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Littlewood Joan

 

Joan Littlewood

Director of a theatre in a state of perpetual revolution and passionate creator of art and fun (though she never did get her people's palace)

Joan Littlewood, who has died aged 87, devoted her prodigious life in the theatre to a faith she had kept since her Cockney youth. "I really do believe in the community," she said when old. "I really do believe in the genius in every person. And I've heard that greatness come out of them, that great thing which is in people. And that's not romanticism, d'you see?"

In her struggle to make this conviction flesh through drama (a childhood teacher told her: "You pronounce the word art the way a nun might say the word Jesus"), she was one of the bonniest fighters and intractably cussed personalities the theatre has known. Although celebrity did not help or console her, she has long been acknowledged, with Peter Brook, whom she despised, as the most galvanising director in mid-20th century Britain.

Her international heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, all done with almost no public subsidy, now seems short. After 1973, she was almost inactive.

Yet her great causes - community and political theatre, improvisation, working-class language - have passed into the mainstream of drama and her record remains unsurpassed. The Theatre Royal at Stratford E15, which was both her temple and fun palace, now thrives on substantial grants and the legacy of her vision: "Good theatre draws the energies out of the place where it is and gives it back as joie de vivre."

Littlewood was born out of wedlock in Stockwell, south London, to a mother who frowned on books, and she wrote later of feeling ugly, untidy and alien. But her grandmother, who raised her, was a fine, sometimes bawdy, storyteller. By candlelight, under the bedclothes, Littlewood read library books as soon as she was old enough. She attended the Sacred Heart Convent School in Clapham and became close friends with Marguerite Renard (later Morgan - see under Communist obituaries letter M). She and Marguerite were scholarship girls at the school. At 12, she asked her grandfather why the General Strike had collapsed after 10 days. "What do you want - red revolution?" he asked. Her answer, then and after, was yes.

Both, even while at school had communist sympathies and wore red ribbons under their gymslips. Both Joan and Marguerite applied to the acting college RADA, but only Joan won a place.

Only five feet two inches tall, she usually wore a cap or hat half-obscuring an expressive face with an attractive grin. Her first impact on the stage was in comic parts, and she was proud that she had been approached by one of comedian Stan Laurel's comic scouts.

They both went regularly to the Old Vic, only a short walk away, where they saw John Gielgud's early performances, and judging his Macbeth too decorative, Joan produced and acted her own at school, in which Marguerite played Lady Macbeth to her Macbeth .

Disliking the ‘posh’ RADA accents, she set off for America by walking to Liverpool. She got 130 miles on foot to Burton-on-Trent before collapsing. Somebody gave her the fare to Manchester, where she called on an ex-RADA teacher in the BBC's northern office, Archie Harding. Headlines about her trip - "Joan of the Hedgerows lived on Turnips" - were her entrée.

Manchester brought her closer to the counter-culture she sought: she found it in the BBC, where she worked as a producer, and in the then Manchester Guardian; but mostly in small, leftist agitprop groups dedicated to taking drama to the people of the north. Lancashire alone had nine companies.

And she met Jimmie Miller, better known later as the folk singer Ewan MacColl, who became her husband. He was a virtuoso scenarist, performer, orator, enthusiast and womaniser. He had worked in German agitprop and claimed to know Berthold Brecht. Both she and MacColl soon joined the Communist Party there.

They founded the Theatre of Action in 1934, and in 1936, Theatre Union. Their first show was an anglicised American agitprop text, John Bullion (1934), at the Round House, Ancoats. It had capitalists, bathing belles, street singers, wounded soldiers, and a moving news panel all on stage at once. The Manchester Guardian hailed it as "the nearest thing to Meyerhold the British theatre has" and parts of it resurfaced in the opening scene of Oh What A Lovely War! (1963).

She and McColl made their living by acting and reading for the BBC, but their energy went into the stage. They lived with his parents. Her autobiography, Joan's Book (1994) records with a flicker of sadness that she got pregnant by him and had an abortion.

Theatre Union saw itself as the vanguard of theory; its productions were influenced by Vsevolod Meyerhold, the Stanislavsky disciple who was the first director of post-revolutionary Soviet drama. But the inspiration she returned to most often when she spoke was the original, 16th century Italian commedia dell'arte, those travelling troupes of radical players.

Littlewood picked up influences like a jackdaw, insisting that her company prepare properly. Her pre-rehearsal reading list for a production of Aristophanes in 1940 ran to four Greek plays, eight academic books, Thucydides's account of the Peloponnesian war and a study of Greek theatrical history.

The little republic of the company survived hand to mouth through the second world war, often splendidly reviewed but always refused grants by the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts, the Arts Council predecessor. She and McColl were blacklisted by the BBC and by Forces entertainment group ENSA as reds. By the end of the war, her reputation was such that the BBC asked if it might consult her about features and drama. Instead, she took another step on what she called "the long road to heartbreak". In 1945, the group hired a lorry, renamed itself Theatre Workshop and went on tour.

