Tuesday, September 24, 2002

Serendipity. Reading an obituary of Joan Littlewood yesterday, I wished I'd known more about her, and I determined to do some research about her life and works today. When I came in this morning, the following e-mail was in my in-box:
Greetings from Brooklyn, NY, USA:

Here I am this rainy Monday morning reading these two very long obituaries for Joan Littlewood, full of so much fascinating information I never paid attention to when she was alive, I wish I had, and I come across this idea she had late in life for a Fun Palace, reviving the tradition of 17th Century Vauxhall Gardens, which I know nothing about. So I make a search on Google.com and come about a flurry of information, all very fascinating and informative, but not very many graphics. And it is by this serendipitous cyber way that I come across your alphabet on the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, which, after all, might well be something like what Joan Littlewood had in mind, only on a smaller scale.
I knew nothing about this, so I read a few more obituaries and did a few Google searches, and got completely caught up in her fascinating life.

Joan Littlewood was born in Stockwell in 1914, the illegitimate daughter of a young Cockney servant girl. She won a scholarship to RADA, but she hated the pomposity of it, and decided to walk to Liverpool, intending to stow away on a boat to America. She walked 130 miles to Burton-on-Trent before collapsing from exhaustion.

In 1935, she married Ewan MacColl, and they set up a radical theatre group, The Theatre Of Action. She and MacColl were blacklisted by the BBC as subversives, and one of their plays was closed down by the police. Her marriage to MacColl dissolved when she fell in love with Gerry Raffles. [MacColl went on to write "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face", and to father Kirsty MacColl.]

Her theatre group took over The Theatre Royal in Stratford, and many of their productions transferred to the West End. In the 50s and 60s, she was perhaps the most influential director in Britain. Her biggest success was Oh What A Lovely War! But then, just as the Theatre Royal became hers, she gave it all up for a brief, abortive sojourn to Nigeria to work on a film with Wole Soyinka.

Her Big Idea was to create a Fun Palace, reviving the tradition of the 18th-century Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. Together with maverick architect Cedric Price, they envisioned an entertainment promenade, with music, lectures, plays, restaurants under an all-weather dome. She nearly did it, but the phrase "fun palace", gave councillors a vision of actors shagging in the bushes.

In the seventies, she abandoned London and moved to Paris. At just five-foot-two, Joan Littlewood was described as a gap-toothed, chain-smoking, croaky-voiced, bobble-hatted cross between a Tartar warrior and a Cockney char. She died last Friday, September 20 2002, aged 87.

Cobbled together from obituaries in the Telegraph, the Independent and The Guardian.

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