Joan Littlewood

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Joan Littlewood, impresario and theatre director

Born: 1915 in Hackney, London

Died: 21 September, 2002, in London, aged 87

HER work was ground-breaking, eccentric, anarchic, controversial and hugely influential. Joan Littlewood took the theatre out of its "anyone-for-tennis?" era and brought it face to face with social realism, domestic crises and everyday events. Even when she did the classics (Henry IV at the Edinburgh Festival in 1964), she introduced a slice of pure Littlewood zanyness which upset the purists and the public.

But it was her work at the Theatre Royal, Stratford, for which she will, rightly, be remembered. Centred in the hugely unfashionable East End, Littlewood created plays (Oh What A Lovely War), musicals (Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’be) and championed new abrasive writers such as Brendan Behan and Shelagh Delaney. A lifelong old-fashioned socialist, she remained a passionate believer in "people’s theatre" and took pleasure in upsetting the establishment.

Joan Littlewood was born in the East End of London. She trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and, in the immediate post-war years, joined Theatre Workshop in Manchester. It was a company whose principles were close to her heart: it took theatre to working-class areas and set about combating theatrical elitism. In 1952, she moved to the Theatre Royal, Stratford, and started Theatre Workshop’s revolutionary period.

It was all, of course, done on a shoestring. But Littlewood never wanted to be mainstream or a West End producer. She sought out fringe actors, playwrights and directors. She introduced improvisation, audience participation and everyday language to the British theatre. Actors were expected to experiment with their characters both on and off stage. Mark you, Littlewood was no democrat. Actors could express their opinions, but it was better to chime in with hers in the end.

Her company first became know for productions of the works of Bertolt Brecht and in 1954 she produced the UK premiere of Brecht’s Mother Courage. She had to make do with a dozen actors rather than the author’s 50, and the play was only a mediocre success. The vocabulary and political idealism were deemed difficult. Such minor problems were never going to stop Littlewood.

In 1956 she brought over from Ireland the erratic but gloriously gifted Brendan Behan and mounted The Quaire Fellow. The play is set in an Ulster prison prior to a hanging, and its grim nature struck a defiant dramatic chord. Littlewood delivered a production of style, sensitivity and much guile. The critic Kenneth Tynan called the play’s diffusive language "out on a spree, ribald, dauntless and spoiling for a fight". Littlewood could have written that herself.

Two years later, she took Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey to the Theatre Royal. A play about squalor and an unmarried mother (a taboo subject), it seemed to sum up Littlewood’s desire to rock the theatrical establishment and tackle issues that were usually left alone. When she followed it up with Behan’s equally controversial The Hostage (mostly an improvisation) her company stood on a par with the Royal Court in Sloane Square.

The regime at the theatre was one where everyone mucked in. The young Nigel Hawthorne told in his recent autobiography of arriving for an audition and asking the charwoman who was cleaning the steps the way to the stage: only to find the charwoman taking the auditions ten minutes later. Littlewood delighted in being contrary. At rehearsals she sat in the stalls in her denim cap, puffing away on a cigarette, mumbling to herself. Then she would rush on stage with every expletive in the book, giving direction to the cast. They either loved her or hated her: there was no happy medium.

Fings Ain’t What They Used T’Be came out in 1958 and Lionel Bart and Littlewood tried to create the glories of the East End in song and dance. The show transferred to the West End, but despite some catchy numbers it never quite took off. Sparrows Can’t Sing worked better as a play than in Littlewood’s film of 1962 (starring the young Barbara Windsor and James Booth).

Littlewood left the Theatre Royal to direct The Hostage in New York, but she was back in 1963; it saw her gain international stardom with Oh What A Lovely War! It challenged the traditional interpretation of the First World War, lampooning those in authority and championing those in the trenches.

The songs, including When This Lousy War Is Over and Oops, There Goes a Whizz-Bang, had their origins in old-style music hall, but the lyrics packed a powerful political punch. On stage, the show caused a storm and it was labelled "revolutionary alike in content and form". But the sensitive and telling way Littlewood told the sad saga of the war captured the public’s imagination and the show became a smash hit worldwide. Richard Attenborough’s movie followed in 1969 with stars galore.

Her staying power and sheer ability to change direction was shown in her 1964 satire, Mrs Wilson’s Diary. Taken from the Private Eye column based on the supposed then prime minister’s wife’s writings, it was another hit and transferred after its run in the East End to the West End.

It was at this time (1963) that Littlewood came to Edinburgh to take part in John Calder’s celebrated International Drama Conference in the McEwan Hall. This was the notorious occasion when a "happening" was staged and a female nude was (briefly) spotted. Bernard Levin dubbed the naked form Lady McChatterley and the episode caused an outcry, with "disgusted" letters to The Scotsman. Littlewood was much happier with such outrageous goings-on than the lengthy literary discussions later.

She returned to the 1964 Festival with her production (and adaptation) for Theatre Workshop of Shakespeare’s Henry IV parts 1 and 2 in the Assembly Hall. It proved a riot: not altogether successful. Littlewood ceremoniously scrubbed all the famous speeches and instructed her actors to gabble the text that was left. The plays lost any dramatic effect, finesse or beauty and were savaged by the press.

She returned to her beloved Theatre Royal and mounted among other plays The Marie Lloyd Story, but the injection of irreverence and desire to experiment were now well established in most theatre companies. Her spirit remained undiminished, co-signing a letter in 1974 to the press complaining that Peter Hall’s emerging National Theatre would "absorb all the government funding".

By the Seventies, Littlewood had relinquished her position at the Theatre Royal and spent much of her time in France, where she had formed a friendship with an aristocrat who owned a vineyard. She wrote a suitably challenging autobiography and contributed to a lengthy BBC programme on her life.

To the end, she was a feisty non-conformist, a maverick outsider who challenged accepted practices - theatrically, politically and socially - and fired off verbal volleys to those who dared to disagree. But she steamrollered the British theatre forward: a process that might have taken others years. Her guts, will-power and determination to "get it done" ensured that her achievements will be long remembered and admired