Clive Wolfe: Director of the National Student Drama Festival who gave the likes of Fry, Elton and Gatiss a helping hand

 

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The Independent Online

If Clive Wolfe applied for the role of Artistic director of the National Student Drama Festival today I doubt he'd even get an interview. With his idiosyncratic management style, his creative methods of accounting (often financing the Festival from his wages as part-owner of a chemist's shop in Muswell Hill) and total lack of interest in answering to boards, committees or quotas he'd be lucky to even get a hearing. But his contribution to the last 40 years of British theatre was immense.

Under Wolfe the Student Drama Festival became a hotbed for student talent in Britain. Years before Fame Academies and the expansion of University drama courses the then peripatetic Festival was the place to go if you wanted to get a start in the theatre, and Clive Wolfe was the man who would ultimately decide if you were allowed in.

The list of participants whose shows he personally selected (he made sure he saw every single one of the contenders) is staggering. As he trekked up and down the country in all weathers with his Psion Organiser and his fruit-flavoured tea bags (then a delicacy north of the Watford Gap) on buses, trains and, later, planes, he was often the first to glimpse people we now regard as household names. Stephen Fry, Rik Mayall, Meera Syal, Ben Elton, Tim Pigott-Smith, Tina Brown, Mark Gatiss, Ben Miller, Andy Parsons, Caryl Churchill, John Godber and Simon Russell Beale were a few of the hundreds given a leg up by the indomitable Wolfe. Russell Beale went as far as to say, "It was during the Festival that I finally decided to become an actor as I was encouraged to do so by the great Clive Wolfe."

He was an unlikely theatrical impresario. He was born into a large Jewish family who came to Britain from Odessa; his father was a pharmacist while his mother worked in the family shops in Hackney. There was nothing to suggest an interest in theatre (though his first cousins were the actor Warren Mitchell and Ronald Wolfe, writer of On The Buses). But while studying at Regent Street Polytechnic he was cast as the doctor in Timothy West's production of Thornton Wilder's Our Town opposite Anne Mitchell (she and West are now septuagenarian lovers in EastEnders). During the run the shy Wolfe came out of himself, found his voice and came to believe in the transformative power of theatre, a belief that never left him.

In 1997 he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease but continued as Festival Director until 2000, when ill-health finally forced him to step down. Undaunted , and supported by his wife Pat, he continued to attend subsequent festivals in Scarborough, seeing student shows by writers like Lucy Prebble (who would go on to write the hugely successful Enron) and joining the debates afterwards – where he made his views clear to everyone who listened to his increasingly frail voice.

Wolfe was driven by a belief in the power of art to change lives – indeed, he changed mine and countless others'. He was also spurred on by the love of a good fight, as evidenced by his battle with the then radical National Union of Students over the direction of the Festival in the early 1970s (he won, against the odds). He also found time to take on the GLC when they threatened to close the Alexandra Palace, staging 45 events in 10 days, including all-in wrestling and chamber music, to prove that there was still an appetite for the old building.

Wolfe's tastes were highly eclectic, though never extended to pop music. He believed there were two types of theatre, good and bad, and that all other distinctions were redundant. He was equally at home watching Ruddigore as he was watching a post-dramatic feminist re-working of the Oresteia. He had a brilliant eye for talent. His management style could be infuriating and pernickety and his obsession with the use of correct grammar drove many an assistant over the edge, as did his love of gadgetry like his precious Psion Organiser which regularly crashed at crucial moments.

To the end of his life he continued to go to the theatre, and though he seldom kept awake for the whole performance, due to his medication, it didn't prevent him critiquing what he saw, even if he hadn't actually seen it.

Clive Wolfe was a small man but he was fearless; indeed, there was something of the all-in wrestler about him – he was the little guy who clambers out of the audience into the ring at the 11th hour and wins, capturing the hearts of the crowd. He could rub people up the wrong way, and frequently did, but it was all to one end: to make sure young people were given the opportunities they deserved and that talent was allowed to flourish. Bizarrely, no state-sanctioned rewards ever came his way. Modern management style and Arts Council gobbledygook probably means we won't see his like again. More's the pity.

TIM FOUNTAIN

Clive Wolfe, arts administrator: born 9 December 1931; married Pat (two children); died London 5 June 2014.

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