Laurence Isaacson – The Amazing Tale of a Serial Entrepreneur

For a timid creature who has never once ventured beyond the railings of Primrose Hill, it is incomprehensible that anyone can say, ‘I have been to about 60 per cent of the countries in the world.’ Nah! Not possible.

“I went to school with the Beatles and to University with the Rolling Stones”

Laurence Isaacson who is now a Primrose Hill resident, was born and brought up in Liverpool. “Not brought up, dragged up. In the years just after the war in Liverpool you were either Catholic or Protestant. ‘I’m Jewish,’ I’d say. ‘Yes, but are you a Protestant Jew or a Catholic Jew?’ I went to a very Protestant primary school. They wouldn’t let the Catholics in for prayers with the Protestants, so every morning we’d be locked in a classroom for half an hour. It so happened that I was in the same year as George Harrison. I used to get beaten up by him, and I never forgave him for that.

University

Maybe, but Laurence was not one to let a chance go begging, and we’ll come to that in a minute. Aged seventeen he ‘escaped’ from Liverpool and a lifetime of selling furniture in his father’s store to go to LSE. “Just a school,” his grandfather said. “Pity you didn’t get into university.” In those days – remember them? – you got your fees paid and got a grant to live on, so that escape was possible. LSE is now a place for very clever kids to study so that they become even cleverer, and it was no different then. It was probably a good deal smaller then, and only two per cent of the cohort went to university, unlike today. Today, within fifteen minutes’ walking distance, you have UCL with nearly 28,000 students, Kings with 27,000, Birkbeck with 15,000 and LSE with over 10,000.

At LSE Laurence was in a class for two years with Mick Jagger. “I’d copy his notes and he’d copy mine. He was very bright, very nice, very middle-class.” Jagger didn’t finish the course. Probably had better things to do. But Laurence did finish and then auditioned successfully for a place at RADA (only the best for this boy), but there wasn’t a second grant available, so at the age of twenty he invented the gap year and went to America.

“I got a £60 flight via Newfoundland, bought a Greyhound bus ticket for $99 for 99 days and travelled 14,000 miles. In every big city I would phone the local radio station and say, ‘I’ve just arrived in your wonderful city. I’m from Liverpool. I went to school with the Beatles and to university with the Rolling Stones.’ The response was always the same. ‘Stay right there, Larry, we’ll send a car round.’ ‘It’ll cost you $50.’ ‘No problem, Larry, stay right there. Say something in Liverpudlian.’ So I’d say, ‘Wackers and Judies scouse is up.’ ‘And what does that mean, Larry?’ ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, dinner is served.’ In no time at all the fee went up to $100.”

Unilever

His first real job was with Unilever, based in London for four years, with one further year in Amsterdam. Then Laurence worked for a couple of London’s major adver- tising agencies. They probably didn’t have the word ‘head-hunted’ in 1980, or maybe Laurence invented that term as well as the gap year. However it was, at 27 Laurence was asked by one of London’s top creative directors to help him set up The Creative Business Limited.

“We had a fantastic client list: Unilever, Nestle, Gillette, British Rail, Shell. It was very successful and we sold it to RSCG in Paris. I worked for them for a year but I really didn’t enjoy working for the French, so I left and went to China with a friend. She was on a buying trip, working very hard, but I was having a great holiday. She told me she had a lot of property in Covent Garden and had permission to open a restaurant in Hanover Place, around the corner from the Opera House. Was I interested? Well, I had no time, no money, no experience, but that had never stopped me before so I said if she would give me two years rent-free as an investment, I would do it.”

Le Café des Amis du Vin

And, thus Laurence Isaacson began his restaurant career with his business partner as a restauranteur in Le Café des Amis du Vin. “I knew nothing about the restaurant business and had all the arrogance of ignorance, but if I was anything, I was an entrepreneur. I knew how to put bums on seats. Our restaurant was the fore-runner of places like Café Rouge: no tablecloths, wooden tables, great steak-frites, great moules marinière, great onion soup, great charcuterie, great tarte aux pommes. It was a tremendous success, and eventually we had over two dozen restaurants in London.”

However, lurking at the back of Laurence’s mind while all this was going on was that audition at RADA. The stage was calling, and indeed he did perform in a small theatre on Fire Island, just outside New York, and he took part in three musicals himself, with a non-singing part.

Previously in London he had teamed up with a young couple, Howard Panter and Rosemary Squire. “They had a small company with three theatres in the West End and I had a restaurant next to their theatres, so we started doing theatre dinner packages. This was in 1980, and we were probably one of the first to do that. Subsequently they wanted to buy the Duke of York Theatre, so I invested some money with them, joined the board and that became the Ambassador Theatre Group, which ended up with over forty theatres.”

The theatre connection seemed to go on and on. It seems that Laurence could not resist it. While he had the restaurants in Covent Garden he got involved with the London Contemporary Dance Company, giving invaluable advice on marketing and promotion. Unsurprisingly he finished up as Chair of the Board, and alongside that he set up the Covent Garden Festival of Opera and Musical Theatre, essentially to give young talented people the opportunity to perform in the cultural heart of London.

Every May for three weeks they put on twenty different productions in twenty different venues. They received no public subsidy for eleven years, and over that time Laurence raised over 7 million pounds and never lost a penny. It helped that Princess Diana was his active royal patron and attended many of the festival’s performances. Oh, and while he was at it, he joined the board of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Royal Shakespeare Company

“I was a governor and board director of the RSC for over ten years and then, since it was Arts Council funded, I had to resign as I had served my term; so they made me a director of RSC America. It was at this time that the RSC brought the History Plays to the Roundhouse for two years running. They built a replica of the Stratford stage inside the Roundhouse, and we did the same thing in New York. It so happened that I had a restaurant in New York called the Paris Commune, so I gave big a party for supporters of the RSC and Sir Ian McKellen spoke. We have remained friends ever since.”

After ten successful years in New York, Laurence was felled by serious kidney failure and he finished up in the ICU at the Royal Free. “The Royal Free is the most wonderful hospital, especially when you are really ill. Since I left there I have done a lot of work to raise money for them, and last year I put on a show at St Paul’s Church in Covent Garden with Ian McKellen Lord Michael Cashman, Julian Clary and Annie Reid and many other wonderful performers, who gave their services completely free.”

RADA Council Member

To round off the theatre story, fifty years after Laurence Isaacson was unable to take up his place at RADA, in the very studio where had had his audition, he attended his first meeting as a council member of RADA. Laurence’s latest venture is the iconic French restaurant L’Escargot, founded in 1927. “I used to go there years ago in my advertising days and I loved it. It came up for sale just over two years ago, so with a partner Brian Clivaz and a number of friends we spent nine months bringing it back to its former glory. Now it looks like a cross between Downton Abbey and a French brothel: all red plush and gold and chandeliers. It has a theatrical charm. It’s very clubby and a joy to visit. There’s lots of art, music and regular events. It’s fun and doing very well.”

All right, then. If you twist my arm and if there are snails on the menu, I might manage to get myself down there.

 

Article by The Mole on the Hill
Photography by Lars Christiansen

Laurence Isaacson is Chair of the World Cancer Research Fund and Ambassador for Kidney Research.

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