Edwin Shirley was a larger-than-life character with a love of showbusiness, unbounded enthusiasm for everything he did, and a great generosity of spirit. He was best known for founding the companies Edwin Shirley Trucking and Edwin Shirley Staging, both of which became ‘go-to’ firms for the music business.
While at school, Edwin joined the National Youth Theatre, where his roles included a messenger to Helen Mirren’s Cleopatra. As an NYT associate, he remained an active and valued supporter of the company throughout his life.
His interest in the theatre continued at Cambridge University, where he directed and performed in many productions, including appearances with the Footlights. The Cambridge Evening News named him as the university’s best actor of the year, noting that he was “a superb actor” who “has the rare ability to brand a classic comedy part with his own individuality, while never in the slightest upstaging the rest of the production”.
After graduation and six months spent in Los Angeles, he returned to the NYT at the Shaw Theatre as stage doorman. With the chance to see what went on backstage, any ambitions for acting or directing were replaced by an interest in lighting, particularly for rock’n’roll tours.
This led to work as a lighting director for music stars including Ike and Tina Turner, Paul McCartney – on his first tour of Europe with Wings – and David Bowie, on his first tour as Ziggy Stardust, on which Edwin doubled as lighting designer and van driver.
Transport problems on the 1973 Rolling Stones tour led Edwin and his NYT friend Roy Lamb to set up Edwin Shirley Trucking – the first specialist rock’n’roll trucking company in Europe. Edwin Shirley Staging Ltd followed in the early 1980s, building outdoor stages for rock concerts, including the London leg of Live Aid at Wembley Stadium in 1985.
In the early 1990s, Edwin and I were fellow members of the board of Stratford City Challenge in East London. He saw the potential in the then-deserted bonded warehouses, distillery and bottling plant site at Three Mills Island in Bow, and he took this over as Edwin Shirley Productions. He soundproofed the warehouses as he went, keeping just ahead of the increasing number of bookings. The first series of Channel 4’s Big Brother was filmed at Three Mills, as was Christine Edzard’s Little Dorrit and an early series of Bad Girls.
Edwin’s work with the London International Festival of Theatre led to the presentation of live shows at Three Mills, including the first British performances of La Fura Del Baus and De La Guarda. His efforts to retain control of Three Mills Studios failed, but suffice to say that the original vision for what the site has now become was entirely Edwin’s.
It may have been a result of many years of attending major rock gigs but, whatever the cause, his tendency to shout in even the smallest rooms was as distinctive a characteristic as his remarkably speedy walk. Edwin was a man of many apparent contradictions – the least likely of Cambridge graduates and a businessman who often took decisions with his heart rather than his head.
He was always willing to offer a favour, and would happily get a truck to do a small job on the way to a bigger gig. I will not forget the look on LAMDA students’ faces when, at the end of a long day, a 40ft trailer turned up at the MacOwan Theatre for unloading, only for them to find that it contained nothing but a single door frame. Edwin had arranged for the wagon to drop this off on its way to a get-out at Wembley Arena.
Often described as a maverick and with, as the Cambridge Evening News put it all those years ago, “brimming enthusiasm”, in spite of his ill health in recent years he was still full of ideas and was actively making plans for his next business venture.
Edwin Shirley was born on October 16, 1948. He died on April 16, at the age of 65.