Obituary: Gwynneth Thurburn

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Gwynneth Loveday Thurburn, teacher: born 17 July 1899; Principal Central School of Speech and Drama 1942-67; died Leiston Suffolk 20 March 1993.

EIGHT DAYS AGO in a charity shop I came across a book of LAG Strong's short stories. He had been one of those whom Gwynneth Thurburn invited regularly to the Central School of Speech and Drama to judge students' verse speaking.

I remembered his gentle voice and the capacity, which he shared with 'Thurbie', to perceive when a student's egotism stood, even for a split second, between poem and listener. I felt that I must send her the book; but, glancing at the first story, I thought I'd hang on to it - just for a day or two.

And then the phone rang, and it was 'Sarge' (Vera Sargent, Thurburn's companion of more than 50 years, and her Registrar and strength during her years as Principal). Thurbie was dying.

I thought of the phone call I had received at 8am one morning 25 years before - 'Charles, this is Thurbie. I've been thinking. You must come and work with us.' I had never taught, and never thought of doing so; and she knew me mainly as an awkward student who had done only one year of the acting course 12 years previous in a class with Vanessa Redgrave and Judi Dench, when the school was still squeezed into odd corners of the Albert Hall. But she had recently seen me give a solo performance in which I related music hall songs to their social context, and her intuition told her that I had the makings of a teacher.

Weekly staff meetings were held in Thurburn's office at the Embassy Theatre - herself at one end of the long table with the smokers, Vera Sargent at the other with the abstainers - her acute mind registering every student who came under discussion. For she was a principal who taught, who loved teaching, who could not merely release a student's voice but explain the physiological basis of what she was doing with vivid simplicty, who loved to see her students discover their capacities and who attended every entrance test and audition, every performance, every verse-speaking test. Among her students were Robert Helpmann who went to her for help when he moved from dancing Hamlet to playing the role, and several other Shakespearian parts, at Stratford-upon-Avon (she regarded him as the most conscientious and assiduous pupil she had ever had), and Laurence Olivier also sought her help when, as Director of the National Theatre, he took on the immense challenge of Othello and was able to add several notes to his voice.

The hospitality of Thurburn's mind was shown in the way she welcomed to her staff many of the students and colleagues of that other great teacher Michel St Denis, creator of the pre-war London Theatre Studio and of the post-war Old Vic Theatre School - in the Fifties, Oliver Reynolds and Gerda Rink and in the Sixties George Hall, Chrissy Hearn, Litz Pisk and John Roberts - and how she welcomed them, not so much because they represented a sympathetic ideology, but for themselves, their intuition, their heart.

I remember her commitment to Stephen Joseph - in his early days a sometime student whom she had engaged to teach - and the waywardedness of his teaching and his affronts to theatrical orthodoxy. After he had left the staff of Central she provided him with space in which to conduct his playwriting seminars, and I wondered if he had known that she was helping him lay the foundations of the whole studio-theatre movement and its contribution to new theatre writing. Probably not. No one else did; not even Stephen Joseph. But she recognised his humanity - which, of course, underlay his recognition that the essence of the drama was the encounter between actor and audience; and as a director of Joseph's Studio Theatre company she sustained her commitment to the last year of his tragically short life.

For 48 years, first as a student then as teacher or principal, Central was her life. But whereas the school's founder, Elsie Fogerty, had been a constant presence through Thurburn's first three years as Principal, when Thurbie retired, she retired absolutely. She was not going to breathe down her successor's neck.

She and Sarge retired to the Suffolk village of Darsham; Sarge organising meals on wheels and creating a garden packed with roses - with a bit raised to table height at which Thurbie could sit and weed after the second of the accidents that incapacitated her last years.

Friends, colleagues and past students visited; on a perfect summer's day a score of us went down to celebrate Thurburn's 80th birthday. At one point she went indoors: I thought she must be tired, but she had just gone to check the cricket score. The two women, who had devoted their lives to young people, soon found themselves adopted by neighbours who had young children - as Thurbie said, 'It's as if they had been looking all their lives for two maiden aunts.'

When the great storm of 1987 tore down a loved tree and the ladies realised in a rush that the house had become too much, it was their new young family who moved them into Leiston Old Abbey, where they were able to keep a few books and pieces of furniture in the sitting-room overlooking a mournful but splendid kitchen garden.

The day after getting Sarge's phonecall, I posted her the LAG Strong book. I realised that Thurbie would never read it; but I hoped Sarge would welcome it as a link with someone they had both loved.

(Photograph omitted)