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Artistic director David Thacker has led such a grand life thanks to the Dukes Theatre in Lancaster

David Thacker
David Thacker

Artistic director and professor David Thacker has led an illustrious life in the world of TV and theatre, working with the likes of Arthur Miller, Dame Helen Mirren and Vanessa Redgrave.

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Margot Leicester during a production of Hamlet

Margot Leicester during a production of Hamlet

But it was at The Dukes Playhouse in Lancaster where the 67-year-old’s career really took off.

He joined in 1978 as associate director, under the wing of Howard Lloyd-Lewis, and after two years became the youngest artistic director in the country.

He recalls: “I was working at York Theatre Royal and Chester Gateway Theatre and I had heard Howard Lloyd-Lewis had taken over The Dukes Playhouse. Mutual friends advised me to write to him and he invited me to direct a play there. We did Relatively Speaking, by Alan Ayckbourn, and we got on really well.

“He appointed me as an associate director and I had two happy years in that role. Howard then decided to move on and the board at the theatre appointed me as his successor. I was very privileged to get that job. I was only 29 at the time.”

I was nervous about Arthur Miller liking the show and fortunately he did. He asked who the woman was who played the doctor’s wife and I told him it was Margot Leicester. I didn’t say she was my wife. I was so lit up with pride.

David Thacker

David soon made his mark and taking a big risk, he invited Oscar winning screen icon Gloria Grahame to be in his first production - Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf - in 1980. Luckily the bold move paid off as it earned him notoriety in the industry. They had struck up such a strong working relationship that Gloria returned to work with him a year later. However, he was forced to recast the leading actress after she fell ill and died of cancer.

But another lady who proved hugely influential in his life was Margot Leicester, an actress he had cast to play the leading role in Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act, by Athol Fugard.

He recalls: “That was where our professional relationship began and I fell in love with her. We married in 1983 and that will always be the thing I am most grateful to Lancaster for. She was in a number of significant productions which I directed, as she was cast in roles such as Blanche in a Streetcar Named Desire and Gertrude in Hamlet.”

His role at The Dukes allowed David to experiment and find his voice in the theatrical world.

David Thacker with Arthur Miller

David Thacker with Arthur Miller

He adds: “I have extremely happy memories of being at The Dukes. It was a huge privilege to have that opportunity.

“I gained a lot of experience in doing theatre in the round and it became my favourite form. It was a great joy for me because of the kind of activity that’s involved. It was very challenging but also very delightful. I am so grateful that the audience seemed to want this.

“I was also able to do a very daring and controversial play which was very critical of the British policy in Northern Ireland. The language was very strong but Lancaster audiences didn’t mind it.”

After six years at The Dukes, David felt it was time to move on and he found another ‘dream job.’

David Thacker at the Octagon, in Bolton

David Thacker at the Octagon, in Bolton

He adds: “At that time my dream job came up at the Young Vic in 
London.

“I put everything into applying for it and I was appointed as director. I often think it was because I wore a suit. But really I think it was because when they asked how I would save money I noticed they were spending a lot on phone calls and they liked how much attention I had paid to detail.

“The chairman was David Land and he discovered Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice who had written Joseph and the amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat.

“He was prepared to take a chance and thought if I could run a small theatre company well, I could run a big one.”

David used his passion to turn the Young Vic around, attracting big names.

He says: “The Young Vic was a theatre of national significance but it had gone into the doldrums for a bit. I found it was easier to take on a theatre in this state as it was easier to go up, than down.

David Thacker with playwright David Rudkin

David Thacker with playwright David Rudkin

“I started working with actors who I could not get in Lancaster.

“One person who changed the perspective of critics was Vanessa Redgrave. I managed to persuade her to play the lead in Ghosts, by Henrik Ibsen.

“She was more radical than some of the other actresses and was very influential. People started to take notice - not just critics, but other actors and agents.

“Vanessa’s presence helped me massively to improve the quality of the work at that theatre. Once she came, it gave a major stamp of approval and it led to other major stars coming - Dame Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Dalton and the late Natasha Richardson.”

The father-of-four then began another pinnacle in his career, as he worked with playwright Arthur Miller, directing 11 of his plays in 15 productions at the Young Vic, and later the National Theatre and the Octagon Theatre in Bolton, as well as in the US, Israel and the BBC.

David, who grew up in Northamptonshire, says: “Our first production was Enemy of the People, which was an adaptation of Ibsen’s. He was very generous and amenable to any changes I wanted to make. He came to see the show, and I was terrified as we had never met face to face - it was all done over the phone.

“The production was at The Playhouse, which was owned by author and politician Jeffrey Archer and so he was there.

“I was nervous about Arthur Miller liking the show and fortunately he did. He asked who the woman was who played the doctor’s wife and I told him it was Margot Leicester. I didn’t say she was my wife. I was so lit up with pride. That led to a very strong friendship with Arthur and Margot and she starred in lots of his plays.

“The play was so successful we transferred it to the West End and it was nominated for an Olivier Award.

“Also at that time we were rehearsing for Arthur Miller’s double bill of one act plays entitled Two-Way Mirror and I was very cautious about him seeing that because it had not been very successful when it was done in America.

“But I was lucky to get Dame Helen Mirren and Bob Peck and they were the best two actors for the roles.”

David left the Young Vic to join the Royal Shakespeare Company as director-in-residence, directing nine productions including Pericles for which he received two Olivier Awards.

David then moved into television drama, directing more than 30 films for the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and WGBH Boston (USA) including his critically acclaimed film adaptation of The Mayor of Casterbridge; Faith, set in the 1984/5 Miners’ strike; Arthur Miller’s Broken Glass; and his modern-dress film of Measure for Measure, which was selected for the International TV Festival in Guatemala in 1996.

In 2007, he was appointed as director of Shakespeare North to establish a £38.5m theatre in Prescot, where the UK’s first purpose-built indoor theatre was built in the 1590s.

He then moved on to become artistic director of the Octagon Theatre, in Bolton, in 2009 and was appointed Professor of Theatre at the University of Bolton in 2015, creating a new degree course in BA Theatre. As part of his role, he took on the job of associate artistic director at the Octagon, working with students.

At the 2016 Manchester Theatre Awards David’s productions received six awards including Best Production (An Enemy of the People) – the first time that any director has achieved this in the history of the awards. He also received a personal achievement award for his outstanding achievements as artistic director.