OBITUARY : Peter Dews

Television may not have done the theatre much service - how many actors, writers or directors has it furnished for our delight as theatre- goers? - but the director Peter Dews was a dazzling exception.

After education at grammar school and Oxford University, and a year teaching in Yorkshire, he persuaded the BBC to take him on in 1953 as a Midland Regional Drama Producer for radio and television - they called directors producers then - and he learned all about the thrills and spills of broadcasting "live" in the days before all television plays were turned into films.

He also learned how to stage Shakespeare in a studio without our feeling we were watching it in a studio. Hence his Guild of Television Producers' Award for the best drama production of 1960 for An Age Of Kings, the BBC serialisation of Shakespeare's history plays. It brought, every fortnight for over 30 weeks, the Bard to the box, almost as if it were a natural thing to do and not something which now looks absurdly quixotic. It serialised Shakespeare's histories from Richard II to Richard III and, though the writer Alan Melville may have called it an Eternity of Kings as it trundled through the Wars of the Roses, when can we hope to come again on such enterprise?

The young Dews had dabbled in amateur dramatics and he went on staging plays in the provinces, including two Shakespeares for the Oxford University Dramatic Society (Henry IV and Henry V) in 1962, while he was with the BBC. But it was what he learned in the confines of a studio, and amid its disciplines, that equipped him for his years in the theatre; and though other directors may have graduated in his way, he must have been the most accomplished of a breed which I doubt we shall see the like of again.

He went on to give playgoers some of our best nights in the theatre. He tackled not only Shakespeare, but Peter Luke, whose Hadrian VII (1968) gave Alec McCowen one of his best ever parts as a man who imagined himself to be the Pope; Robert Bolt, whose Vivat! Vivat Regina! (1970) first saw the light under Dews' direction; Royce Ryton, whose Crown Matrimonial (1972) brought Wendy Hiller and Peter Barkworth back to the West End as Queen Mary and Edward VIII; Jean Anouilh, with The Director of the Opera (1973); and Christopher Fry, whose A Sleep of Prisoners Dews directed at Chichester Cathedral in 1978. Indeed, it was in Chichester's famously amphi-theatrical auditorium that Dews achieved some of his most memorable effects as a director - and disasters as an actor.

He got Margaret Leighton as Cleopatra to John Clement's Antony (1969) to lie stock still for 20 minutes during her death scene with cumulative intensity - by placing her downstage of the permanent structure. By the same device he got Eileen Atkins as Elizabeth in Vivat! Vivat Regina! to sit still for 15 minutes at a council table while Burleigh and Leicester were downstage; though he allowed the actress one slight reflective move which was later deemed unnecessary.

That was another play for which Dews had devised a new ending. The first had been for Anouilh's The Director of the Opera in which he placed a tiny model opera house for the character to gaze at in the final scene. For Elizabeth he contrived that Atkins, as she was being brought downstage, having spoken her final line, should turn her head slowly once to either side. Bolt's drama had been imagined by its author in terms of an end of pier show, somewhat in the manner of Oh, What A Lovely War. As soon as Dews heard of that idea, he sniffed: "They'll call it Oh What A Lovely Whore!" And that was the end of that.

His bloody revival of Julius Caesar (1977), in which the title character underwent 22 stab wounds, used the audience itself to play Mark Antony's "friends, Romans and countrymen", with rabble-rousers round and about the auditorium. It provoked a round of applause. As far as anybody knows, Dews' acting never did.

When James Booth, replacing Laurence Harvey as Face in Dews's staging of Ben Jonson's The Alchemist (1970), was still unsure of his lines after a fortnight's rehearsal, Dews himself took over the role (having as usual already directed the play for television) but went only for the belly- laughs, which disappointed everyone, but should have surprised no one who had watched his occasional ad hoc performances when he was director of the Birmingham Rep (1966-72). Thus his acting turned a serious farce into a romp.

It was at the Old Birmingham Rep next to the New Street Station with its small, steeply raked auditorium and even smaller stage, the first in Britain to be built for repertory purposes, that Dews, to my mind, had his finest hour. It was Hadrian VII, taken from the least likely material, Baron Corvo's dream of vengeance on his fellow Catholics. As the failed priest, Alec McCowen was at the peak of his powers, picturing himself - amid the drab, shabby surroundings of the old playhouse - translated to Rome as the Pontiff in all his finery, a religious maniac trying to get his own back.

From the same humble auditorium a month later came Dews' hauntingly snowbound revival of As You Like It (1967), a model of updated Shakespeare - no stars and no crowds in the house either; but witty, charming and exquisitely detailed.

Who can be surprised if, a few years later, when the Birmingham Council decreed that it should have a new civic playhouse - of twice the size and not a quarter of the atmosphere of the Old Birmingham Rep - if Dews chose not to stay the course as director for more than a season or so after it was opened?

Peter Dews, actor and director: born Wakefield, Yorkshire 26 September 1929; married 1960 Ann Rhodes; died 25 August 1997.

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