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Obituary: John Harrison – director who championed regional theatre and community engagement

John Harrison addressing the audience on the last night of the old Leeds Playhouse in 1989

Few figures championed regional theatre in Britain in the second half of the last half century so steadfastly or successfully as John Harrison, who led three flagship venues in Nottingham, Birmingham and Leeds.

His advocacy extended to young actors and directors – Paul Scofield, Donald Sinden, Peter Brook and Nicholas Hytner among them – many of whom he maintained lifelong friendships with and encouraged throughout his career.

Born in Battersea, south London, and evacuated during the war to Sidmouth, Devon, Harrison joined the Home Guard after being assessed medically unfit to fight and taught at a prep school where he began directing.

He joined Birmingham Rep’s acting company in 1944 and followed artistic director Barry Jackson to the Stratford Festival in 1946, making his West End debut as Benvolio and Chorus in Peter Brook’s 1947 staging of Romeo and Juliet at Her Majesty’s Theatre.

Late the following year, he joined Irish actor-manager Anew McMaster for a six-month tour of Australia and on his return became director of the Lichfield Garrick, moving on shortly afterwards to Guildford Rep.

In 1952, he took on the artistic directorship of Nottingham Playhouse, then still in its original home, a converted cinema, operating virtually as a one-man band, directing all its productions during his near-six-year tenure and presciently pioneering community engagement.

Stepping down in 1957, he directed a young Peter O’Toole as Alfred Doolittle in Pygmalion at the Bristol Old Vic and made his way into television as a writer, director and producer. Later he would write episodes of Hadleigh and Upstairs Downstairs, produce and direct the crime drama Dancers in Mourning and produce BBC Sunday Night Theatre.

After Jackson’s death in 1961, Harrison was appointed his successor at Birmingham Rep, remaining until 1966.

Again, he revealed himself as a shrewd judge of young acting and writing talent and, as he had in Nottingham, strengthened community bonds and laid plans for a new purpose-built home, which eventually opened in 1971.

His 17-year stewardship of Leeds Playhouse from 1972 followed a similar pattern of broad but popular programming that included classics, contemporary plays and new work, support for emerging talent and adroit public engagement. It also set in motion the building of the twin-auditorium West Yorkshire Playhouse, which opened in 1990 with Jude Kelly at the helm.

Harrison came out of retirement in 1998 to direct Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer for Neal Foster’s Birmingham Stage Company, returning for David Auburn’s Proof (2006) and an admired Othello, starring Cyril Nri, that was also briefly seen at the Bloomsbury Theatre (2007).

John Harrison was born on June 7, 1924, and died on August 21, aged 94. He published an autobiography, Not Quite Famous, in 2004, and two volumes of poetry. He is survived by two sons from his first marriage to the actor Daphne Slater, who died in 2012. His second wife, actor Linda Gardner, died in 1991.

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