He may recently have made one of the toughest decisions of his life to leave Northern Broadsides, the company he formed 25 years ago, writes Tim Worsnop..
But Barrie Rutter OBE is in very good spirits. He will leave the company in rude health, his own diary is full and the day I talked to him could have ended in a double celebration. “It’s my eldest daughter’s birthday and she is due to give birth today as well,” he says with a smile checking his phone for updates.
What with the prospect of becoming a grandfather for the third time (for the record she had a 7lbs 10oz girl four days later) and the Blake Morrison Broadsides’ production For Love Or Money, which tours to the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough and York Theatre Royal in November, in which Barrie stars and directs, there’s really been little time to reflect on his resignation as artistic director and at the age of 70 the prospect of once more stepping out into the big, wide world looking for work.
That decision, in the 25th anniversary year of the company happened after the Arts Council refused to give Broadsides an uplift in their grant.
“I said we deserved it and if they didn’t give it us I’d go. I didn’t want to be accused of playing to the gallery so I said fine, I’m off.
“They said the pitch wasn’t worth the uplift yet at the same time they awarded £2 million to a friend at an untested company. Surely if they can give that over four years they can give us £400,000 over the same period, £100,000 a year to a tested company with a fantastic employment record. All I was asking for was a bit of parity within the scale and they chose not to give it to us.”
So does he feel it was personal - he’s never been afraid to criticise?
“Through the years I’ve been a bit of a maverick and always spoken out. I have seen off five heads of the Arts Council, 17 heads of arts in government. We didn’t get regular funding until I won a big private prize for £100,000 in 2000. And I was told then categorically by a leading member of the council that I had shamed them into funding the company. We’d already been going eight years then,” said Barrie, who made Halifax his home with his family years ago.
“I believe in state sponsorship. Arts creativity in this country is the best in the world but we are the poorest funded and it’s pitiful. The arts have never asked for a lot, only for enough and that was all I was asking for,” he says.
As we chat he is in final rehearsals For Love Or Money - Morrison’s adaptation of Alain-Rene Lesage’s 1709 play Turcaret -which runs in Scarborough from November 14-18 before moving on to York.
Barrie grew up in a working class family in Hull - round the corner from Sir Tom Courtenay who is now a friend.
“He is 10 years older than me but my grandma and his mum were on nodding terms.”
He distinguished himself first by going to grammar school where the acting bug struck, then by joining the National Youth Theatre and later the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre. There was lots of television, film and radio work in there too. He played one of Diana Dors’ sons in the hit 70s sitcom Queenie’s Castle among other roles.
Green room chat was that someone with such a broad accent would never play a Shakespearean monarch so having set up Northern Broadsides in 1992 with grants from Hull ‘92 (which celebrated 700 years of the city) and Yorkshire Arts, the first play he staged was Richard III - casting himself in the lead role.
“At that stage I didn’t know if there would be a second year never mind 25,” he laughs.
But what emerged was a theatre company that blew a breath of fresh air through the stuffy establishment. One that embraced the embodiment of being northern. Its celebration of the northern accent set it apart and still does.
“Of course there were a few detractors. A Sunday Times critic called it Karaoke Shakespeare. The reviewer became a great supporter. He didn’t like every production but he knew the essence and the value of the company.”
So how will he feel when the big day comes around at the end of March? His time is filled for now with For Love Or Money, a tour with it and a collaboration at The Globe next year.
“I will have three weeks to clear my desk in March which might hurt. I’m not playing my violin before it happens . When I stop performing after the first week in March I might have different emotions, but for the moment I have work to do and that’s the best thing.”
“It’s all about the future now and my colleagues are busy planning the future of Broadsides for the next four years.”
There have been lots of highs, among them the production of Othello with Lenny Henry which went all the way to the West End but while Barrie admits there’s no greater drug than public applause, he looks to something more fundamental as the company’s greatest achievement.
“Our employment record is exemplary, our fiscal probity is exemplary and up to this point the company has never been in the red . We have created new plays, new classics and each of these attributes I wear with a great sense of enjoyment
“I have had a wonderful time doing this for 25 years and there is no reason why I should look back on a moment of it with a black thought,” he adds.