Michael Blakemore obituary

<span>Photograph: Independent/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Independent/Alamy

At the time the director Michael Blakemore, who has died aged 95, was dubbed a double Tony award-winner in 2000 for his productions of Kiss Me Kate and Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, he said: “All I can say is, thank you America. And, when I say America, of course I mean New York. And when I say New York, I mean Broadway.”

He raised the roof in Radio City, but his ironical tone was lost on the enthusiastic audience. He was recognising the parochialism of the glamour. Blakemore was never lost in showbiz, despite being one of its most skilled exponents, a director whose command of, and respect for, sheer craft was an aspect of his supreme intelligence. He thought (and wrote) long and hard about theatre without ever clouding his work with conceptual arrogance or extraneous clutter. He was master of finding the right actors, the right design and the right tempo for plays, musicals and farces. And he was a civilised, cultured man, whose taste was almost always impeccable.

Particularly associated with the early plays of Peter Nichols and the later ones of Frayn, he was a key associate in Laurence Olivier’s tenure as the inaugural artistic director of the National Theatre, over a period of five years (1971-76) that overlapped with the arrival of Peter Hall, an arch-enemy, and which he anatomised, brilliantly, in his third major book, Stage Blood (2013).

It contains a classic, 30-page log of his work with Olivier on the revival of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night in 1971, in which he coaxed the actor into one of his greatest performances while the running of the organisation was fraught with Olivier’s illnesses, administrative set-backs and others’ treachery. But he had great support from Olivier’s literary manager, Kenneth Tynan, and relished the talents and company of even “difficult” colleagues such as the director John Dexter.

With his fellow associate director Jonathan Miller, he resisted the plans of the incoming Hall, Olivier’s successor (appointed, in defiance of Olivier himself, in 1973), to amalgamate the National with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and disliked the increasing tendency (as he saw it) towards lack of consultation on major decisions and (as he also saw it) Hall’s self-aggrandisement.

The more congenial idea of a spit-and-sawdust theatre in the Old Vic, with prefab, temporary offices round the corner in Aquinas Street, was inevitably transformed, in Denys Lasdun’s monolithic concrete building on the South Bank, into an effort of corporate will, with sponsorship, politics and committee men, legions of staff and a non-stop output of productions in three auditoriums (two of which were, and are, extremely difficult).

Blakemore, an Australian, had learned his trade in Britain as an actor in rep, had toured with Olivier behind the Iron Curtain in Peter Brook’s 1955 production of Titus Andronicus and discovered the truth of what Tyrone Guthrie, another fine director, had taught him when they worked together at the Bristol Old Vic in the early 1960s: that the point of rehearsals was to realise the potential of the actor and that of theatre to realise the potential of the audience.

He was in the right place at the right time as co-artistic director of the Glasgow Citizens when the script of Nichols’s A Day in the Death of Joe Egg landed on his desk in 1967. Every major theatre in Britain had turned down this blackly funny vaudeville with a disabled child at its centre.

Blakemore’s production caused a sensation, won the Evening Standard best play award when it transferred to London, and proceeded thence to triumph on Broadway. His name was made.

Born in Sydney, Michael was the son of Una (nee Litchfield) and Conrad Blakemore, an eye surgeon. They divorced when he was nine, and he was sent to board at the King’s school, Parramatta, New South Wales, where, at the age of 16, he decided to become a film director after seeing Olivier’s 1944 screen version of Henry V.

He went to Sydney University to study medicine but failed his third year exams and left – but not before he had interviewed Robert Morley for the university paper; the actor was touring in his own play, Edward, My Son (1947).

When Blakemore expressed surprise at the lack of publicity surrounding the show, Morley offered him a job as his publicist for £6 a week and, on learning of his ambitions, he wrote a recommendation letter to Rada.

Blakemore subsidised his ocean passage to London by working as a steward on the ship. From Rada, where his friends and contemporaries included Joan Collins, Diane Cilento and Rosemary Harris, he plunged into repertory theatre in 1952, acting in Huddersfield, Derby, Hythe, Chesterfield and the Birmingham Rep, managing to write a play and, eventually, a published novel, Next Season (1969), which transformed this experience into a classic comic fiction of the period and our postwar theatre.

The actor and writer Simon Callow said that no book has so truly depicted the creative, anarchic excitement of acting as does Next Season. It incorporated elements of Blakemore’s work at Stratford-upon-Avon, too, where in 1959 he was a member of the great company led by Charles Laughton, Olivier, Edith Evans and Paul Robeson, directed by Hall. Hall first of all vied with him for the affections of Vanessa Redgrave and then took over the whole shebang in founding the RSC in 1960. Blakemore returned to the regions and ended up in Glasgow where, as well as the Nichols play, he directed a sensational Leonard Rossiter in Brecht’s Arturo Ui (1969), a performance in the role that has never been surpassed in Britain, transferring to the old Saville theatre at the wrong end of Shaftesbury Avenue. In the same year, he directed his second Nichols play, The National Health, a gloriously black comedy about a chronically underfunded NHS, for the National Theatre.

