London Artists Ltd v Littler; Grade Organisation Ltd v Littler; Associated Television Ltd v Littler; Grade v Littler

JurisdictionEngland & Wales
CourtCourt of Appeal
JudgeTHE MASTER OF THE ROLLS,LORD JUSTICE WIDGERY
Judgment Date10 Dec 1968
Judgment citation (vLex)[1968] EWCA Civ J1210-4

[1968] EWCA Civ J1210-4

In The Supreme Court of Judicature

Court of Appeal

Appeal of Defendant from judgment of Mr. Justice Cantley and a jury, London, dated March 5, 1968.

Before

The Master of the Rolls (Lord Denning)

Lord Justice Edmund Davies and

Lord Justice Widgery

London Artists Ltd.
and
Littler
Grade Organisation Ltd.
and
Littler
Associated Television Ltd.
and
Littler
Grade
and
Littler

Mr. DESMOND ACKNER Q.C, and Mr. A. LINCOLN Q.C. (instructed by Messrs, Oswald Hickson Collier & Co.) appeared on behalf of London Artists Ltd.

Mr. G.R.F. MORRIS, Q.C, and Mr. A.T. HOOLAHAN (instructed by Messrs. Allen & Overy) appeared on behalf of The Grade Organisation Ltd.

Mr, LEWIS HAWSER, Q.C, and Mr. BRIAN NEILL, Q.C (instructed by Messrs. Nicholson, Graham & Jones) appeared on behalf of Associated Television Ltd., and Mr. Lew Grade.

Mr. COLIN DUNCAN, Q.C, Mr. PETER BRISTOW, Q.C. and Mr. MICHAEL KEMPSTER (instructed by Messrs. M.A. Jacobs & Sons) appeared on behalf of Mr. Emile Littler, Appellant.

THE MASTER OF THE ROLLS
1

In May of 1964 there opened in London a play called "The Right Honourable Gentlemen". It was staged by Mr. Emile Littler at Her Majesty's Theatre in Haymarket. The three principal actors were Mr. Anthony Quayle, Miss Coral Browne and Miss Anna Massey. Another actor of a well-known family was Mr. Corin Redgrave. The theatre was owned by a subsidiary of Associated Television Ltd., of which the managing director was Mr. Prince Littler, a brother of Mr. Emile Littler. Mr, Emile Littler rented the theatre on the terms that the owners could determine his tenancy if the takings fell below £3,000 a week for two weeks in succession. That is called the "get-out" figure.

2

Some months later, in September 1964, there opened in London another play called "Robert and Elizabeth". It was staged at the Lyric Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue. The management of "Robert and Elizabeth" were very keen to move the play from the Lyric to Her Majesty's Theatre. The Lyric Theatre was controlled by another subsidiary of Associated Television Ltd., of which, as I have said, Mr. Prince Littler was managing director. So Mr. Prince Littler had a considerable voice in the ownership of both theatres.

3

On the 18th June of 1965 Mr. Prince Littler wrote to his brother Mr, Emile Littler saying: "I have had instructions from my Board at our meeting yesterday to give you notice to go as soon as you fall below the get-out figure. This is in order to move 'Robert and Elizabeth' which is playing to capacity at the Lyric Theatre to Her Majesty's Theatre……. There is an alternative which is - would you be willing to transfer to the Lyric Theatre to enable us to move 'Robert and Elizabeth' in to Her Majesty's."

4

Mr. Emile Littler replied the same day saying that "'The Right Honourable Gentleman' is playing to about the biggest business of any play in London at the present time", and went on to say that he was not prepared to move unless it was made very touch worth his while.

5

A day or two later, on the 22nd of June of 1965, Mr. Emile Littler received what to him was a stunning blow. The three top stars in "The Right Honorable Gentleman" and the satellite all gave four weeks formal notice in writing to terminate their engagement. Each said that he or she would finish in the play after the evening performance of July 24th. The letters were all in the same wording and were all sent by the actors' agents, London Artists Ltd. There had clearly been close collaboration in the sending of them. Such a thing - for all the top performers to remove at once - was almost unprecedented in the theatre world. It was likely to bring "The Right Honorable Gentleman" to a full stop. Mr, Emile Littler drew the conclusion that it was all a plot to get his play out of Her Majesty's Theatre, so as to get "Robert and Elizabeth" in. He thought that the owners had got hold of the artists and induced them to give the notices; and that the intermediary between them was Mr. Lew Grade and the Grade Organisation Ltd. So firm was his belief in this plot that the next day, the 23rd June, 1965, Mr. Emile Littler wrote a letter to each of the four artists: and he held a press conference at which he distributed the letter to the press. It was published in the papers the next day. It was in these words. I will read the one to Miss Coral Browne.

