Obituary: Alan Drury – ‘Playwright and BBC Radio Drama literary manager’
A playwright with more than 60 scripts to his name, Alan Drury was also the first literary manager to be appointed by the BBC Radio Drama department and served as chair of the Arts Council of Great Britain’s drama panel and co-chair of the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain.
Drury’s output, for stage, television and radio, spanned more than four decades, the Hull-born son of an insurance inspector and teacher having begun his writing career contributing sketches to the Footlights Revue while reading English at Cambridge University.
His first play was produced by a student group at the 1971 Edinburgh Fringe. With the future television presenter and novelist Sarah Dunant in the cast, Shoreline proved an inauspicious start, The Stage noting it “may have the dubious distinction of [being] the most boring play in this year’s fringe”.
Drury honed his craft producing work for London’s fringe venues, including the King’s Head, Ovalhouse, Bush and Questors theatres, before hitting his stride with the monologue The Man Himself in 1975.
Commissioned by the National Theatre, it was seen at the ICA with Michael Feast as a downtrodden storekeeper drawn to the far-right politics of the newly ascendant National Front. It toured extensively in the UK and Europe, was seen at the Young Vic (with Terence Rigby) in 1976 and filmed for Finnish television in 1983. A companion piece, A Change of Mind, was given a Platform Performance at the National Theatre in 1977.
Michael Kitchen and Suzanne Bertish led the cast of Drury’s Sparrowfall at the Hampstead Theatre in 1976, where he later served as literary manager from 1986-88, before taking up the same position with Liverpool Playhouse for two years.
As the first writer-in-residence at the York Theatre Royal, he produced Up and Away, a rock musical co-written with composer Nic Rowley about an alien visiting the city (1976), a portrait of the 16th-century Catholic martyr Margaret Clitheroe (1977) and a translation of Molière’s The Miser (1978). A decade later, Drury also provided a television adaptation, starring Nigel Hawthorne and Jim Broadbent.
Co-founded with his long-time producer-collaborator, John Chapman, the hubristically named Temporary Theatre Company survived a matter of weeks after presenting new work at the Bush Theatre.
Seen at the Royal Court Upstairs in 1979 during Drury’s tenure as the resident playwright in Sloane Square, his biting examination of office politics, An Empty Desk, marked a return to form. The 1980s began with the “satisfying, stimulating and compelling” An Honourable Man at the ICA and saw Drury venture into television with the domestic drama Keeping in Touch. There was also pantomime at the York Theatre Royal and another Molière adaptation, The Hypochondriac, for the National Theatre with Daniel Massey and Michael Bryant in 1981. It was subsequently revived at the Lyric Hammersmith with Tom Courtenay and Brian Glover in a topical, if tenuous, updating to the present-day NHS in 1987.
For Paines Plough, 1984’s Mr Hyde, a caustic exploration of the Victorian era’s dark, sexual underworld, was “extraordinarily gripping and bizarre”, the following year’s Little Brown Jug, a Glenn Miller jukebox musical complete with a big band on the Northcott Exeter’s stage, providing a striking contrast.
As a member of the Arts Council’s drama panel, Drury succeeded Brian Rix as its chair in 1989. Shortly after, he joined BBC Radio Drama as its first literary manager (having earlier spent time script-editing for the corporation’s television department). He continued to write for the medium, notably with 1995’s The Family Retainer, with Timothy West as the ailing patriarch of a family business dealing with tragic upheaval, and an adaptation of Peter Ackroyd’s novel about the Elizabethan alchemist and adviser to Elizabeth I, The House of Doctor Dee (1997).
As co-chair of the Writers’ Guild in the late 1990s, Drury played a leading role in improving radio contracts and was instrumental in establishing the Peter Tinniswood radio awards with the Society of Authors.
Other notable pieces for television included the drama Seeing in the Dark (1989) and an adaptation of George Eliot’s Silas Marner (1995), while later stage work included the behind-the-scenes restaurant drama Afters (Landor Theatre, 2002) and a contribution to the multi-authored After Chekhov (Soho Theatre, 2004).
Alan Drury was born on May 22, 1949, and died on May 29, aged 70. He is survived by two siblings.
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