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Sir Barry Jackson


Sir Barry Jackson



Sir Barry Jackson was the founder and visionary of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. He steered the company from its amateur formation in the early 1900s through to its establishment as a leading dramatic theatre on a national scale. His hands-on approach to all aspects of the theatre world, driven by his passion for credible and non-commercial play writing, delivered productions of exceptional quality.


Sir Barry Jackson with his father, George

Early Life

Barry Jackson was born on September 6th, 1879. His father, George Jackson was a wealthy business man and had always enjoyed the theatre and so named his son after an actor - Barry Sullivan. From an early age, the Jackson family were exposed to the theatre and to the arts. They regularly attended the theatre, opera and the ballet. Sir Barry saw his first Shakespeare production, The Taming of the Shrew, performed by the Frank Benson Company when he was ten years old.
In his teens, Sir Barry travelled in Europe, visiting Greece and Italy and lived in Geneva for eighteen months where he studied French and learnt to paint. He desired to become an artist, but his father persuaded him to take a job in the architect's office of Frank Osborn in Birmingham. He began working there in 1897.
The office environment, however, did not suit his temperament or creativity. He had already turned his attention to writing and performing plays with a group of his friends.


Twelfth Night, 1904 at the Grange

Pilgrim Players

The Pligrim Players were the amateur foundation for the future Birmingham Repertory Theatre Company. Barry Jackson and his friends, John Drinkwater, H S Milligan and C.R Dawes had been performing their own productions at the Jackson family home of the Grange in Moseley, from around 1902 to audiences of their family and friends. Their first public appearance took place on 2nd October 1907 at the Mission Hall in Inge Street.
The following year performances moved to the Edgbaston Assembly Rooms. The company was increasingly gaining in reputation and popularity in the city. Barry Jackson was confident in the potential that the dedicated company possessed.
He employed Drinkwater as the company Secretary from 1909, and from 1911, all of the Players were paid.
At the start of 1912, Barry Jackson began to identify and develop plans to build a permanent theatre for the expanding company. He had clear ideas about the design which he discussed with the architect S.N Cooke. In 1913, following intensive work on the construction, the Station Street theatre was complete.


Back to Methuselah, 1923

Birmingham Repertory Theatre

Sir Barry Jackson's life and the Repertory Theatre at Station Street in Birmingham are inextricably linked. Sir Barry used his money to fund the building of the theatre in 1912 and from then until 1935 completely subsidised the theatre and its work. His enthusiasm and passion for the theatre can be seen in his involvement in the early days directing and designing productions as well as selecting the programme for example, The Christmas Party (1914). Sir Barry was not afraid to take risks and provided a platform for new writers and new work, as well as experimenting with traditional theatre. In 1923, there was the first production of Shakespeare's Cymbeline in modern dress and the premiere of Back to Methuselah by G.B Shaw, both directed by H.K Ayliff and designed by Paul Shelving.
Despite, critical success and tours to London the people of Birmingham did not share Sir Barry's passion for modern theatre. Audience numbers rarely filled the 464 capacity of the Station Street theatre. Largely out of frustration, Sir Barry closed the theatre for sporadic periods throughout the 1920s and early 1930s whilst pursuing interests in London and at Malvern.

In 1935, Sir Barry asked the city to intervene. Within twenty one years he had lost not less than 00,000 on the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. His interest was transferred into Trust and the City Council became responsible for funding the theatre. Sir Barry, however, retained artistic control as Governing Director.
After withdrawing from the Malvern Festival in 1937, Sir Barry devoted himself to Birmingham. During the Second World War he directed a season of Plays in the Parks performed by the Basil Langton's Travelling Repertory Theatre at the request of the Lord Mayor. Throughout he continued his policy of providing opportunities to young, aspiring actors and directors and shunned the star system. Peter Brook and Paul Scofield were two who benefited during the 1940s. Following a term of directorship at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon, Sir Barry returned to Birmingham in 1948.


Caesar and Cleopatra, 1925

London

During the 1920s, whilst the theatre in Birmingham was experiencing some difficulties, Sir Barry ventured into producing in London. Drinkwater's Abraham Lincoln had already been well-received at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith in February 1919 and went on to tour the U.S.A. In 1922, the Regent was the venue for Rutland Boughton's opera, The Immortal Hour. This would go on to be revived in successive years and established Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies as a favourite with the audience. This was reinforced by her performance in Romeo and Juliet also starring John Gielgud, directed by H.K Ayliff. From 1924, Sir Barry leased the Royal Court, where Back to Methuselah(1923)and The Farmer's Wife (1924) by Eden Philpotts were staged, making Cedric Hardwicke a star.

