Alan Rivett interview (pt. 1)

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Having delivering the Vice-Chancellor’s distinguished lecture at the University of Warwick Alan Rivett has retired from his position as Director of Warwick Arts Centre. He held this position for seventeen years, during which time he brought an extraordinary range of life changing art to what can proudly claim to be ‘the largest multi-disciplinary venue in the UK outside London’. His venue is about to become larger still following a multi-million pound building project that Alan has nurtured.

As a trustee of and galvanising force behind Coventry’s successful City of Culture 2021 bid, Alan’s civic legacy is set to match his impact on thousands of audiences and artists over the years.

Having listening to Alan’s stories for two decades we have become suspicious that he has led at least three lives and so, in order to get to the truth – one life or three? – we have decided to make Alan the latest subject of our (very) occasional interview series with interesting theatre-ish people who don’t get interviewed enough.

We set 90 minutes aside, this was cut to 60 minutes due to bad traffic and we only managed to cover four years of Alan’s life, so welcome to The Alan Rivett Interview – Part 1.


By rights Alan Rivett should have become a farmer. He was born in Chippenham and moved to Calne. In the rural county of Wiltshire before being sent to a Methodist grant maintained boarding school in North Devon.

With his friends all living on farms and with no professional arts in town, even occasional family trips to see the panto at Bristol Old Vic wouldn’t have been enough to alter the course of Alan’s life if it hadn’t been for school plays an extraordinary English teacher, trips to the Northcott Theatre in Devon and visits to the school by John Lane with his professional actors from the newly founded Beaford Arts Centre.”I thought this was fantastic. Now I knew what I wanted to do. I auditioned for the National Youth Theatre [NYT] and got in. I was crap but they liked me. They had just started this stage management, technical course that meant you could do a bit of acting but mostly you ran things. So that summer I was 15 in London at the National Youth Theatre, opposite Chalk Farm Tube Station at Haverstock Hill School (where the Milibands later went).

The Roundhouse in Camden, just down the road had stopped being used by the railways and was starting to be colonised by artists; I remember driving around inside it in a beat up mini. A team of us were sent up onto the roof with an enormous, very heavy, military grade tarpaulin to cover up the smoke hole so the place would have a black out (this was before Hendrix and The Rolling Stones played there).

The next summer I went back to the NYT. They’d put seating into the Roundhouse by this point and erected some rickety scaffolding to operate follow-spot from. We did Zigger Zagger, about football hooliganism and Spring-Heeled Jack both of which had been commissioned from Peter Terson and were directed by Barry Rutter, who must have been about 23 at the time; he was a proper director, he shouted at us a lot.

This was about 1969 and I was staying with my rather conservative Aunt and Uncle in Highgate. NYT rehearsals would be in the daytime and weekdays so I started hanging around professional theatres in the evenings and weekends looking for work.

Censorship had recently been dropped and I got a job for a fortnight working follow spot on Oh! Calcutta. There was a number early on in which a singer sings a whole number draped in a fur robe and at the end of the number drops the fur to reveal she is naked, she turns and slowly walks upstage to exit through these big louvre doors and as she walks all the other lights go off leaving just my spot that I have to pull the iris right in so the circle of light gets smaller and smaller with the DSM [Deputy Stage Manager] calling to me through the cans [headphones] “that’s it focus in on that ass”.

I also did a month working on Hair in the sound booth, I was 16 and still at school. I had to go back to school in South Devon that September. Can you imagine!

My ‘A’ Levels weren’t great so I did a third summer of NYT but this time they paid me to be their Company Manager taking Zigger Zagger on tour to France. There was me, the director, the cast and then I recruited some ASMs [Assistant Stage Managers]. After that I took what you’d now call a gap year to try to get an Equity Card. I’d learnt that if you hang around West End theatres with a screwdriver and there was a change over you could get work Friday night to Sunday morning, right through without a break.

In those days you had to get an Equity Card to work as an actor or stage manager and to get full card you had to secure 40 weeks paid work. On Boxing Day I got a job in Crewe at what was then called Crewe Theatre, now The Lyceum. I arrived as an ASM, saw a matinee performance of The Owl An The Pussy Cat and ran the evening performance that day. I did ASM duties and occasionally got to go on on stage in silly costumes.

Crewe Theatre was running a fortnightly rep at the time. Ted Craig, who went on to run the Croydon Warehouse, was director. In the Autumn they’d do a Shakespeare, then a straight play, then, after Panto a musical like Salad Days, a farce like See How They Run, then a contemporary piece.

One day I was given a bucket and scrubbing brush and told to go up and clean out the gods [uppermost seats in the theatre]. The gods were never opened at Crewe Theatre, not even for the panto. Pigeons used to roost up there so all the seats were covered in pigeon shit and my job was to clean it all off because Harry Corbett was coming with Sooty and Sweep!He arrived in a cream coloured Land Rover, one of those safari ones towing a cream trailer. The cream trailer contained all his beautifully detailed sets. He was pretty much deaf and travelled with his wife Marjorie who operated Sweep and Sue whilst hidden away in a box. I had two jobs on the show, the first was to look after Corbett’s vicious parrot in the Green Room and the second was when Sooty goes on a balloon flight…

Corbett was very much into new technology and whilst a colleague of mine would be in the wings slowly pulling the tab track that moved Sooty’s balloon across the stage, I had to edge across the stage behind the back cloth keeping pace with the balloon with a radio controller thing in hand, Sooty had some Meccano construction with a radio receiver attached and by turning the controller I could make him wave as he flew off.

