Eleanor Fazan obituary

<span>Eleanor Fazan in London, 1952</span><span>Photograph: none requested</span>
Eleanor Fazan in London, 1952Photograph: none requested

In early 1961, four young men – a doctor, a history lecturer, a jazz pianist and a writer of comedy sketches – gathered at the flat of the director Eleanor Fazan, known as Fiz. She had been hired by the producers Donald Albery and William Donaldson to prepare their student revue, which had been a hit at the Edinburgh festival, for a possible West End run. It would be a routine, umpire-cum-production manager job, she was told. She would be paid £10 a week.

But when Jonathan Miller, Alan Bennett, Dudley Moore and Peter Cook put on a run-through of Beyond the Fringe, Fiz was alarmed. “The show was badly put together and their attitude was typically undergraduate,” she said in 2005, when I was researching a biography of Donaldson. Adding material for a full-length revue and giving it visual variety would take work, and “the boys” as she called them – they were about three years younger than her – disliked rehearsing.

Nonetheless, the opening of Beyond the Fringe at the Fortune theatre was hailed by Kenneth Tynan in the Observer as “the moment when English comedy took its first decisive step into the second half of the 20th century”, and in 1962 two American producers competed to take it to Broadway. The winner was offered Fiz’s credit as director and her percentage as a sweetener. The boys and Albery “agreed that it was only proper that my £10 a week should continue with a further £10 from New York”, she wrote later in her characteristic tone of good humour, laced with light irony.

Fiz, who has died aged 94, never went for easy jobs in her career as a dancer, actor, choreographer and director. Traversing high and low culture, she worked on productions ranging from seaside specials to opera.

Her breakthrough had come in 1956, while working as choreographer on the musical Grab Me a Gondola. The producer appointed her as director, the show became a hit, moving from the Theatre Royal, Windsor to the Lyric, Hammersmith and the West End, and she caught the eye of the notoriously fierce Albery. She became the first female director to have three plays running simultaneously in the West End, and did it twice.

In 1962 she was co-director with Lionel Bart on his musical Blitz!, and in 1969 directed Just a Show, the first one-man revue that Barry Humphries brought to London. Her 1970 production of Oskar Panizza’s 1895 anti-Catholic satire The Council of Love landed her in court on a charge of blasphemy, brought by the scourge of the permissive society, Lady Birdwood. Fiz was acquitted, largely thanks to a brilliant defence by John Mortimer.

While auditioning for a part in the film Secret People (1952) – she lost out to Audrey Hepburn – Fiz had met the director Lindsay Anderson. Nine years later, he took her to the Royal Court theatre to stage the musical numbers in Henry Cookson’s The Lily White Boys. It was the first of many collaborations with Anderson, including on his film O Lucky Man! (1973), in which she appeared on screen with him, and the start of a lifelong friendship. He was, she wrote after his death: “my staunchest friend and my bulwark against the slings and arrows”.

In 1955 she married the film and TV composer Stanley Myers. Though they divorced in the early 1960s, they remained on good terms. As a result of his writing the theme music for The Deer Hunter (1978), she met the director Michael Cimino and became choreographer on his wildly ambitious and financially catastrophic Heaven’s Gate (1980).

Throughout the 1960s and 70s, she was rarely out of work. As an actor, she appeared opposite Nicol Williamson in Anthony Page’s production of John Osborne’s Inadmissible Evidence at Wyndham’s theatre (1965) and the subsequent film (1968). As a choreographer, she worked with Laurence Olivier in Richard Attenborough’s film Oh! What a Lovely War (1969), and Alec Guinness in Richard Eyre’s production of Bennett’s Habeas Corpus (Lyric, 1973).

“You work with Fiz,” said Peter O’Toole, on whose film The Ruling Class (1972) she was choreographer, “and you think nothing is happening. Then you suddenly realise you are taking part in something really very good.” In 1974 she choreographed Götz Friedrich’s production of Wagner’s Ring cycle for the Royal Opera, London. She continued to work in this field, with stagings including Verdi’s Macbeth for Elijah Moshinsky (1981) and several productions for John Schlesinger, the last of which was Peter Grimes in 2000. Commissioned by Plácido Domingo while artistic director at Los Angeles Opera, it opened at La Scala, Milan, before transferring to Los Angeles.

Through Schlesinger, Fiz worked with Herbert von Karajan, when in 1989 he was to conduct Schesinger’s Salzburg production of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera.”I have been watching you. You are not – how shall I put it? – you are not maladroite,” the conductor told her – but sadly he died while the production was in rehearsal.

Born in Nairobi, capital of the then British colony of Kenya, Eleanor was the daughter of Sylvia (nee Hook) and Sidney Fazan, an unfashionably pro-African provincial commissioner in the Kenyan administration. According to her cousin the film-maker Harry Hook, she inherited her strength of will and stoicism from her mother, talents that later equipped her for “wrangling huge egos” in the worlds of theatre, film and opera.

She needed all that self-reliance when in 1945, soon after her parents separated, she was sent to take up a place at the school attached to the Sadler’s Wells Ballet – precursor of the Royal Ballet – in north London. Soon after her arrival, her godparents, with whom she was staying, sent her to the Cone-Ripman dance school in Tring, Hertfordshire.

Fiz landed her first job as a dancer in 1948, in a regional tour of The Windmill Man, featuring the music-hall star George Robey, “the prime minister of mirth”.

In 1956, the year following her marriage to Myers, they had a son, Nicholas, and she was soon back working, on Grab Me a Gondola.

Her acute memoir Fiz and Some Theatre Giants appeared in 2013, and that year, too, she was appointed OBE for services to dance. Fame and its trappings were never of interest to her; the work was what mattered. “It’s all tap-dancing,” she said.

Nicholas died in 2017. She is survived by her granddaughters, Ellie and Anna.

Eleanor Henta Fazan, actor, director and choreographer, born 29 May 1929; died 20 January 2024