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Littlewood, Joan (1914-2002)

Director, Writer

Main image of Littlewood, Joan (1914-2002)

One of Britain's most revolutionary and individual theatre directors, Joan Littlewood made occasional forays into film and television and had strong views on the arts, as she did on many other subjects. Known for her trademark peaked cap and forthright manner, she was a formidable figure on the British cultural landscape.

Born in Stockwell, South London in 1914 to unmarried parents, she was a precocious child and left RADA because she found the teaching stifling and unoriginal. Moving to Manchester, she met and married Jimmie Miller, later known as folk singer Ewan MacColl. Littlewood and Miller ran the Theatre Workshop, a left-wing troupe travelling Britain and Europe performing shows developed by the cast through improvisation. They found a permanent London home in 1953 at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, where they had successes such as Brendan Behan's The Hostage and the musicals Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be and Oh! What a Lovely War.

Littlewood had a dislike of classically trained actors, who often found it difficult to adapt to her improvisatory methods. Consequently, she regularly took on those with no real acting experience; her repertory company included figures such as Brian Murphy, Stephen Lewis and Barbara Windsor, who among others, went on to successful film and television careers. The uncompromising Littlewood often accused her former apprentices of 'selling out' when they moved on to commercially successful and artistically undemanding television work.

In 1962, she got the chance to direct the feature film of her successful production, Sparrers Can't Sing (as Sparrows Can't Sing). She kept the cast from the original stage show - something which hadn't happened when the film version of A Taste of Honey went into production under the direction of Tony Richardson the year before, when only Murray Melvin kept his role. Littlewood found the experience of directing a film frustrating, as did her crew, who had to try and work around her lack of attention to continuity details and her encouragement of spontaneity. The film was not well received, the Cockney dialogue so incomprehensible that it had to be subtitled for American audiences, and Littlewood never directed another feature.

But this wasn't the end of her contribution to film and television. In 1964 she made a series of egg commercials for the Egg Marketing Board, each a mini story about a housewife (Theatre Workshop regular Avis Bunnage) assuming a different persona each morning. And the film Bronco Bullfrog (d. Barney Platts Mills, 1969) would never have been made without Littlewood's encouragement of the kids who hung around the Theatre Royal to explore their lives through drama. She also conceived and directed a pilot for a television series around 1966. Bijou in Hyderabad was filmed in India and starred Maxwell Shaw, but the pilot was never completed and no further episodes were shot.

She was a popular interviewee on television, often talking about issues important to her, such as inner-city housing and the future of Britain's youth. Her biggest ambition was to build a 'Fun Palace' In London, where people could go for pure enjoyment. She deplored the lack of facilities and entertainment provided by the high-rise housing springing up in postwar London; the destruction of community spirit which accompanied the demolition of back-to-back terraces is a major theme of Sparrows Can't Sing. To her great disappointment, the Fun Palace was never built; the death of her long-term partner Gerry Raffles in 1975 marked the end of her theatrical career and she lived out the rest of her life away from the spotlight.

Jo Botting

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Bronco Bullfrog (1969)Bronco Bullfrog (1969)

Poignant tale of juvenile frustration set in a desolate 1960s East End

Thumbnail image of Sparrows Can't Sing (1962)Sparrows Can't Sing (1962)

Lively slice of East End life starring a pre-Carry On Barbara Windsor

Thumbnail image of Now and Then: Joan Littlewood (1968)Now and Then: Joan Littlewood (1968)

Unbroadcast interview with the radical theatre director

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