Jeff Nuttall

Artist, poet, actor, and pioneer of the 'happening'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Jeff Nuttall, artist, actor, poet and teacher: born Clitheroe, Lancashire 8 July 1933; married 1954 Jane Louch (three sons, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1979), (two sons by Amanda Porter); died Abergavenny, Monmouthshire 4 January 2004.

Jeff Nuttall played Friar Tuck on screen (in Robin Hood, 1991), good typecasting, and he would have made an excellent Falstaff. His natural bonhomie overflowed in every direction and his boundless enthusiasm for art in all its aspects found its outlet in teaching, acting, writing, painting and much experiment: he did nothing by halves. His paunch was well-earned, his large florid face, that of a fox-hunting, port-drinking squire, was evidence enough of his liking for good times, good company, eating and drinking. It was impossible to be depressed for long in his presence.

He was a Renaissance man without much personal ambition, but with a compulsion to communicate, who did nothing badly, but the ubiquity of his talents and interests often made it difficult to evaluate his finished work.

Born in 1933, he was of just the right generation to get the full benefit of the Sixties, not as a flower child or a pot-head, but as a mature artist who could exercise creative influence at a time that was receptive to new ideas and experiment. He believed that art was good for you and that life meant little without it: its function was to shake people out of dull habit-orientated lives and clichéd thinking.

When, in 1970, the House of Commons debated the puzzling attitudes and behaviour of the youth of the day, his 1968 book Bomb Culture was cited: it argued that a generation that has grown up under the ever-present threat of nuclear extinction could hardly be expected to think or behave as if it had a future ahead of it - "Seize the day" was its motto.

Born in Lancashire, he went to the Hereford School of Art, leaving in 1951. He did his National Service in the Royal Army Education Corps and then became Art Master at Leominster, going on to schools in London and then the Art College in Bradford. While developing his own reputation as a painter, moving from conventional styles into semi-representational colourism, he became a lecturer at Leeds Polytechnic and then Head of Fine Arts in Liverpool. He was an inspiring teacher, but he had long before begun to use the theatre as another didactic medium.

In 1966, together with Mark Long and others, he founded the People Show, a touring company of actors (some untrained), musicians, poets and artists, who performed the scripts he wrote for them, sometimes in small theatres, but more often in specific environments where the script was only the starting point for a largely improvised spectacle. Open spaces, docks and public squares were usually the settings and casual passers-by often did not realise that the event that they stopped to watch was a theatrical performance. By 1980 the group had created more than 80 productions and had toured Europe and the United States as well as Britain.

Jeff Nuttall was one of the first British creators of the "happening", a loose informal type of theatrical presentation that depended on surprise and audience participation for its success. In one such early event, held in Better Books' performance space on Charing Cross Road in London, the audience had to endure large pieces of meat being flung around. By the end the whole room was covered in blood.

His Performance Art (1979) contained his memoirs of the People Show, with his scripts in a second volume. Nuttall was nearly always part of its performances, playing parts that were often menacing - he was a fine character actor - and he would find ways to explore the audiences' reactions and comment on them. The group sometimes performed in department stores and hotels, without informing the management, developing situations that would gradually get out of hand - one involved a mock murder in a hotel, the actors spreading rumours for days in advance - and the arrival of the police was often part of the scripted action. Although they were not overtly political there was much social and radical comment in these presentations.

Nuttall wrote several novels, of which Snipe's Spinster (1975) was the most successful, and many other books based on his experiences, theories and interests; one, King Twist (1978), was a study of the North Country comedian Frank Randle. He was also a prolific poet with over a dozen volumes published - the most substantial being Poems, 1962-69 (1970) - and was featured in Penguin Modern Poets (no 12, 1968). His Selected Poems was published only last month.

Political correctness was foreign to him: he was an élitist who believed in bringing high culture to everyone, whether they wanted it or not. His teacher's salary had to finance many other activities, including the magazine he founded and edited in his early years, My Own Magazine (1964-67).

He loved women, was married once, and had six children. He leaves his partner of 17 years, Jill Richards.

John Calder

Comments