24 April 2023

‘The Stage’, the weekly
theatre newspaper, has
been run by the Comerford
family for four generations

Frank Comerford (1927-2023), a legend in theatre, at The Stage Awards earlier this year

Patrick Comerford

Francis Maurice (Frank) Comerford (1927-2023), who died in London earlier this year at the age of 95, was the longest-serving leader of the 143-year-old The Stage newspaper and digital platform.

Frank Comerford had graduated with a BSc in physics from Imperial College, London, and was a research scientist in the iron and steel industry when, unexpectedly, he became managing director of the family-owned business on the sudden death of his father, Hugh Comerford, in 1954.

A former editor of The Stage commented: ‘In his mid-20s, he was forced to learn the ways of newspaper publishing and the particular needs of a readership which encompassed performers at a time when he least expected it.’

The Stage has been published by the Comerford family since it was launched in 1880 as The Stage Directory, describing itself as a ‘London and Provincial Theatrical Advertiser’. It was founded, initially as a monthly, by its editor Charles Carson and the business manager Maurice Comerford, Frank Comerford’s grandfather. It has been a weekly publication continuously since 1881.

Sir Laurence Olivier once said: ‘The stage would not be the stage without The Stage.’ The Guardian has described it as ‘the bible of luvvies and board-treaders throughout the land.’ To have survived so long in a changing era is an achievement in itself. But, as the Guardian pointed out, The Stage has a unique claim to distinction: it has been in the same family ownership all that time.

‘The Stage’ has been published by the Comerford family since it was launched in 1880

The Stage is a weekly newspaper and website covering the entertainment industry and particularly theatre. It was founded in 1880 and includes news, reviews, opinion, features, and recruitment advertising, mainly directed at those who work in theatre and the performing arts.

The publication was a joint venture involving the business manager Maurice Comerford and the founding editor Charles Lionel Carson, whose real name was Lionel Courtier-Dutton. It operated from offices opposite the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Carson’s wife Emily Courtier Dutton later founded several theatrical charities.

The first edition of The Stage was published under the title The Stage Directory – a London and Provincial Theatrical Advertiser on 1 February 1880 at a cost of 3d and with 12 pages. Publication was monthly until 25 March 1881, when the first weekly edition was produced. At the same time, the name was shortened to The Stage and the publication numbering began again at No 1.

The Stage entered a market crowded with many other theatre titles, including The Era. Undercutting their rivals, Maurice Comerford and Charles Carson dropped the price of the paper to 1d, and soon it became the only remaining title in the field.

Charles Carson remained the editor of The Stage until 1901, when he was succeeded by Maurice Comerford, who was the editor from 1901 to 1904. He was succeeded in turn by Charles Carson’s son Lionel Carson, who assumed the joint role of managing director and editor. When Lionel Carson died in 1937, control of The Stage passed to the Comerford family, and since then the newspaper has remained in the ownership of the Comerford family.

The survival and the successful transition of The Stage owes much to Maurice Comerford’s grandson Frank Comerford, who guided The Stage for 69 years.

As The Stage recalled in his obituary earlier this year, ‘One of his first decisions was whether or not to incorporate coverage of television, the relatively new medium that appeared to pose a threat to live performance. The change of title to The Stage and Television Today in 1959 committed the paper to TV coverage, making it one of the first publications to take television seriously.’

The Stage was relaunched in 1959 as The Stage and Television Today, incorporating a pull-out supplement dedicated to broadcasting news and features. The name and supplement remained until 1995, when broadcasting coverage was re-incorporated into the main paper.

Advertising has long been an integral part of The Stage. John Osborne submitted his script for Look Back in Anger in 1956 in response to an advertisement by the Royal Court Theatre in London.

Dusty Springfield responded to an advertisement for female singers in 1958. Idris Elba got his first acting role in a play after applying to a job ad in the paper. Harold Pinter too got his first job after responding to an advert and Kenneth Branagh landed the lead in The Billy Trilogy in the BBC ‘Play for Today’ series, after it was advertised in the paper.

