Adrian Cairns

Actor and broadcaster turned drama teacher
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The Independent Online

Adrian Cairns, actor, broadcaster and drama teacher: born London 12 October 1924; Senior Presenter, Tyne Tees Television 1959-64; Deputy, Bristol Old Vic Theatre School 1964-80, Associate Principal 1980-89; married 1952 Pamela Wingfield (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1957), 1958 Laura Head; died Bristol 23 March 2003.

Adrian Cairns cared passionately about the teaching of aspiring actors and was for 25 years Deputy and then Associate Principal at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.

Cairns was born and brought up in Hampstead, London, and educated at Haberdashers' Aske's School in Hampton. His family were not theatrical – his father was an Assistant Charity Commissioner– but he became fascinated by the theatre when he was taken to see John Gielgud play King Lear at the Old Vic in London in 1936. He was 16. He was determined to become an actor and was auditioned and accepted to study at the Old Vic Theatre School.

After completing his studies at the school – which had been evacuated to a Cotswold farmhouse in the village of Little Woodford, near Shipston-on-Stour in Warwickshire, during the Second World War and was directed by John Moody and Tyrone Guthrie – he became juvenile lead at the Oxford Playhouse before serving as a Sub- Lieutenant in coastal forces with the RNVR from 1943 to 1946.

He resumed his career after demobilisation and played in the West End at the Arts and St James's theatres. He realised a huge personal ambition in 1950 when he appeared in his hero Gielgud's production of Christopher Fry's The Boy with a Cart at the Lyric, Hammersmith, alongside the young Richard Burton.

In the 1950s he was leading man for the York and Northampton repertory companies and was in the opening season of the first Civic Theatre at Chesterfield. He began to direct in rep and more than 300 productions followed. In 1958 he married his second wife, Laura Head – the actress Laura Headley. They met when he was in rep at Scarborough and she appeared in a production of Dick Whittington.

Cairns was rarely short of work and regularly appeared in films as well as on stage. But he was always honest about his limitations as an actor and wryly admitted that he was never quite sure how he survived these years as someone who lacked star quality.

The answer was his golden, magisterial voice – and it proved a great asset in the early days of independent television. He was the first voice to be heard on both ABC Manchester and Tyne Tees Television, where he was senior presenter and interviewer from 1959 to 1964. His very first interview was with the then Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan.

He hosted the Tyne Tees celebrity programme Star Parade, where his interviewees included such Hollywood stars as Omar Sharif and the young, irreverent Beatles, who gave the patrician Cairns a typically hard time.

Cairns's fascination with teaching at the grass roots of his profession began with spell as a Staff Director at LAMDA and when he left Tyne Tees in 1964, unhappy with changes at the station, he successfully applied for the job of Deputy Principal at the Bristol theatre school. His contract included a clause allowing him to continue freelance acting.

Besides his talent for teaching, Cairns's greatest achievement at Bristol was to bring order to the somewhat chaotic regime of the school's mercurial leading teachers Nat Brenner and Rudi Shelley. He became the school's rock, to the enormous benefit of generations of aspiring actors, organising a proper syllabus and introducing the first timetable.

He became, too, a leading authority on the history of international theatre and the teaching of actors, and travelled to Moscow, New York and California as well as most of the major British drama school to research actor-training methods. In 1996 he published The Making of the Professional Actor: a history, an analysis and a prediction with a foreword by the actor Jeremy Irons, one of his former students.

Cairns also freelanced, as well as directing an annual production at the Bristol Old Vic's New Vic studio theatre. He appeared in character parts in radio plays and television drama series including EastEnders and Kavanagh QC. His voice was always in demand and he and Laura regularly broadcast readers' letters for HTV and Radio 4's Any Answers.

Adrian Cairns was an intensely religious man. From a Methodist childhood and an agnostic and humanist youth, he moved through High Church Anglicanism, Subud and Sufism, Zen and Soto Buddhism and Tibetan Dzogchen until he found his true spiritual home as a Quaker with the Society of Friends at Portishead, near Bristol, in 1977. He remained with the Quakers from then on and wrote essays for Quaker publications.

He was a keen and talented painter and, after his retirement, a much-valued member of an informal group of leading Bristol artists, writers and musicians who met for a monthly pub lunch to enjoy each others' company.

James Belsey

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