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Griff Rhys Jones once asked Alan Sugar for a million pounds, and had to ask for more

Jayne Cherrington-Cook
·4-min read
Sir Alan Sugar and Griff Rhys Jones during Opening of New Marie Lloyd Extension at Hackney Empire in London (Photo by J. Quinton/WireImage)
Sir Alan Sugar and Griff Rhys Jones during Opening of New Marie Lloyd Extension at Hackney Empire in London (Photo by J. Quinton/WireImage)

Built in 1901 by renowned theatre architect Frank Matcham, the Hackney Empire in east London looked set to shut its doors for good in the early noughties. Back in its heyday, the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel trod the boards, but the Grade II listed building was facing closure.

Thanks to then-artistic director Roland Muldoon and actor Griff Rhys Jones it was saved, but it did mean a whole lot of fundraising had to go into the restoration, which ended up costing a whopping £17m.

Speaking on White Wine Question Time, comedian Rhys Jones said even though he finds it really difficult asking people for money, he reached out to Hackney-born Sir Alan Sugar to see if he would donate to the fund.

“I went to Alan Sugar and I said, 'Sir Alan… Would you be interested in supporting the Hackney Empire, because you're from that way?” he told podcast host Kate Thornton.

Listen: Griff Rhys Jones reveals why he’s got his mitts on Dawn French’s Rolex watch

“He said, 'My mum and dad used to go there every Saturday. In fact, there's a really good chance I was conceived there.'”

While the billionaire didn’t immediately donate, after five years of communicating with Lord Sugar, Rhys Jones finally received the call he had been waiting for.

Read more: Andrew Lloyd Webber signs up for coronavirus vaccine in bid to help save theatre

“Just before Christmas, one day he rang me up… He rings me up and says 'Alright, Griff. How much do you need?'” recalled the comedian.

“And I said, 'Well, I've just been to a meeting actually Alan. We've done quite well but we need a million’. And he said, 'Alright, put me down for that. Happy Christmas!'”

Lord Alan Sugar, who was born in Hackney, eventually contributed a substantial amount to rescue The Hackney Empire (Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Lord Alan Sugar, who was born in Hackney, eventually contributed a substantial amount to rescue The Hackney Empire (Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Naturally the actor, who’s is the President of The Victorian Society, said he was over the moon and contacted his friend and artistic director Muldoon to share the good news. However, the response wasn’t quite what he had hoped for.

He told Thornton: “Roland said, ‘Oh, I'm so sorry. I've just came out of that meeting… When I said a million. It's actually one and a quarter million!”

Read more: Next series of The Apprentice could be delayed until late 2021

Rhys Jones who says he’s the sort of person “who finds it very difficult to ask people” had to go back to The Apprentice mogul with his begging cap once more.

Exterior of Hackney Empire, East London UK 2000. (Photo by: Photofusion/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Exterior of Hackney Empire, East London UK 2000. (Photo by: Photofusion/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

“I am the person who had to go back to Alan Sugar and say ‘You know when I said a million, Alan...’” laughed Rhys Jones.

“’A million is really great. Just is there any way that it could be like £1 million, 250,000!’

“I think that was one of the most complicated asks that I've ever had to do!”

Thankfully Lord Sugar agreed, and the Hackney Empire reopened in 2004. However, since the pandemic, like many theatres, it’s struggling to survive, and is asking the public for contributions.

Griff Rhys Jones revealed on White Wine Question Time how he had to go to Lord Sugar and ask for money! (Image: Getty Images)
Griff Rhys Jones revealed on White Wine Question Time how he had to go to Lord Sugar and ask for money! (Image: Getty Images)

“Hackney Empire is facing the greatest challenge of its 120-year history,” the official website states.

“Closing the doors because of the Covid-19 pandemic has been devastating for Hackney Empire: over 85% of our funding comes from our box office income.”

Read more: Four of London's biggest pantomimes postponed until 2021 amid reopening uncertainty

To donate, visit The Hackney Empire Donation Appeal.

Hear Griff Rhys Jones talk about why he’s not keen on Boris Johnson and what it was like meeting his teen idol Eric Clapton on this week’s episode of White Wine Question Time. Listen now on iTunes and Spotify.