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Saturday, 21 September, 2002, 16:35 GMT 17:35 UK
Obituary: Theatre's defiant genius
Joan Littlewood
Her most celebrated creation was Oh What a Lovely War
Theatre director Joan Littlewood, who has died aged 87, was a subversive genius who, with her pioneering Theatre Workshop, broke the mould of British drama.

She set up her forum for the people, the first of its kind since Shakespeare, in defiance of establishment-supported theatre.

With her long-time love Gerry Raffles, Littlewood settled her workshop at Stratford, East London, as a "place where people could act happily".

Raffles dealt with all the administration of the Theatre Royal productions, leaving Littlewood free to express her creative spirit. Out went fussy sets, footlights, stage make-up and ham acting.

Theatre Royal, Stratford
Home of the Workshop: Theatre Royal, Stratford
The creator of Look Back in Anger, John Osborne, called his characters soft in comparison with hers. Richard Harris, Brian Murphy and Barbara Windsor all flourished under Littlewood's guidance.

Radical and outspoken, she was feared by the authorities and snubbed by the Arts Council. She was spurned by the BBC and refused entry to a radio studio where she was due to record a play.

It seemed she was ahead of her time. Fifty years later, the same corporation serialised her memoirs, and brought to radio for the first time Littlewood's most celebrated creation, Oh What a Lovely War.

This play came about after a conventional play about World War I was dramatically altered in 1963, when Littlewood decided that "war is for clowns".

With her incomprehensible sergeant-major's drill and Frenchmen walking into battle "baa-ing like lambs to the slaughter", Littlewood combined slapstick humour with serious satire to set a new style in improvised theatre.

Barbara Windsor
Barbara Windsor, one of Littlewood's proteges
But the company was scuppered by its own success. Over the next decade, its actors were poached for television, and when Gerry Raffles died suddenly in 1975, Littlewood's life took on the aspect of one of her own dramatic creations.

Grief stricken and dismayed by the decline in quality of her ensemble, she closed the door on her Theatre Workshop.

In 1975, she left the theatre forever and moved abroad. A woman of extremes, Littlewood shared her time between a tiny flat in southern France, the vineyards of Bordeaux and a convent, where she steadfastly withstood any religious conversion.

In this environment of self-induced poverty, she was found and befriended by Baron Philippe de Rothschild. His long-time platonic consort, Littlewood lived at times in his Chateau Mouton Rothschild, which she always called "a stable, converted in the 18th century".

When Playboy magazine came to interview the Baron, Littlewood arrived at the dinner table dressed as a rabbit, complete with pompom attached.

Enduring legacy

This very individual self-creation had dragged herself from the poverty of South London to RADA on a scholarship. But she soon left, walked to Manchester and entered repertory theatre there.

Neither of her parents could read or write, and she was a self-professed "vulgar woman of the people".

Theatre should be free, like air or water or love

Joan Littlewood's enduring philosophy

In 1998, the only caveat Littlewood imposed on a young company's revival of Oh What a Lovely War, was that it wasn't staged at the National, that "elitist and middle class anathema".

She attacked everyone in the industry, and was freshly incensed in her eighties by the BBC's staging of Oh What a Lovely War as a radio piece, saying it was a visual event.

One of her most derided colleagues was her former assistant Philip Hedley. He once remarked: "To know Joan is to be attacked by Joan, but the fact is she is a wonder. A ragamuffin, a nuisance, but a wonder."

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21 Sep 02 | UK
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