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Obituary: John Blackmore

John Blackmore pictured in 2012 with the cast of The Rise and Fall of Little Voice at Octagon Theatre Bolton. Photo: K Shipley John Blackmore pictured in 2012 with the cast of The Rise and Fall of Little Voice at Octagon Theatre Bolton. Photo: K Shipley

John Blackmore had something of the Midas touch about him, rescuing several leading regional theatres from the brink of closure and restoring them to rude health, both artistically and commercially, over a career that spanned six decades.

He was also responsible for the formation of the Tynewear Theatre Company (now Northern Stage) with a regional remit that saw it dividing its time between Newcastle, Sunderland and Hartlepool, and Birmingham’s first community theatre company, Second City Theatre.

Born in Singapore, Blackmore spent much of his childhood in Africa, coming to the UK to read psychology at Hull University. He began directing in his 20s and, despite his successes in turning around ailing companies and a West End run at the Phoenix Theatre in 1985 with his Tynewear premiere of Peter Terson’s Strippers, never considered himself a particularly gifted director.

Modest, good-humoured and avuncular, often to the point of Dickensian indulgence when it came to helping young actors and directors, he was also a shrewd manager, a deft negotiator and a stalwart champion of public funding of the arts. His regular letters to The Stage politely clarifying reports of troubled budgets showed a keen eye for financial detail and a clear strategic vision.

He made his mark as joint artistic director (with Paul Webster) of the Library Theatre, Manchester in the late 1960s, filling eight out of 10 seats in his first season in charge. In 1971, he added responsibility for the newly opened Wythenshawe Forum to his remit before announcing his departure to run the Midlands Arts Centre (now the Mac) in Birmingham the following year. By the time he finished his two-year contract, admissions had grown by more than half and earned income increased nearly 80%.

In 1974, Blackmore launched Birmingham’s Second City Theatre with Fired, a show devised by the company and playwright David Edgar.

He moved to become artistic director of the Dukes Playhouse, Lancaster in 1976, where he again grew audiences, by 50%, in his first year and secured the venue’s precarious financial future.

His biggest challenge to that point came with the formation of the Tynewear Theatre Company in 1978. Intended to be a regional rather than city-based company, it had an ambitious brief to serve the North East of England. Blackmore’s by then tried-and-tested mix of classics, modern and new plays aimed at the widest possible audience came into its own here (as it was to do again when he took over stewardship of Bolton’s Octagon Theatre in 2000).

It was put to the test with a lacklustre opening production of Ken Hill’s The Three Musketeers, but followed in successive years by gripping revivals of Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (1979), The Merchant of Venice (1980) and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1984).

Terson’s Strippers the same year marked the high-watermark of Blackmore’s tenure and secured the company its first West End transfer. Vivid stagings of Howard Brenton’s The Genius, Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire (1986) and Alan Ayckbourn’s Woman in Mind (1987) proved to be eloquently diverse swansongs at the Newcastle Playhouse.

Blackmore returned to the Midlands in 1989 to become director of Warwick Arts Centre before joining the English Shakespeare Company as an executive director in 1991 and chief executive of Leicester’s Haymarket Theatre two years later.

As he had several times before, Blackmore inherited a venue in parlous difficulties. One of his first interventions was to sack the theatre’s trustees en masse in order to secure crucial Arts Council funding. Within four years, he had grown box office income by half and reduced a crippling £500,000 debt to just £20,000. His abrupt departure in 1995 – when the board imposed a “management restructure” and made his job redundant – proved an incongruous end to his time in Leicester.

He went on to work as a producer with Bill Kenwright and, for Arts Council England, formulated plans to amalgamate the Everyman and Playhouse theatres in Liverpool.

In 2000, he was appointed chief executive of the Octagon Theatre, Bolton and charged with turning around a failing venue with no reserves or guaranteed funding from national or local authorities. Within the year, he had secured £200,000 from the Arts Council and restored the Octagon to being a year-round producing company.

By the time he stepped down in 2012 as the theatre’s longest-serving manager, he had returned a surplus every year and transformed the Octagon into one of the UK’s most successful and respected regional theatres. He also oversaw the appointment in 2008 – considered something of a coup at the time – of the Olivier award-winning David Thacker as the venue’s artistic director.

In the mid-1990s, Blackmore developed a parallel career as a consultant, advising local authorities and local arts boards on issues of funding and future viability for a range of theatres and companies.

In 1971, he was on the working party that developed Equity’s new directors’ committee and remained a committed union activist throughout his career. He was also the administrator of the Ludlow Festival in 2002.

John Ashurst Blackmore was born on January 20, 1941 and died on February 20, aged 77.

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