The group had been joined by two teenage communists, Howard Goorney and Gerry Raffles, a public school runaway. They became lifelong recruits, Goorney as a principal actor, Raffles as the backstage lynchpin. Her relationship with MacColl was over and Gerry Raffles, handsome and nine years younger, had to her amazement, fallen wholeheartedly in love with her: their bond was to last more than 30 years.

Raffles hitch-hiked ahead of the troupe, often sleeping rough, to busk for new bookings.

In 1953, Littlewood and Raffles rented the Theatre Royal, Angel Lane, in London’s East End for £20 a week, a dilapidated palace of varieties reeking of cat urine. Their first production was Twelfth Night. They followed it with classical seasons in cluding Volpone, The Dutch Courtesan and a reputedly outstanding Richard II from Harry H Corbett (later in television's Steptoe And Son).

Takings were scant. "My best stuff nobody saw," she said. However, the permanent base paid off in the energies it freed and the attention it brought. The Good Soldier Schweik (1955) achieved the miracle of a West End run in 1956. The owner of the Duke of York's Theatre complained, "I saw John Gielgud hang his head in shame in the audience when one of your soldiers micturated on stage."

The production of Volpone represented Britain at the Paris international theatre festival in 1955 and was a huge hit. Success in Paris meant London critics took notice, and, back in London, the breakthrough came in 1956 with The Quare Fellow, by Dubliner Brendan Behan, set in prison on the night of a hanging. The company's exceptional flair for improvisation and rewriting - Behan's script was chaotic - drew full houses.

There were more transfers to the West End: Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey, Behan's The Hostage, Lionel Bart's Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be, Wolf Mankowitz's Make Me An Offer and Stephen Lewis's Sparrers Can't Sing. All were uproariously indelicate working-class comedies - although when necessary, as in A Taste of Honey, Littlewood could direct with great delicacy.

Her methods were legendary. The young Michael Caine lasted only one production. "Piss off to Shaftesbury Avenue. You will only ever be a star," she told him. The young Richard Harris stayed for five, including Fings.

Exhausted and miserable, she walked out at the crowning moment when she and Raffles had managed to buy the theatre. She disappeared alone to Nigeria to work on an abortive film project with the writer Wole Soyinka.

She returned but never recaptured the momentum: if it meant diluting standards or becoming a full-time commercial impresario, she did not want to. She turned from her part-achieved people's theatre to a childhood dream of a people's palace, a university of the streets, re-inventing Vauxhall Gardens, the 18th-century Thames-side entertainment promenade, with music, lectures, plays, restaurants under an all-weather dome.

She nearly did it. She won Greater London Council support, with trustees including Yehudi Menuhin and Lord Harewood. But to catch headlines she miscalled it a "fun palace", which evoked for councillors a vision of actors copulating in the bushes. Her support dissipated in a fruitless search for a site.

She had nothing left but Stratford, and her last glory there was the wonderful Oh, What A Lovely War!, a work of genius in which all her techniques came together.

She left London and rented a flat to be near Vienne, near Lyons, where her partner Gerry Raffles had died in 1974 and she was befriended by a neighbour, the octogenarian Baron Philippe de Rothschild, who had run a theatre in his youth. She called him Guv. They were matey but, she said, platonic companions until he died in 1988.

She lived on in France, doing a little theatre. In 1994 and 1995 she came to Britain for the launches of her book. She muttered of defeat, especially over her fun palace, but was always feted. By then a reference book listed 100 fringe theatre groups in London. "I didn't need to have children," she said, "All over the world I have children."

"Life," Littlewood said, "is a brief walk between two periods of darkness and anything that helps to cheer that up is valuable." But she did more than cheer us all up. In her heyday, she helped to change the face of British theatre. Although scandalously underfunded, she broadened the classic repertory, discovered new writers, galvanised the effete British musical and created a genuine company full of idiosyncratic performers such as Victor Spinetti, Brian Murphy, Avis Bunnage and Barbara Windsor.

As a director, she was blessed with genius. The big mistake was to assume that her work was rough-and-ready. In fact, the life-like fluidity she achieved was the result of intense discipline. For The Quare Fellow, the actors marched endlessly round the Theatre Royal's roof to simulate prisonyard exercises. And in Oh What A Lovely War!, the brilliant balance between the nostalgic songs and the news-screen facts was only accomplished by working until daybreak.

The need to make money through West End transfers disintegrated her company. But she remained a genuinely radical visionary, and she transformed and enriched the British theatre.

Joan Maud Littlewood, theatre director, born October 6 1914; died September 20 2002