Obituary: Sir Hugh Willatt

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The Independent Online
Hugh Willatt was a tireless champion of the arts - especially the hard-pressed repertory or regional theatres, and notably during the 20 years, from 1955 to 1975, of his work with the Arts Council of Great Britain.

He was born in Nottingham in 1909. His father was a local solicitor, whose own enthusiasm for the theatre was eagerly adopted by the young Hugh at home, at school (Repton) and at Oxford (Pembroke College), and he became a keen supporter of the theatre wherever he was.

After university he qualified as a solicitor, joined the family firm of Hunt, Dickens and Willatt in Nottingham and in due course became a partner. He remained involved with amateur theatre through the Theatre Club Co-Operative Arts Centre and was a loyal supporter of the local repertory company.

During the Second World War he served in the RAF, mostly in the Middle East and Italy, and after demobilisation in 1945 he returned to the law in Nottingham, and married Evelyn Gibbs, a distinguished painter and teacher.

The Arts Council of Great Britain, which had replaced CEMA (the Campaign for the Encourangement of Music and the Arts) after the war, had a regional office in Nottingham. This led to valuable and early personal contact between the Arts Council staff and Willatt.

There was a small converted cinema in the city operating with difficulty as a repertory theatre. The Willatts and other enthusiasts had for long been working towards the creation of a first-class subsidised repertory theatre, and in 1948 the Nottingham Theatre Trust was formed and acquired the repertory theatre, which it renamed the Nottingham Playhouse.

Hugh Willatt's father and later Hugh himself were members of the board. From its opening production in November 1949 it earned a reputation comparable to the oldest and best-established companies. This led to proposals for the building of a new, larger, properly equipped playhouse. After local party-political squabbling and through skilful negotiations by Hugh Willatt a fine new playhouse designed by Peter Moro was opened in 1963.

In 1955 Willatt had been made a member of the Arts Council's drama panel and he became the panel's chairman in 1960. He had already in 1957 been appointed a member of the Arts Council itself, and in 1959, after he joined the London solicitors Lewis, Silkin and Partners, he and his wife moved to London.

The Arts Council appointments led to service on a variety of sub-committees, special inquiries which studied in detail a wide range of the Arts Council's problems, and which went to the heart of the arts themselves. This proved invaluable to Willatt when in 1968 he was appointed the Secretary- General of the Arts Council.

These years were I think Hugh Willatt's happy time; he was in touch with pretty well everything going on in the rapidly expanding and changing expression of all the arts and under the chairmanship of the remarkable Lord Goodman. With increasing grant in aid, but never quite enough, it nevertheless seemed possible that the arts might before too long become properly subsidised and cared for. This is reflected in the annual reports by Willatt as Secretary-General and in reports of inquiries under his chairmanship of the drama panel. They are worth studying to see the slippage since then.

Willatt was knighted in 1972 and retired from the Arts Council in 1975 - but he didn't retire from serving the arts. He joined the Council of the English Stage Company at the Royal Court Theatre, and became chairman of the Riverside Studios at Hammersmith. He was trustee of the Mercury Theatre (Ballet Rambert) and one of Marie Rambert's executors when she died in 1982. He was also chairman of the National Opera Studio and a trustee of Shakespeare's birthplace.

Hugh Willatt was always ready to talk - or gossip - about what might have seemed "shop", but was really lifeblood to him. I never heard him malicious or cruel in his comments about even the few people he thought tiresome. He liked people, and he was easy to like.

Hugh Willatt, lawyer and arts administrator: born Nottingham 25 April 1909; Secretary-General, Arts Council 1968-75; Kt 1972; married 1945 Evelyn Gibbs (died 1991); died 18 October 1996.

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