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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Multiple Apprentices Required

£6240 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Apprentices are required to join a privat...

Sauce Recruitment: HR Manager

£40000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: This is an exciting opportunity for a HR...

Ashdown Group: Interim HR Manager - 3 Month FTC - Henley-on-Thames

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established organisation oper...

Recruitment Genius: HR Advisor

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our Client has been the leader ...

Day In a Page

Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

Diana Krall interview

The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

Pinstriped for action

A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

Michael Calvin's Last Word

How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us