JOHN CARROL was one of those rare and lucky beings who are born with a passion and go on to fill their days, indeed almost their whole lives, in absolute dedication to it until the passion was fulfilled: for him it was poetry. He was not a poet, but his poetry programmes, unsurpassed for balance, surprising depth of feeling, their amusement and sheer entertainment have become renowned, not only among connoisseurs, but people everywhere.
How this passion began and how, against considerable adversity, Carrol acquired his vast knowledge of poems remains a mystery. He was born in 1923 in quite humble circumstances. His father died when he was five and he and his mother had a hard struggle until a rich benefactor took them in, her as a domestic and John, when he was 16, into his own firm. It was kindly meant but nothing could have been further from John's chosen metier. He was never interested in money. From gratitude he tried for eight years, then left. One can imagine his old friend saying: 'You cannot live on poetry.' He did not know John Carrol.
Providence seemed always to watch over him. This rather odd, frail, little man had an extraordinary talent for making and keeping friends, often of great eminence, who recognised his quality and were persuaded by the enthusiasm he never lost. There must be few actors and actresses of note who have not read for him: Flora Robson, Marius Goring, Peggy Ashcroft, Ralph Richardson, Judi Dench, David Rintoul, Gwen Watford, Margaret Wolfit, Barbara Jefford, Sybil Thorndike and her husband Lewis Casson, Margaret Rutherford, amongst many others.
It began when, by coincidence or providence, Carrol was in hospital at the same time as Edward Marsh, that great patron and friend of writers and poets, who immediately took Carrol under his wing introducing him to, among others, Hermon Ould of PEN. In those days PEN worked closely with the Poetry Society. Carrol was soon elected to the society's council, which led to his arranging for them what was perhaps his first professional poetry programme, at the Mercury Theatre in 1951. Others followed. Of his series of lunchtime readings at the National Portrait Gallery, Margaret Rutherford remarked with joy: 'Now John is really on the map.' Which was true. His programmes appeared for the Apollo Society and, at Stratford-upon-Avon, were given every year from 1955 to 1959. Then in the early Sixties he joined The Company of Nine.
The Company, which I founded, was dedicated to poetry, and called after the nine muses. It had nine members including such poetry 'names' of that time as Erica Marx of the Hand and Flower Press Pamphlets, now collector's pieces, Christopher Hassall and Roland Clark. Carrol was the youngest. The Company did some (then) unusual things; for three years, lunchtime readings at Foyle's Bookshop to promote young poets (John Betjeman and Christopher Fry helped); the first recital in Britain of black poetry, read by black actors at the Royal Court Theatre; the Edinburgh Festival; and, most notably, the spring and summer Sunday evening programmes in the Orangery at Kenwood House, in north London.
When the Company of Nine was disbanded, Carrol continued alone with more and more success; in 1969 he arranged and directed a programme for the Windsor Festival, which became an annual event. For Princess Grace of Monaco he devised special programmes, twice going on tour in the United States with her. He arranged a wonderfully gruesome 'ghost' programme for the Queen Mother at Glamis, but Kenwood was perhaps dearest to his heart. It was for 'Services to Poetry at Kenwood' that, this year, he was appointed MBE.
In April, though seriously ill, he gave his 37th programme at Kenwood, a memorable evening with a reception given in his honour by English Heritage, and a rapt audience. It was to be his last.
John Carrol has gone, but his work will live on. He bequeathed his books, many signed by their authors, to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust of the Shakespeare Centre, to be known as the 'John Carrol Collection'. His scripts, programmes, letters from actors and actresses, notes, all papers to the Theatre Department of the British Library, not, one hopes, to rest in peace, but to be used, consulted and marvelled at by generations of poetry lovers.