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Obituary: William Hobbs – pioneering fight director for stage and screen

William ‘Bill’ Hobbs, who has died aged 79, practically invented the modern-day fight director’s role. A champion fencer and co-founder of the Society of British Fight Directors, he was equally concerned with the quality of stage fights and their safety.

In a career stretching back to the 1960s, Hobbs worked tirelessly in the theatre, TV and the cinema, mentoring many of his successors along the way. The son of a Royal Air Force pilot who was killed in the closing stages of the Second World War, Hobbs spent much of his childhood in Sydney, Australia, where he learned how to fence, narrowly missing out on selection for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.

Having finished his schooling, Hobbs returned to his birthplace, London, and a place at the Central School of Speech and Drama, becoming a jobbing actor on completion of the three-year course. After two years in rep, he started to think his talents might lie in other directions. His breakthrough as a fight arranger came in 1960, aged 21, when the director Franco Zeffirelli invited him to choreograph the fight scenes in Romeo and Juliet at the Old Vic, with Judi Dench and John Stride. So powerful and realistic were the sword fights that they were mentioned in some of the reviews.

It was a good time to be associated with the Old Vic because, a couple of years later, Laurence Olivier announced that it was to be the base for the National Theatre. Hobbs remained with the National for nine years, working on many landmark productions, including Peter O’Toole’s Hamlet in 1963, Olivier’s Othello (1964), The Royal Hunt of the Sun (1964) and Peter Brook’s Oedipus.

Olivier became a trusted friend and wrote the foreword to Hobbs’ 1967 book, Stage Combat: The Action to the Word. His son Laurence, an actor and stuntman, recalls that Hobbs arranged so many fights for stage productions of Hamlet over the years that he often agonised over what he could do differently, so he wasn’t just repeating himself each time.

From the 1970s onwards, Hobbs divided his time between theatre and film, working on all three of Richard Lester’s Musketeer films, as well as Ridley Scott’s The Duellists (1977), Flash Gordon (1980), Dangerous Liaisons (1988), Cyrano de Bergerac (1990), and Rob Roy (1995). Over five decades, he tutored hundreds of stage and screen stars in sword-fighting and armed combat. He also helped to set up the Society of British Fight Directors which, although now defunct, morphed into the world renowned British Academy of Stage and Screen Combat in the 1990s.

In an interview with The Stage in 1994, Hobbs explained how he started out planning every move down to the last detail, like a choreographer. He went on to say he had learned to work “semi-organically” with actors in order to get a feeling for what they can and cannot do. He also said it helped him a lot to have been trained as an actor.

In another interview, with the New York Times, he said: “Perhaps my advantage is that having been an actor, I’m trying only to do the move I feel is right for the character. You are not doing pyrotechnics for the sake of doing pyrotechnics.”

Actor Ralph Fiennes, who worked with Hobbs on his award-winning Hamlet in 1995, said at the time: “Bill gives you that the sense of a real fencing competition, real danger. Being a fencer himself, he is familiar with that sense of people trying to score points.”

Fellow fight director Tony Wolf, who worked on the Lord of the Rings series of films, said: “Bill Hobbs’ fight choreography always sought to surprise his audience and took the less obvious path.”

Hobbs was also a founder member of the Actors Centre in 1978, and originator of the Swash and Buckle Fencing Club. His play, Enter the Players, was produced at the Young Vic in 1975.

William Hobbs was born January 29, 1939, and died on July 10, 2018.