Dan Crawford

Founder of 'London's first fringe pub theatre', at the King's Head, Islington
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The Independent Online

Few London theatres have become more identified with their founding artistic directors than the tiny power-house of the King's Head in Upper Street, Islington, under Dan Crawford. Bernard Miles at the old Mermaid in Puddle Dock was a character every bit as richly eccentric as Crawford and headed a theatre of similarly striking diversity in its heyday. And a few of Crawford's fellow American expatriates - Sam Wanamaker at Shakespeare's Globe, Charles Morowitz at the Open Space and Jim Haynes at the Drury Lane Arts Lab - were all similarly visionary personalities. However only Crawford managed - in the teeth of almost overwhelming funding crises dictated by some of the most pettifogging decisions of a pusillanimous Greater London Arts Board - to keep going for nearly 40 years.

Born in Hackensack, New Jersey ("like Croydon, only not as pretty" ), Crawford, a printer's son, became captivated by the theatre as an adolescent, working as a general dogsbody at a little theatre housed above a local shopping mall, a director of which was Robert Ludlum prior to his literary career. The expertise gained in lighting and stage management at the Playhouse on the Mall stood Crawford in good stead when he moved on to the world of "industrials" - trade shows mounted as promotions for companies such as Revlon and other cosmetic corporate giants (he had especially fond memories of The Fabergé Follies).

The move in 1969 to London was inspired largely by Crawford's long-distance love affair with the city resulting from his teenage passion for the Ealing Comedy films and a vision of a kind of prelapsarian England which surely, to a degree, underpinned his attachment to the work of writers such as Noël Coward, Terence Rattigan, Enid Bagnold and Daphne du Maurier, the music of the Arcadians, Vivian Ellis and Flanders and Swann or the world of Enid Blyton - all alongside works by Brian Friel, Athol Fugard, Hugh Leonard, Martin Sherman and Tom Stoppard and some genuinely radical work, often on gay issues - in a repertoire for which eclectic seems a miserably inadequate description.

There was something of the Ealing character in Crawford himself. Never renowned for sartorial elegance - a shambolic figure who seemed to wear the same mouldering tweed jacket or, on "smart" days, a grey suit of shapelessly indeterminate vintage and shoes flappingly detached from their soles, his teeth defiantly un-American, stained by years of smoking Player's Weights - he made a God-given match with the shabbily down-at-heel King's Head as he discovered it in 1970.

London's Victorian pubs entranced Crawford, who became determined to run his own theatre. His dream was crucially grounded in the savvy realisation that while he might not be able ever to make a living out of running a theatre he might keep just afloat by simultaneously running a pub (his behind-the-bar experience back at the Hackensack theatre here came in handy).

He claimed that it was only because he heard in a chance conversation that Islington was "an up-and-coming area" that he took himself off on the Northern Line to explore north of the Angel tube station. The King's Head seemed initially a dubious proposition - "It hadn't been decorated since 1930. Even the winos had deserted it" - but he could see potential in the room behind the bar, previously used for billiards (or, on occasion and illegally, boxing).

Crawford took over the building - London's first fringe pub theatre, he always claimed - in 1970 with just a few pounds left in his bank account after some essential cosmetic refurbishment, begging or borrowing the original worn velvet seats and some dusty drapes for the side walls. The pub remained - and remains - virtually untouched and until the 21st century ignored the "new" decimal coinage, hopelessly confusing tourists confronted by pounds, shillings and pence.

For more than three decades the King's Head's fortunes were virtually always precarious. Crawford had an early profitable success with an adaptation of John Fowles's The Collector (1970), a small cast piece which became something of a fringe-theatre standby. Another early hit was Robert Patrick's Kennedy's Children (1974), in Clive Donner's meticulously gauged production an affecting portrait of an American generation (usefully set in a bar) through interlocking monologues. From the very start, however, it was evident that Crawford's programming would be remarkable for its diversity.

Sublimely aloof to funding bodies' blinkered inability to comprehend ventures without defined policies or manifestos, Crawford never could quite cope with expounding any restrictive artistic credo. The nearest he came to defining policy at the King's Head was his claim that all he wanted to do was to present work, new or neglected, which was "humane, tolerant, non-exclusive, capable of belonging to anyone and everyone" (admittedly a loose "policy" but as good as that of many a lavishly funded outfit, surely). Few productions fitted that description better than the beguiling play with music set in a Belfast bicycle shop, Spokesong (1976) by Stewart Parker (a favourite Crawford dramatist who died sadly young) with songs by a rediscovered Jimmy ("Red Sails in the Sunset") Kennedy.

Other landmark productions to come out of Upper Street, many of them going on to further West End lives, include the rediscovery of Coward's Easy Virtue (1988); revivals of Martin Sherman's When She Danced (1991), with a mesmeric performance by Sheila Gish as Isadora Duncan; Peter Nichols's A Day in the Death of Joe Egg (1997), with Clive Owen; Stoppard's radio-originated Artist Descending a Staircase (1989); Mart Crowley's landmark Boys in the Band (1997); R.C. Sherriff's Journey's End (1998) with Sam West in a career-moulding performance; Daphne du Maurier's September Tide (1993) with Susannah York; and Coward's A Song at Twilight (1999) with Corin Redgrave.

New work significantly included D.W.M. Greer's Burning Blue, Being at Home with Claude with Lothaire Bluteau, Terrence McNally's The Lisbon Traviata and the extraordinary, large-cast venture of Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens, all of which strikingly addressed gay issues for an Aids generation.

