies of my own plays for download. It became quite popular in its niche and towards the end of 1996 I was approached by New York-based General Internet to create a web site for them. They were trading under the name The Mining Company and they were setting up a range of web sites, each run by an "expert guide", which would "mine" the Internet for resources in each subject area.

Would I be interested in setting up a site for British Theatre? Of course I would, particularly as they were offering payment, so I underwent some online training and in February 1997 my site went live. It consisted of lists of links (with editorial comment) to specific pages within theatre sites, feature articles and a news digest and was updated weekly.

The first review I did was of the touring production of Bob Carlton's From a Jack to a King on 18 June 1997—it is still online—and in August that year I spent ten days at the Edinburgh Fringe, reviewing a total of 35 shows and keeping an online Fringe Diary.

I was asked recently if the BTG was the first web site to run theatre reviews but of course it wasn't. However the Mining Company site was one of the first to feature reviews from outside of London and to look regularly at and champion theatre in the regions. In 1997, almost all theatre news and information sites were London-centric.

Gradually it built up. The Mining Company changed its name to About.com, a weekly Newsletter was started (which eventually had a circulation of over 4,000) and at the 2001 Edinburgh Fringe I met Philip Fisher who was looking to expand his reviewing in London. It seemed a logical progression for us to have a London presence—everyone thought I must be London-based anyway: how could you have a British Theatre site based in Sunderland, for God's sake!—so Philip joined us.

Then About.com was taken over by US media conglomerate Primedia and suddenly everything changed.

There were over 900 sites by this time, but Primedia decided that it was only interested in those which were in some way related to their print titles and so, on 25 September 2001, 300 sites were axed, including mine—the night of the long knives!

Within hours my About e-mail address was shut down, but I started receiving e-mails to my School Show Page address from visitors to the About site. There were over 100 mourning the site's passing and asking me to start it up under my own steam. One sent me a copy of an e-mail she'd sent to About, calling them all kinds of f***wits, and there was even one from the National Theatre, so I was persuaded to start again.

About had come under a lot of pressure from fans of other deleted sites, as a result of which they decided to allow us to use all the material which we had uploaded (something which was expressly forbdden in our contracts) and so I started the process of rebranding.

It took a couple of months and I was greatly helped by a group of ex-About visitors who beta-tested the site, following every single internal link, a major operation because there were 1000 pages transferred across. Eventually everything was ready and the British Theatre Guide launched on 17 November, 2001, and the very first Newsletter was sent out on the same day.

Interesting fact: this week's Newsletter will be no. 648.

Philip and I were soon joined by Catherine Lamm from New York, whom I'd also met in Edinburgh, and fairly quickly afterwards Steve Orme (West Midlands), Pete Wood (East Midlands) and David Chadderton (North West) joined us. Later Pete moved to Bristol and continued to contribute reviews from there and Steve took over responsibility for the Midlands as a whole.

And so it grew as we were joined by many more reviewers and other contributors from across the country and from Europe and the US. In November 2011 we celebrated our tenth year with an anniversary party at the National Theatre—and thanks to them for giving us the venue!

By then I had decided that it was time for me to step down as editor and I asked David Chadderton, who had joined us in 2003, to take over and by February the following year the hand-over was complete.

There were many reasons for this: the Internet had moved on and we needed someone who could take advantage of the huge changes in the technology and David had the skills to do this; I felt that I had done all I could and a new hand on the helm was needed; my own creative work as a director and writer was beginning to take up more time as my energy—I reached 70 that April—was declining.

It was definitely the right decision; in the more than three years of his tenure David has revitalised the site, bringing it bang up to date whilst retaining the standards we had set over the years.