I learnt a valuable lesson at that time. Sooty was doing three shows a day totally sold out, the gods and all; after the third show we would re-set the stage and put up the set for a Brendan Behan play which would be the fourth and final performance of the day that evening, which was attended by an audience that filled maybe the first two rows; you see the one thing was paying for the other.

The company stage manager in Crewe was a woman called Hazel, I think she was Nigerian, she’d came over to England with a production called Ipi Tombi which did Johannesburg, London and New York. Like many of the company she got as far as England and never left or left and came back. Hazel taught me all the stage disciplines, she also shouted at me a lot but she really taught me my stuff. I was also working alongside DSM Fran and when she left Crewe for a job at the Chichester Festival Theatre she soon got me a job there as well.

At the time they called Chichester the National-By-The-Sea. In comparison to Crewe it was like a Five Star Hotel. It had loads of new kit even a really early computerised lighting desk. It also had big stars in its productions. Olivier had recently done his Othello there. One of my first jobs was looking after Dame Edith Evans who was also quite elderly by this stage, she had been away making films and this was to be her return to the stage. The production was Dear Antoine by Jean Anouilh and the rest of the cast were all these young actors like Peter Egan, Colin Baker, Harold Innocent, Michael Aldridge. Christine Roberts, the fantastic Compnay Manager realised that this could all be quite isolating for Dame Edith, an ‘old school’ and legendary actress, so I had to look after her and make sure she felt comfortable. I’d go and pick her up from her hotel and take her to rehearsals in the morning and check she had a comfortable chair and a pot of tea and help her with her lines. I had two jobs on that show 1: Edith, 2: Sound. I was glad I wasn’t on the book, who wants to prompt Dame Edith Evans! We ended up getting on quite well, she’d call me ‘Dear Boy’ and we developed that kind of affection you have for each other in the theatre where know you will work closely together for a few weeks and then never see each other again. Anyway, we got to production week and she didn’t have to do the technical rehearsal so she could rest up. There was then a dress rehearsal, one preview and that was it, opening night. We got her through the dress and the preview but when I called for her at the hotel for the first night I was told by her housekeeper / companion “Dame Edith won’t be coming today” and that was it – Peggy Marshall her understudy had to take over and do the whole of the rest of the run.

John Gielgud was more fun. He was in Chichester that same season for Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra playing Caesar opposite Anna Calder-Marshall. Gielgud also hadn’t done theatre for ages so he was nervous too. I didn’t have to pick him up from the hotel but I was on book and plotting the production in rehearsal. He would invite lots of us young men to dinner with him and he would tell these most amazing stories. He was outrageous, funny, charming and absolutely lovely. Robin Phillips, Director, had conceived this production as a playground which meant that Gielgud had at one stage to slide down a 30 foot white vinyl playground slide and exit on a white vinyl spacehopper! He loathed it!

Chichester was idyllic, Michael Aldridge had a boat and once a show was opened and you didn’t have rehearsals there was just time to it sail around the Isle of Wight between Friday and Sunday performances.

Despite all this there came a point when I knew I had to get out of Chichester; I had a revelation. One of my jobs there was to play a recording of the National Anthem before every performance. I’m not sure if this was just a quirk of Chichester, I suspect this was a theatre tradition before the relaxation of censorship etc.- but anyway there were three reel-to-reel tape machines set up in the sound box and one of them had God Save The Queen set up on it permanently. You’d press the button and 1,200 people would stand up. I’d got used to the power at your fingertips- you know press go and everyone stands up! But one night I looked down at all the stoles and the silks and the starched collars and the perfectly coiffured dyed hair and I thought “I’ve got to get out of here”.

You see I’d been to Marowitz Open Space Theatre, I’d been religiously attending the ICA [Institute of Contemporary Art] and night after night thought “wow, what’s this!” I knew what was happening at the Bolton Octagon and what was happening at The Belgrade in Coventry and with Ken Campbell and of course what was happening at the Roundhouse. I’d had a taste of the red meat. I knew what was going on out there and knew I didn’t want to be part of this thing in Chichester any more.

My parents had ever so gently been making tentative suggestions to me that I might consider getting a qualification and I could see Fran and all these other stage managers who were brilliant doing what they were doing for the rest of their working lives, there was no progression to be had. I was there already as a teenager at the age of 18 – 19 and I didn’t want to be stuck. It was time to move on.”

In the next instalment (let’s be realistic there are going to be more than two instalments) we learn about what Alan got up to at Bretton Hall College, how he created John Godber’s first job and much, much more.

James Yarker 2019

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