Andrew Blackwood

Colourful general manager of the Cambridge Arts Theatre

Andrew Ronald Blackwood, theatre administrator: born Newcastle upon Tyne 13 December 1915; General Manager, Arts Theatre, Cambridge 1958-90; MBE 1946; twice married (one daughter, and one son deceased); died Cambridge 25 September 2003.

Andrew Blackwood was General Manager of Cambridge Arts Theatre for 32 years. Celebrated for what the director Richard Cottrell called his "admirable eccentricities", Blackwood was a colourful man presiding over a colourful time, a period in the theatre's history in which fire and flood, bloody battles with knives between chefs and the theft of the trust's entire stock of Château d'Yquem were as much in a day's work as box-office figures and audience development.

He began his lengthy association with the theatre in the early months of 1958, taking over responsibility for administration and finance, staffing, public relations and catering from Norman Higgins, the long-serving managing director and trustee.

Initially, the task of programming remained with Higgins, Blackwood's only previous experience of theatre having been acquired through his enthusiasm for the amateur world; his passion for the stage in general and the Arts Theatre in particular, however, enabled him to learn the ropes and make the necessary contacts in a short space of time, and he was soon pursuing a successful mixed-programme policy of his own, one which upheld the theatre's founding loyalties to the five art forms of drama, opera, ballet, music and film, and which provided the city with a calendar of entertainment as appealing as it was eclectic.

Throughout his tenure as the Arts Theatre's general manager and company secretary - he remained in the post until 1990, retiring at 75 - Blackwood proved himself to be a great enabler, nurturing talent and creating a welcoming and supportive atmosphere in which it could experiment and grow: "At a time when I needed to feel that I belonged, the friendly staff at the Arts unwittingly encouraged me to go on acting after university, so that I could join their family of theatre people," wrote Sir Ian McKellen in his foreword to Cambridge Arts Theatre: celebrating sixty years, published in 1996 to mark the Arts' 60th anniversary, and in that he voiced a sentiment widely shared by those who were fortunate enough to have gained their first taste of the stage under the watchful eye of Blackwood and George Rylands, the theatre's chairman.

Born in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1915, Blackwood began his working life as a purser on the Fred Olsen line, joining the Royal Navy during the Second World War and rising to the rank of commander; he served as secretary to Earl Mountbatten of Burma, and was appointed MBE for his war record, having barely survived a torpedo attack in the North Sea.

When in the 1950s Blackwood left his distinguished naval career behind him, he had the choice of two jobs: one was with the Duchy of Cornwall; the other with Cambridge Arts Theatre. He chose the latter simply because it kept him close to his beloved Covent Garden - music, especially Wagner, was his lifelong passion: as a young boy, he would often be seen "conducting" along the streets of Newcastle. Blackwood combined quirky individuality with bravery and determination; he made a great success of two careers that could not have been more different.

At Cambridge Arts Theatre, paying homage to the historical precedent set by Maynard Keynes and followed by Higgins and Rylands, Blackwood took the best of university and town talent and mixed it with productions from top-quality producing houses such as Oxford and Nottingham, and touring opera and ballet companies; with tight negotiation, he was also instrumental in bringing pre-London productions to Cambridge, frequently battling with sympathetic but hard-nosed producers to ensure that contracts were viable and that the Arts was able to compete with larger theatres in attracting shows. The desire to blend established mainstream with home-grown risk, past with future, was cemented during Blackwood's time at the helm in a way which remains unique amongst regional theatres.

Blackwood's other great dream was to re-establish the sort of Cambridge-based repertory company that the theatre had experienced with Norman Marshall and the Company of Four in the early 1940s: with imagination and determination, he was able to overcome the problems of space and finance which limited the Arts' potential as a producing venue by establishing a series of "part-time" resident companies: links were first of all made with the Oxford-based Prospect Theatre Company, then came its smaller-scale offshoot, Cambridge Theatre Company (later Method & Madness); established in 1970, CTC became one of the most respected and influential touring companies in the country, enjoying enormous loyalty in its home town, transfers to the West End and seasons with Zoë Wanamaker, Sheila Hancock, Siân Phillips, Maureen Lipman and Ian Charleson.

Whilst juggling many duties, Blackwood never forgot the importance of safeguarding the theatre's future: in the 1970s, he formed Cambridge Arts Theatre's Youth Group to develop new audiences and, throughout the serious financial difficulties that dogged the Arts Theatre from the 1960s to the 1980s, Blackwood fought long and hard for its survival, simultaneously inspiring in others a great belief that the battle was worthwhile.

With Rylands, he established an endowment fund in memory of Keynes, and the two led a larger-scale appeal in 1982 which raised £600,000; the presence of stars such as Peggy Ashcroft, Judi Dench, Trevor Nunn, Ian McKellen, Prunella Scales and Timothy West at the theatre's 50th anniversary fund-raising gala testified to the enormous respect and affection in which the Arts was held.

Ever courteous, Blackwood approached his work with a practical good-humour, never once forgetting, "The play is really the thing, and nothing beats the thrill of curtain-up on opening night." He saw upwards of a thousand of those, continuing to support the Arts Theatre long after his retirement and, despite his inherent modesty, many of today's performers and directors would attribute their success at least in part to Blackwood's gentle encouragement.

Nicola Upson