In memoriam: Jack Phipps CBE 1926 – 2010

Jack ran the Arts Council’s Touring department during most of the period that I was running theatres. He was inspiring – one of the few people of whom that word may be used accurately – and he influenced my values, my learning and my work. All the most exciting work I did was encouraged, supported and sometimes even catalysed by Jack.
I first met him through Ruth Marks, his remarkable and redoubtable assistant in the Touring department. She represented him at Eastern Arts, as was, Regional Touring meetings. I was on the panel as Director of the Basildon Arts Centre, my first professional job in theatre management. We became good friends and she obviously mentioned my work to Jack as, one day, I received a telephone call asking me to go and meet him. I can still remember sitting in the corridor outside his office feeling sick with nerves as I waited to go in. In fact, I needn’t have been so worried – for whatever reason, he had clearly decided that I was a good thing and he was warm and welcoming. It was the start of a deep and important relationship that guided me for the rest of my career in the theatre.
We had some adventures together, Jack and I. When I went to run the new Towngate Theatre, Jack came up with the idea of making the contemporary dance company, Second Stride, the resident company in the new theatre. The venue had a studio theatre with a good sprung floor and it seemed an ideal arrangement. Jack had had great success in setting up Opera North in the Grand Theatre in Leeds and I think he liked the idea of receiving houses being used to accommodate a resident company where possible. Looking back now, a contemporary dance company in a new theatre in a new town may not have been one of our more inspired projects and it only lasted three years but it was an interesting experiment. They were a superb dance company, led by Ian Spink, and did some fantastic work whilst they were with us, but Basildon was a tough place for the arts in those days and we struggled to find a common language. (Interestingly, although I opened the new Studio Theatre (The Mirren) with contemporary dance, it wasn’t with Second Stride but with Lloyd Newsom’s breathtaking company DV8. Their performance of Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men caused alarums and excursions with politicians and vicars but the Board stood firm with Jack’s support and we played to packed houses. )
A much greater success for Jack and me was the production of Mass Carib written and composed by Felix Cross. To this day, it remains one of my career highlights. I think the piece is inexplicably under appreciated and should be part of a national repertoire of contemporary classics that get performed regularly by both professional and community organisations. Jack loved it too. He first saw it at Albany Empire and felt it should be seen more widely. If memory serves, it was the first piece of black theatre to receive the full ‘number one tour’ support from the Arts Council. Selling black theatre to traditional audiences in those days (late ‘80s) was regarded as exceptionally difficult and I think some of the larger venues on the tour had problems in achieving their box office targets. In Basildon, however, home of the National Front, as it was then, where there was not a black face to be seen in the community of uprooted East End Londoners, we had a smash hit – we sold out every performance and were turning people away by the coach-load. People were coming from across the region and from the East End itself. No-one had ever seen so many black people in Basildon, never mind in the theatre! The best impact was seen amongst my front of house staff , the ushers – mostly local young women married to Ford car workers, who came to us with little or no experience or interest in the arts and who just wanted a bit of ‘pin money’ to be independent of their husbands for a few nights a week. During that week of Mass Carib, the whole staff, whether on duty or not, voluntarily came into to see the show every night. They had to stand to watch it, all the seats having been sold, and every night they cried and cheered and gave the company a standing ovation. It was an exhilarating week, and exemplified the soul charging, life changing impact that the arts can have. It vindicated absolutely Jack’s passionate and unique ability to drive against the mainstream to support artists and to ensure that work got seen both in and outside the capital.
Over the next ten years or so, he helped me with many great events. We brought the National Theatre to Salt’s Mill to perform Tony Harrison’s The Trackers of Oxyrhincus, converting the weaver’s shed into a performance space for the week. (It was the experience of performing in that event that gave Barrie Rutter the inspiration to come back later and set up Northern Broadsides). After that success, we did a number of ‘non velvet’ performances in Yorkshire, including the RSC’s Electra with Fiona Shaw performed in an old tramshed, where we moved out the trams to enable us to create a performance space, and where the company played with only makeshift heating in one of the coldest Januaries on record! A particularly important project for Jack was when we partnered with the Aldeburgh Festival and converted Bradford Cathedral into a performance space for one night to stage an extraordinary double bill by a Japanese Noh theatre company who performed Sumidagawa in full Noh tradition and then followed it with Curlew River by Benjamin Britten. The latter was one of Britten’s three Church Parables and was based on the Noh play. Again, the production sold out and Bradford was buzzing for weeks afterwards.
But the culmination for Jack, and for me, was when we presented Ariane Mnouchkine’s Theatre du Soleil’s production of Les Atrides in a converted wool mill “in a field somewhere between Leeds and Bradford. “ Britain was President of the EU for six months and John Major decided to have an Arts Festival to celebrate, handing John Drummond £8m and telling him to get on with it. Ariane’s company hadn’t performed in the UK for many years and both Jack and the redoubtable Thelma Holt got together and decided the time had come. The cost was enormous but John Drummond came up trumps and suddenly three major organisations were bidding against us to present it. The problem was that Ariane would not agree to let her company perform in circumstances that did not mirror in size and scale the venue she had in France, just outside Paris. Many years earlier, the French government had given her a munitions factory, La Cartoucherie, to convert into a theatre space. For Les Atrides (which comprised the four Greek tragedies The Oresteia and Euripedes’ Iphigenia, performed entirely in French without any written translation permitted), she had created a performance space roughly the size of two football pitches. In Yorkshire, we found Robin’s Mill, an old and unused mill with two floors we could use. We designed the performance space to go on the first floor – we used forklift trucks for the scenery and the seating, the latter being especially flown in from Germany; and we built a ‘foyer’, ‘box office’, bar and restaurant on the ground floor – and employed the Huddersfield Dry Stone Walling Society to build the 3foot high walls separating the different areas. Ariane inspected each of the sites on offer from the various organisations, ranging from London to Glasgow, and in the end selected ours as being closest to what she had at home. With Jack’s constant and insistent support, we pulled it off. It was the biggest and most thrilling event in that whole Festival. In sixteen weeks, we built the venue virtually from scratch; we sold the three weeks’ of performances to people from 125 different cities across the world, who trekked across the fields between Leeds and Bradford to see theatre they would never forget. Every performance was packed. My proudest moment was when Jack, accompanied by his wife Sue, came up to Bradford to see a performance. (In fact, the impact on Sue was so profound that she came back to see other performances). He was thrilled with it – with everything we had done for it – as was Ariane and Thelma. To this day, it remains the highlight of my career – and probably for all my staff who worked on it. But it was only possible because of Jack Phipps. He was a great man – a creative entrepreneur in a league of his own. He made life exciting, thrilling and made anything, everything, seem possible. I’ve never met anyone to match him. I adored him and will miss him always.