The success of these productions encouraged Sir Barry to use the Kingsway Theatre for experimental productions, such as, Hamlet in modern dress (1925) and Rosmersholm(1926). Whilst these productions generated much attention they were not financial successes, and by 1932 when Sir Barry stopped producing in London, from over forty different productions only five had made a profit;The Farmer's Wife, The Barretts of Wimpole Street, Yellow Sands, The Apple Cart and Evensong. However, despite the financial loss, the innovative and experimental productions from that period remain influential to this day.


Malvern Baths, 1929


Malvern Festival

Sir Barry made a home at Blackhill in the Malverns in the late 1920s. He found the area both relaxing and inspiring. From 1929-1937, he joined forces with the Malvern Theatre manager, Roy Limbert to put on an annual summer festival. In the beginning, Sir Barry used the festival to showcase the work of George Bernard Shaw, including The Apple Cart (1929,1930), Candida (1930) and Heartbreak House (1929,1930). Sir Barry and George Bernard Shaw became close friends as shown by their correspondence which is held in Birmingham City Archives.

The actors and production staff who toured at Malvern from Birmingham found the setting and the work enjoyable and worthwhile. The festivals, however, were costly and were not, in Sir Barry's opinion, received gratefully by the people of Malvern.



Sir Barry Jackson at Stratford

Stratford Memorial Theatre

Sir Barry Jackson was appointed Artistic Director at Stratford in 1945. His appointment was welcomed by the press and a period of reform was anticipated. The Memorial Theatre had been neglected during the war and was worn and shabby. Sir Barry's aim was to transform the theatre into one of national and international status. However, it was a difficult undertaking. Sir Barry's relationship with the Chairman of the Governors, Fordham Flower, was uneasy from the start as Sir Barry insisted in bringing in his own staff and using a completely new company of actors. This alienated some previously loyal supporters within Stratford.

Undeterred Sir Barry followed his plan to produce eight plays staggered throughout the season, each directed by a guest director. The hit of the first season in 1946 was Love's Labour's Lost directed by Peter Brook and starring Paul Scofield as Armado. However, despite critical success the season culminated in the largest financial deficit the Memorial had ever experienced. Whilst this did not faze Sir Barry, the Governors used it as a further reason to question his methods. But, despite their protests his contract was extended to three years, this demonstrated a recognition that in order to establish real change Sir Barry needed more time.

The 1947 season included Brook's Romeo and Juliet and Benthall's The Merchant of Venice. Neither received much praise from the critics and the Governors patience was tested again. This culminated in Sir Barry's dramatic announcement of his retirement in January 1948. The governors did nothing to prevent his departure and had already decided on his successor, Anthony Quayle. However, in three years Sir Barry had done much to restore the fortunes and reputation of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre.


Sir Barry Jackson at home sketching

Last Years

From 1948 Sir Barry returned to oversee the work at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. The administration of the theatre was carried out by Nancy Burman. Celebrated productions during this period include the three parts of Henry VI (1953) directed by Douglas Seale and the revival of Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra (1956) that was performed at the International Theatre Festival in Paris.

Throughout the late 1950s plans were developed for a new theatre building in Birmingham and in 1960 the City Council and the Arts Council agreed funding would be provided.
However, Sir Barry did not live to see the new Rep on Broad Street (1971). After a long period of severe illness, Sir Barry Jackson died on April 3rd 1961, at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham.

Awards

Barry Jackson was knighted in 1925. He had previously been awarded the Gold Medal of the Birmingham Civic Society. He received the Honorary Freedom of the City in 1953.
He also held the honorary degrees of MA and DLitt from the University of Birmingham, the LLD from St. Andrews, and the DLitt from Manchester.

The archive is housed in the Library of Birmingham in Archives, Heritage and Photography

The images that appear on this page are reproduced with permission from the Sir Barry Jackson Trust.


Article about Barry Jackson in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography available on computers in Birmingham Libraries, as part of our electronic library service.

Sir Barry Jackson and Birmingham Repertory Theatre Archive 1913 - 1970
The Birmingham Repertory Theatre Archive 1971 - present
Contents of the Sir Barry Jackson and Birmingham Repertory Theatre Archive
Birmingham Repertory Theatre Photograph Gallery
Photographic and other Special Collections in Central Library
Old Rep Theatre
Sir Laurence Olivier (1907 - 1989)