6

My dear Coral, We have been friends for years and I am hurt that yon did not see me before being a party to what, on the face of it, appears to be a plan to close the run of 'The Right Honourable Gentleman' by joining in and sending me a month's formal notice from your agent.

7

'The Right Honourable Gentleman' has been one of your greatest hits in London and is still doing better than any play in the West End. In spite of this Her Majesty's Theatre's new directorate are trying to get our play out of the theatre. Fighting for you all, play, Artistes, staff and author, I have not acceded to their request to move because we have a valid contract and are paying top rent and faithfully fulfilling all obligations. Until Box Office takings drop below £3,500 for two consecutive weeks we can contractually continue at Her Majesty'sTheatre.

8

Her Majesty's Theatre, and a great many other theatres in London, are now controlled by Associated Television of which Mr. Lew Grade is the Managing Director. Mr. Grade's contract for service with Associated Television Ltd. is with the Grade Organisation Ltd. The Grade Organisation Ltd. owns 'London Artists Ltd.' (and other theatrical agencies) and they manage our stars: - Anthony Quayle, Coral Browne, Anna Massey and Corin Redgrave. London Artists Ltd., on the 22nd June, by identical letters, gave notice to the by hand for each Artiste to terminate their services with the play on the same identical date of July 24th.

9

In other words because I do not wish to disturb over a year's established success at Her Majesty's Theatre, I am being put into a position by my landlords, Associated Television Ltd., whereby, by withdrawing all Grade Star Labour, the play must close down on the date on which these notices expire.

10

A great part of the success of 'The Right Honorable Gentleman' has been the casting of this show and the combined effort of withdrawing suddenly the three Grade Stars and another Grade Artiste on a given date must finish our play for everybody at Her Majesty's and give Associated Television Ltd. Possession of the theatre. You must all realise this and know that there has never been such a situation in the History of the Theatre. I feel this is such a serious matter, affecting all branches of the Industry, that I must make this correspondence available to Equity, the Society of West End Theatre Managers and the National Press. Sincerely yours, Emile."

11

That letter brought a quick retort. On the very next day four writs for libel were issued against Mr. Emile Littler. The plaintiffs were those who were accused of taking part in a plot: London Artists, who looked after the artists; Associated Television, who controlled the theatres; and Mr. Lew Grade, and the Grade Organisation who were in between.

12

Mr. Emile Littler in his defence pleaded justification,privilege and fair comment. The original pleading appeared to be defective, because there was nothing on the face of the particulars to suggest a plot. The Master ordered the defence to be struck out unless it was amended. So Mr, Emile Littler did amend his particulars so as to allege a plot. He did it in a paragraph of the particulars numbered 20A, in which he said that the plaintiffs "combined and planned …. by themselves their servants or agents to procure the termination of the run of The Right Honourable Gentleman' at Her Majesty's Theatre. Mr. Emile Littler went to the Court hoping to prove the plot. He had no direct evidence of a plot: but hoped to get something in cross-examination out of the mouths of the plaintiffs.

13

He failed utterly. The stars all gave evidence from which it became apparent that there was no combination between them and the owners at all. Miss Coral Browne earlier in the year had not been in good health. Her husband had recently died. She wished to make arrangements to go to the United States, but, when her agent Indicated this to Mr. Emile Littler, he made such a fuss that she decided to wait and give formal notice when the time came. Mr. Anthony Quayle decided to leave because he wanted to write a film script and needed a holiday first. When Miss Anna Massey heard that Mr. Anthony Quayle was leaving, she decided to go too. Mr. Corin Redgrave was a young man who wanted to get more experience.

14

Seeing that there was no evidence of the suggested plot, Mr, Emile Littler on the eighth day of the trial withdrew the plea of justification: and with it paragraph 20A of the particulars which alleged the plot. Then the plaintiffs submitted to the Judge that there wasnothing left in the defence save damages. The Judge upheld the submission. He held that the plea of privilege failed because the publication to the press was not privileged. He held that the plea of fair comment failed because the matter was not one of public interest, and in addition there was no basis of fact to support the plea. His rulings are reported in 1968 1 Weekly Law Reports at page 607.The action then proceeded on the issue of damages. The plaintiffs asked for substantial damages, because they said Mr. Littler had no honest belief in what he said. They also asked for punitive damages because he was seeking to make money by giving additional publicity to "The Right Honourable Gentleman". Mr. Emile Littler went into the witness-box and refuted these suggestions. He asserted his honest belief that there was a plot to get "The Right Honourable Gentleman" out of Her Majesty's Theatre. He was cross-examined. At one point he was asked "The whole core and sinew of the story was...

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