We were meant to have lunch. He’d made the invitation, wanting to talk about an idea he’d had, a sneaky way of creating the kind of technical theatre history museum we’ve all dreamt about for so long. I’d accepted. Lunch with him? Who wouldn’t?
But as usual life got in the way. We never got to lunch. And the tragic news that Alan Jacobi – known as ‘AJ’ to all – has passed away means that now we never will. I couldn’t be sadder.
AJ was one of those life forces – always able to get things done. He wove together countless strands of the history of technical production, indeed of modern British theatre. He was there in the early days of the National Theatre at the Old Vic under Laurence Olivier, a member of the lighting team. He lived the highs and lows of the NT’s move to the South Bank.
He was part of the new wave of British musicals, Evita and Cats and beyond. He created a company with a perfect name, Unusual Rigging – the people you called if you needed an unlikely object hung in an inaccessible place or, later, if you needed an improbable project brought to fruition.
That life force meant ‘no’ was never an option with AJ – it was a priceless attitude when you were trying to deliver the seemingly impossible.
I knew him, of course. I suspect everyone knew him – he was distinctly recognisable, always accessible. And while I didn’t know him well, I do have two very clear memories that summarise his spirit. One was a sunny summer day in London when a giant puppet elephant parading through the streets rounded a corner and got stuck on the branch of a tree. It felt as though the whole procession might grind to a halt, but then there was AJ, chainsaw in hand, just solving the problem. Obstruction removed, the show went on.
If it was a Royal-owned tree, they didn’t hold it against him, later appointing him Lieutenant of the Royal Victorian Order in recognition of his work on the Golden Jubilee events.
The other was at the PLASA show a few years ago. We’d found one of the pioneering Lightboard lighting desks that had been created especially for the NT. AJ had operated it back in the day, and seeing him reunited with the desk was was like watching the reunion of long-lost friends. He leant in to it, like a big cat stalking a long-gone cue, explaining that you could just press go but he preferred to stand and run the fades manually on the wheels, to better be part of the show.
He leaves quite a legacy: in Unusual, a company not just at the top of its professional game but leading by example through its environmental work; in Backup, a charity supporting those working in the industry he loved; and in rigging, a role he helped evolve from getting the show on, whatever it takes, to the professionalism of getting the show on backed by engineering and discipline and rigour. An unusual life, but quite a life.