Obituary: Bill Bryden, Scottish theatre and TV director, writer and producer

Bill Bryden CBE, theatre and television director, writer and producer. Born: 12 April 1942 in Greenock. Died: 5 January 2022 in London, aged 79

Bill Bryden at the Lyceum, 1973 (Picture: Denis Straughan)
Bill Bryden at the Lyceum, 1973 (Picture: Denis Straughan)

Bill Bryden was widely regarded as the greatest Scottish theatre director of his generation; and as a director and producer whose vision and energy also helped to change the face of Scottish television, in the 1980s and ’90s.

Throughout his career, he used all of his formidable charm, intelligence and persuasive powers to ensure that working-class voices, and the stories of ordinary working people, would be heard and seen on British stages and on screen. He is perhaps best remembered for his mighty theatrical epics of the 1980s and ’90s, including his groundbreaking promenade production of the York mystery plays for the National Theatre in London – which starred Brian Glover as God, famously riding on a fork-lift truck, and Brenda Blethyn as the Virgin Mary and was seen at the Edinburgh International Festival in 1980 – and his huge post-industrial spectacle The Ship, an elegy for the shipbuilding industry staged at Harland And Wolff in Govan as part of Glasgow’s year as European City of Culture in 1990.

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Bill Bryden had already made a profound impact on Scottish theatre as early as 1972, when he became an associate director at the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh alongside Richard Eyre and Clive Perry, staging powerful working-class dramas including Roddy McMillan’s The Bevellers, and his own play Willie Rough, about the life of his grandfather, a shipyard worker and campaigning socialist. His work was sometimes controversial but he rapidly became well known for his ability to forge groups of actors, including the many working-class actors whose careers he encouraged, into an unbreakable team, often driven along on a tide of footballing metaphors, and long and congenial post-rehearsal pub sessions.

At the National Theatre in London, where he worked for a decade from 1975-85, he not only built the remarkable ensemble that performed The Mysteries – winning best director Olivier and Evening Standard Awards in 1985 – but also directed the smash-hit world premiere of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross. At BBC Scotland, where he was Head of Drama from 1984 to 1993, he produced powerful and groundbreaking dramas including Peter McDougall’s Down Where The Buffalo Go, starring Harvey Keitel, and John Byrne’s legendary six-part television series Tutti Frutti. In 1993 he was awarded a CBE for services to British theatre and television.

William Campbell Rough Bryden was born in Greenock in 1942, at the height of the Second World War, the only child of George Bryden, who was a technical inspector at the local bus depot, and his wife Catherine Rough. Bill had an older half-brother, George, and he was also very close to his grandparents, notably his maternal grandfather William Rough, whose life inspired Bryden’s play.

Although the family were not well off, his childhood was never short of cultural experience and excitement; and he spent many afternoons and evenings as a child at the local cinemas and music hall, seeing seven or eight American films a week, and many variety acts, including, on one memorable occasion, Judy Garland on tour at the Glasgow Empire.

Bill Bryden did well at school, and by the time he was in his mid-teens, teachers at Greenock Academy were encouraging his growing involvement in the thriving local amateur drama scene, where he moved on rapidly from acting to stage management and directing; and despite a budding post-school career as a sanitary inspector with the local council, in the early 1960s he received an invitation to spend six weeks at Stratford-upon-Avon, as an “observer” on the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Wars Of The Roses cycle of history plays.

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From that point, Bryden’s career barely looked back. He first became a writer and researcher with the great John Grierson in the documentary film department of Scottish Television, then worked at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry, and, from 1967-71, at the Royal Court Theatre in London. In 1970, he married Deborah Morris, a talented potter and the daughter of Lord Killanin; their son Dillon was born in 1972 and their daughter Kate in 1975, and Deborah became the practical mainstay of his life for the next 15 years.

By the time he arrived at the Lyceum in 1972, he had already won a reputation as a rising star of British directing; and those who worked with him, both early in his career and later, seem unanimous in recalling a wonderfully creative and visionary director, who worked by supporting the actors he cast rather than directing them in any top-down sense. Dillon Bryden remembers a remarkable, almost magical childhood spent with and around Bryden’s National Theatre ensembles, in the memorably open and creative atmosphere of the time; and Bryden was also much loved by the actors with whom he worked.

“He was loved and respected to an extent I have never seen again,” says the actor Andrew Byatt, who appeared in both The Ship and Down Where The Buffalo Go. “He created a family atmosphere which engendered security and knowledge, and nobody was allowed to feel intimidated or frightened. Many, many Scottish actors and writers owe their careers to him. His legacy is not only his brilliant plays but his wonderful spirit; and he will always be remembered as a beacon of love, respect, humanity and kindness.”

In the mid-1980s, Bill Bryden’s marriage to Deborah ended, and in 1988 he met the actress Angela Douglas, who became his devoted partner for the rest of his life. After he left BBC Scotland in 1993, Bryden continued to work as a freelance writer and director, directing for English National Opera, and returning to the National Theatre in 2001 to direct The Good Hope, a characteristic ensemble piece about a fishing community on the east coast of England.

Bill Bryden is survived by his wife Angela, by his children Dillon and Kate, and by Kate’s two sons, the younger of whom is named for the great Scottish actor Fulton Mackay, one of the friends and mentors who kept Bryden close to his Scottish roots during his early working life. It was a pattern of love and connection, back to his early years on Clydeside, that never failed Bill Bryden, no matter how far he travelled; and that, at the height of his powers, helped fuel some of the most explosively brilliant, inclusive and joyful British theatre of the 20th century, along with a legacy of superb Scottish-made film and television, that remains with us still.

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