Obituary: Professor Hugh Hunt

Hugh Sydney Hunt, theatre director and teacher: born 25 September 1911; Director, Bristol Old Vic Company 1945-49; Director, Old Vic Company, London 1949-53; Executive Officer, Elizabethan Theatre Trust, Australia 1955-60; Professor of Drama, Manchester University 1961-73 (Emeritus); Artistic Director, Abbey Theatre, Dublin 1969-71; CBE 1977; Chairman, Drama Committee, Welsh Arts Council 1979-85; married 1940 Janet Gordon (one son, one daughter); died Criccieth 22 April 1993.

HUGH HUNT made his mark in the theatre without any of the flamboyance, insincerity, and bonhomie for which the profession is noted. Although he was a loving husband, father, grandfather and friend he was an austere man and not an easy smiler.

He was born in Camberley, son of Captain CE Hunt MC. From his parents, especially his matriarchal mother, he inherited strength of character, a strong will, a good brain and diligence - all qualities of leadership which were to be valuable as this shy man became the founder and director of various important theatre companies. Widowed, his mother had slender means but gave her sons Hugh and John, the explorer and mountaineer Lord Hunt, educations at Marlborough and Magdalen College, Oxford.

Hugh became president of OUDS, a vital force in the theatre of the Twenties and Thirties for young actors, directors and playwrights. He married Janet Gordon, daughter of the President of Magdalen, and they had two children.

He directed at the Maddermarket Theatre, Norwich, and with various repertory companies until at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, in the mid-Thirties, he directed over 30 original Irish plays including Shadow and Substance. There he gave the designer Tanya Moiseiwitsch her first assignment and they worked together sympathetically over the years.

Hunt served in the forces from 1939 to 1945, in the Scots Guards, King's Royal Rifle Corps and the Intelligence Service. After the war his taste and judgement made him the ideal first director of the Bristol Old Vic at the historic Theatre Royal. Under his inspired guidance it became the outstanding repertory company in the UK.

First he recruited an excellent company, headed by his old friend from Oxford days William Devlin, with Pamela Brown, Yvonne Mitchell, Faith Brook, Noel Willman and Cyril Cusack. Peggy Ramsay, later well known as a leading playwrights' agent, was in his first company. Wendy Hiller joined for a fine adaptation of Tess of the D'Urbervilles by her husband Ronald Gow. Tanya Moiseiwitsch, now famous, designed the sets for Hunt's opening production, The Beaux' Stratagem. In Bristol, he laid foundations for the rest of his directorial years in developing his special gift of bringing classics to life.

In 1948 he was appointed director of the Old Vic Company in London, then at the New Theatre (now the Albery). His stars included Edith Evans, Michael Redgrave, and the plays included The Cherry Orchard and Hamlet. When the Old Vic reopened in the Waterloo Road after repairs to war damage his outstanding productions included King Lear, Twelfth Night and Romeo and Juliet.

In 1955 he was appointed founder director of Elizabethan Theatre Trust in Sydney. After five years he returned to England leaving the Sydney Theatre Co to thrive, now attached to the famous Opera House. In 1961 he became Professor of Drama at Manchester University, a position founded and funded by Granada TV and only the second chair of drama to be established in Britain. The last play he directed in London was from the Abbey Theatre, The Shaughraun for Peter Daubeny's World Theatre Season in 1968.

Hunt was a member of the Independent Television Authority, of the drama panel of the Welsh Arts Council, director of Sadler's Wells Opera Trust, and author of three plays and four books about the theatre. His autobiography alas found no publisher, as the discreet Hugh Hunt was unwilling to reveal starry indiscretions to which he was privy.

Meetings with this scholarly man from first to last were always salutary, never flippant, louche or gossipy in the familiar show-business manner. He was modest, a very private person, but a direct and forceful speaker, often moving and passionate when needed. He was a firm but kindly teacher. Latterly he retired because of failing health and lived quietly in a mountainous part of Wales cared for by his gentle wife Janet.

HUGH HUNT would not sit happily in his chair in the university world of today, for I think he would have little time for academic audit, teaching review and research selectivity exercises, writes Christopher Baugh.

Not that he would have assumed himself and his Department of Drama at Manchester University to be above such things, but for him the only real level of 'audit', and I think his rare strength as Professor lay in the selection of his staff. The 'mission' of his department, and its syllabus, was essentially the sum total of the staff whose individuality, however diverse and idiosyncratic, he fostered and protected.

'Prof' never considered himself to be an educational theorist, which proved an irritant to many in the late 1960s who wanted educational policy and political principle firmly enshrined within departmental practice. By offering a little, usually just before it was demanded, he operated rather like an extremely courteous, occasionally eccentric, but deceptively adept colonial administrator.

His great talent was to gather round him distinguished minds and practitioners, Stephen Joseph, Peter Thomson and George Taylor, for example, and having appointed them, to allow them space and freedom to develop, argue, research and teach theatre in ways which he seldom seemed to really understand or agree with but which he passionately upheld their right to pursue, believing firmly that everyone would be that much richer and more creative for their being there. This environment fostered such diverse talents as the film director Roland Joffe, and the writer David Edgar, while the unique postgraduate course linking the university with the profession did not survive his retirement in 1973 but in the few years of its life at Manchester's Stables Theatre produced writers, designers, directors, administrators and actors of distinction such as Peter Flannery, Tim Albery, Jo Vanek, Bernard Hill, Julie Walters and Anthony Sher.

A university 'trained' director himself, he never doubted the future of drama within a university and, further, passionately believed that a degree covering history, philosophy, and literature and professional practice was also the finest of educations for life. This clear and at present unfashionable vision firmly established the subject within the university not only in his department but also throughout the United Kingdom, where there are now few drama departments, theatre and media institutions which do not have strong and affectionate connections stretching back to the time when Hugh Hunt pioneered the subject at Manchester.

(Photograph omitted)

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: HR Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are in need of a HR Manage...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Business Development Manager - HR Consultancy - £65,000 OTE

£35000 - £40000 per annum + £65,000 OTE: h2 Recruit Ltd: London, Birmingham, M...

Day In a Page

Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there