Sir Michael Caine told Steve Wright in an interview on BBC Radio 2 that at the beginning of his career he applied for acting roles he found in The Stage.

Ricky Tomlinson responded to an ad for United Kingdom, another ‘Play for Today’, in 1981. Sandi Toksvig landed her first television job playing the part of Ethel in No 73 after she answered an ad in The Stage.

Charles Dance landed his first role in a Welsh theatre thanks to The Stage. Olivier Award-winning actor Sharon D Clarke found her first role at Battersea Arts Centre through an audition advert in the paper.

A number of pop groups have recruited all or some of their members through advertising in the newspaper, including the Spice Girls in 1994, Take That, and Steps.

Noël Coward is said to have once said: ‘The moment you have arrived in the profession is when you realise you don’t have to read The Stage.’

Frank Comerford celebrated the paper’s centenary in 1980 by hosting a party at the Savoy Hotel that was attended by industry figures including Trevor Nunn, Ralph Richardson, Barbara Windsor, Kenneth More and David Suchet.

Showcall, which was set up by Frank Comerford in the 1970s, was followed in 1983 by the Showcall Showcase, an opportunity for agents, bookers, producers and performers to get together in person and see what was available.’

Frank Comerford retired s managing director in 1992 and became chairman of the company. He remained a director, along with his five children, until his death. He was succeeded as managing director first by his daughter Catherine Comerford, and then in 2012 by her brother, Hugh Comerford.

By the time Frank Comerford became the company’s chair in 1992, it was clear that he had successfully steered the weekly newspaper through a period of more change both in the theatre and in publishing than there had been in the whole of the previous century.

The newspaper has awarded The Stage Awards for Acting Excellence at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe since 1995.

At the age of 96, Simon Blumenfeld was recognised by Guinness World Records in 2004 as the world’s oldest weekly newspaper columnist. His column continued in The Stage until shortly before he died in 2005.

The Stage Awards were launched in 2010. They are given annually and recognise outstanding organisations working in theatre and beyond in many categories.

In 2020, The Stage Media Company acquired the 164-year-old Bookseller, another of Britain’s 20 oldest business and professional media brands.

Frank Comerford never really retired. He attended The Stage Awards, as usual, earlier this year, and remained a director until his death earlier this year. He had led The Stage for almost half of its life as the world’s longest-surviving weekly for the theatrical profession.

A lifelong Catholic, Frank Comerford was vice-president of the Catholic Stage Guild, now the Catholic Association of Performing Arts. Other theatrical organisations he supported included the Association of British Theatre Technicians.

Frank Comerford was born on 12 August 1927, and died on 24 February 2023, aged 95. Both his first wife Monica and his second wife Mary predeceased him. He was survived by his five children, Catherine, Margaret, Hugh, John and Mary, and nine grandchildren.

Hugh Comerford, a barrister, has been the managing director of ‘The Stage’ since 2012

His son, Hugh Michael Comerford, who practised as a criminal barrister for ten years, has been the managing director since 2012, having succeeded sister, Catherine Comerford, who now chairs the board. Hugh Comerford is the great-grandson of the co-founder Maurice Comerford.

When she was managing director, Catherine Comerford said, ‘I find it strange to think that throughout that time four generations of my family have been involved in it, two of which I never knew,’ she has said.

The five present directors are: Hugh Michael Comerford, Catherine Mary Comerford, John Wilfrid Francis Comerford, Mary Elizabeth (Comerford) Robinson, and Margaret Mary Comerford.

Although The Stage remains a weekly newspaper, its continuing success may be due to the growth of online audiences and live events. The Stage has recently evolved into a true, multimedia brand with a website, mobile app, podcast, awards, email job alert, online archive, and a dating site all part of the portfolio. Today, The Stage has a digital and paid readership (including pass-on) of around 30,000.

‘The Stage’ remains a weekly newspaper … the ‘Guardian’ has described it as ‘the bible of luvvies and board-treaders throughout the land’

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