In the early 70s, Blakemore’s output was indeed prodigious: he not only steered his third great Nichols piece, Forget-Me-Not-Lane (1971), a frankly autobiographical, acidly nostalgic but also unusually experimental photograph album of a play, from the Greenwich theatre into the West End, he also supervised a definitive National revival of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s 1928 newspaper classic, The Front Page (1972).

He also restored Noël Coward’s Design for Living to critical and popular favour (his trio of bohemians were Redgrave, John Stride and Jeremy Brett) at the Phoenix theatre (1973), just after Coward’s death and directed David Hare’s Home Counties thriller, Knuckle, starring Edward Fox and Kate Nelligan, at the Comedy (now the Harold Pinter, 1974).

There was a West End revival of Shaw’s Candida (1977) with Denis Quilley and Deborah Kerr, and, in the same year, a fourth triumph with Nichols, his hilarious account of an army song-and-dance unit in Malaya (Malaysia) during the emergency in the late 40s, Privates on Parade, which started with the RSC at the Aldwych – Quilley as the outrageous Captain Terri Dennis in full glorious flow, Nigel Hawthorne as a more sedate senior officer – and transferred to the Piccadilly.

Blakemore had signed off at the National with another notable hit, his revival of the Ben Travers farce Plunder, which moved across from the Old Vic to the new theatre in 1976. Now he got to work with Frayn at the Lyric, Hammersmith, on Make and Break (1980), with Rossiter and Prunella Scales, and then Noises Off (1982) which, despite teething troubles in the third act, was soon established as the most brilliant of modern farces.

There was more muted acclaim for Frayn’s Benefactors (1984) at the Vaudeville and an underrated play by Anthony Minghella, Made in Bangkok (1986), which flopped at the Aldwych.

No other director of the past 30 years perpetrated so much pleasure on the intelligent wing of the commercial theatre: Maggie Smith and Margaret Tyzack in Peter Shaffer’s Lettice and Lovage (1987), both actors winning Tonys in New York; Jonathan Pryce as Uncle Vanya at the Vaudeville (1988); the Larry Gelbart/Cy Coleman musical City of Angels (Prince of Wales, 1993), in which the action flipped between black and white and colour in a film noir match-up of a Chandleresque private dick and the story he was investigating.

Frayn took him back to the National (where Richard Eyre had succeeded Hall) with Copenhagen (1998), his account of a historic meeting between the German physicist Werner Heisenberg and his Danish mentor Niels Bohr, a complex and knotty play that defied all expectations in its popular appeal. Also at the National, Frayn’s Democracy (2003) was equally fascinating in its portrait of Willy Brandt, the West German chancellor, played by Roger Allam, deciding to expose his secretary as a communist spy.

After these exquisite, beautifully cast productions, and his double Tony triumph, Blakemore remained as much in demand on Broadway as he was in London, and his 2009 New York revival of Coward’s Blithe Spirit, starring Angela Lansbury as Madame Arcati, moved to the Gielgud in London in 2014. At the Southwark Playhouse he returned to The Life (2017), the sleazy tale with music by Coleman of sex work in New York, where he had directed it on Broadway 20 years earlier.

His second book, Arguments With Myself (2005), brought readers as far as the Death of Joe Egg with the slightly rancorous remark that there was no acknowledgement of his drastic restructuring of Nichols’s second draft in the printed text.

There was nothing slight about the rancour of his feud with Hall, and its bitterness, which takes the edge off the enjoyment of Stage Blood, seems surprising in such a serious-minded and mild-mannered fellow.

Like Hall, he never had much success in films, though he did direct A Personal History of the Australian Surf (1981) – surfing was his lifelong passion – the film of Privates on Parade (1983), with John Cleese as Major Giles Flack, and Country Life (1994), Blakemore’s own version of Uncle Vanya, set in the Australian outback, and in which he appeared.

It was a lovely full-circle coincidence that Stage Blood won, in 2013, the theatrical book prize named after Morley’s son, Sheridan Morley, who was also a personal friend down the years. In 2003 he was appointed both AO and OBE.

Blakemore’s marriage to Shirley Bush in 1960 was dissolved in 1986; in the same year he married the theatrical designer Tanya McCallin. He is survived by Tanya, from whom he was separated, their daughters, Beatrice and Clementine, and by his son from his first marriage, Conrad.

Michael Howell Blakemore, theatre director, born 19 June 1928; died 10 December 2023