The King's Head under Crawford may not have begun the vogue for musical compilation shows, which originated with Coward, Porter and Sondheim reappraisals in the early 1970s at the Mermaid. But it presented the Sheridan Morley-devised Noël and Gertie (1983) - based on the personal and professional partnerships of Coward and Gertrude Lawrence - and, following the theatre's sell-out revival of the musical Mr Cinders (1981) with Denis Lawson memorably enchanting as he sang and danced "Spread a Little Happiness", the Vivian Ellis compilation titled after that number (1992).

After stagings of the Bernstein musical Wonderful Town (1985) with Maureen Lipman in high-octane form and the Heather Brothers' Slice of Saturday Night (1993), Crawford more recently struck up a rewarding partnership with the American director Phillip George, who staged such original, uncategorisable and uniquely King's Head shows as Frankly Scarlett and Whoop-Di-Doo (both 1999).

The list of actors who appeared on that postage-stamp-sized stage makes for a unique roll call: Victoria Wood, Joanna Lumley, Constance Cummings, Ruby Wax, Juliet Stevenson, Steven Berkoff (he described the venue as "a sanctuary for every maverick in the theatre world"), Anthony Sher, Hugh Grant, Simon Cadell, Henry Goodman, Nigel Planer and Gary Oldman are just some of them. Nobody worked at the King's Head for money or conditions; salaries rarely covered even expenses and the one (communal) dressing-room was a narrow, corridor-like space with a sole and less than salubrious lavatory. (Large casts - sometimes as many as 30 - had to spill over into upstairs offices or, at one time, the Crawfords' bedroom.)

The loyalty of those who worked there was an earnest of Crawford's personal charm and of his building's special quality. The theatre hit really rocky times with the 1999 London Arts Board's withdrawal of its lifeblood core funding (just under £40,000 then), insisting that the theatre must provide a written manifesto, conform to standard commissioning agreements and pay scales, and that "marketing strategy" (dread vogue phrase among arts-world pen pushers) and business plans be implemented - conditions which ignored the theatre's successfully serendipitous approach to programming.

In 2001, with a new management consultant in place and after two years of reorganisation, Crawford returned to the LAB. At the crucial meeting the King's Head was given an approving clean bill of management fitness but refused the restoration of its grant - Crawford was told by the LAB's chief executive: "Oh, you always say you're going to close but you never do" - leading to its London Borough grant being also withdrawn on the back of the LAB's decision. Ironically, during most of the crunch time for the King's Head, the Culture Secretary, one more than usually ineffective in that post, was the local Islington MP Chris Smith.

Only the generosity of supporters such as Cameron Mackintosh and of many of its associated actors - including Victoria Wood (who never forgot that Crawford once had hitchhiked to Sheffield to woo her for an early London appearance) donating the takings from a sold-out Royal Albert Hall show or Maureen Lipman's gesture with a benefit performance of her Joyce Grenfell evening - helped keep the theatre afloat through what became an almost week-by-week operation.

In addition to his continuing role as impresario - the King's Head current show based on The Spectator's amatory dramas is a happy instance of Crawford's taste for fun (and publicity) - Crawford occasionally directed productions, usually at his home base. In truth, his directorial talent did not match his entrepreneurial flair; his well-intentioned but over-reaching revival of Coward's epic Cavalcade (Sadler's Wells and tour, 1995) was not his finest hour, although he steered a touching revival of Friel's Philadelphia, Here I Come! (1992) and an appealing version of Enid Blyton's Famous Five (1997), co-adapted by his fourth wife Stephanie, a production infused by an expatriate's loving appreciation of its quintessentially English idiom and slang.

The King's Head surely will survive in some shape or form, although it is hard to avoid the sense of an era's close with Crawford's death after a long and characteristically stubborn battle with cancer. It would be false to his memory to imbue the Upper Street venture with a sentimental romanticism - some productions inevitably misfired, a few were genuine turkeys, while the seating remained criminally punishing even to the most upholstered bottoms and the pre-show food, always variable, at its worst suggested imminent botulism - but those who worked there, should they return, would miss his laconic presence at dress rehearsals. (He usually also lit King's Head shows - a director querying the angle or power of a lamp would be answered silently by Crawford, who needed none of the usual ladders: with his height and the auditorium's low ceiling he simply had to reach up and re-focus the lamps.)

Audiences too will miss his personality; he was in the building virtually every night and before the show would leap up on the stage to make a brief speech, always stressing the theatre's penury (he was, literally, a charming beggar) and ending with his individual expression of thanks - it sounded, recalling a Hackensack Arthur Askey, like "Kyoo" - accompanied by a typically self-deprecating shrug.

Alan Strachan

Dan Crawford was the tweediest Englishman I ever met, writes Philip George [further to the obituary by Alan Strachan, 16 July]. Of course, when I asked him where he came from, he said, "Hackensack, New Jersey" in a perfectly cunning London dialect. "So what's with the accent?" I asked. "It's an affectation," he answered.

My memories of Dan seem so far-fetched that I often fear that I've manufactured them wholesale. Did I really see him climb out his office window to escape a creditor? Did he really want me to write a musical about the homeless, with the suggested title "Love in a Cardboard Box", to appease the local arts board? Did he actually hand the bar regulars a set of unfinished costumes, a needle and thread, and "a free half-lager if they're finished by curtain up"?

Dan Crawford could flatter anyone into any project. He once convinced me to direct a particularly dire new musical and I feared that any leading man who read the script would refuse to do it. "Then we won't let them," he whispered. We went into rehearsals and handed out the script four pages at a time. We were nominated for an Evening Standard Award.

Those of us who worked for Dan would often meet in the bar and ask ourselves why we continued to work under the cramped circumstances for so little money, but the truth is, we adored him.