JOHN GOODWIN OBITUARY
John Goodwin, who has died at the age of 97 was one of the most influential behind-the-scene figures of British subsidised theatre in the latter half of the 20th century, admired and sometimes feared in equal measure.
As Peter Hall’s Head of PR and publicity, Goodwin helped secure Hall’s ambition in the early 1960s to secure public subsidy for his newly created Royal Shakespeare Company.
Formed from the seasonal April-September season at Stratford’s Memorial Theatre, Hall introduced a twin-pronged policy of producing Shakespeare in Stratford and contemporary work and Stratford transfers to their newly acquired Aldwych Theatre home in London.
Goodwin it was who ran the press campaign, assiduously courting influential journalists in Hall’s fight to secure public money.
The campaign succeeded and Hall’s vision, run by a triumvirate that included Peter Brook and the French actor, director and teacher, Michel St Denis, became a reality.
During the 1960s and 1970s, the Royal Shakespeare Company, embarked on its most influential era, at the forefront of radical theatre thinking and producing some of its most exciting and experimental work.
Meantime, Goodwin was also quietly instigating a revolution in theatre front-of-house and programme design. Prior to the RSC’s creation, West End programmes and theatre posters had followed a fairly conventional pattern of plain posters and serif lettering with theatre programmes of plain cast lists and credits.
Coming from a background in theatre and publishing – Goodwin had previously worked with Basil Dean at the St James’s Theatre, at Stratford and for the Bodley Head publishers – he invited graphic designer George Mayhew to join him.
The result was a transformation whose influence continues to today. Together, they introduced pictorial, silk-screen posters and programmes, packed with background articles, interviews and production and rehearsal photos.
Their influence carried through to the National Theatre (then under Sir Laurence Olivier where the theatre critic Ken Tynan with Rozina Adler were also busy instigating a revolution in NT programmes) and can be seen today in the NT’s current theatre programmes, still regarded as pre-eminent in their field for information and style.
When Peter Hall was appointed the NT’s Artistic Director after Olivier, he asked Goodwin to join him in his similar RSC capacity, as Head of Publicity & Publications. Goodwin became an NT Associate and influential member of Hall’s Planning team in the early years of the NT on the South Bank, editing their programmes for fifteen years, from 1973 to 1988.
John Goodwin was born in 1921, one of twins with his sister, Mary (who died in 2010). He was educated at Christ’s Hospital.
During WWII, he served in the Royal Navy and on demob worked first with the West End publicist, David Fairweather, then represented the Shakespeare seasons at Stratford-upon-Avon before a short stint with the Reinhardt/Bodley Head publishing group.
But it was as the Head of Press & Publications of Peter Hall’s newly formed Royal Shakespeare Company that Goodwin began to make his mark. Hall himself paid tribute to Goodwin’s influence when he declared `there would have been no RSC without him’.
In later years, Goodwin told a story of how when the NT moved to South Bank the Arts Council wanted to close the RSC down. Goodwin rang the Daily Telegraph’s then arts correspondent, Ron Hastings, giving facts and figs. Hastings ran the story causing shock and horror.
Goodwin sent Hastings’ article to all the drama critics saying: `This is all true’. There was uproar and the RSC was saved – a typical example of Goodwin’s skill as a persuasive orchestrator of opinion and press relations in general.
Not for nothing was he dubbed `Machiavellian’ by some – a term calculated to insult but with which Goodwin was, perhaps secretly, not entirely displeased. Other epithets applied to him were `formidable’, `genius’ and `sly and brilliant’.
For those who worked with him, all such descriptions were applicable. Small, dapper and unquestionably charismatic, Goodwin became pre-eminently the trusted `eminence grise’ to Hall’s fiery showman.
He was charm personified, a sophisticate of the old school with a whiplash brain that could sometimes be turned to devastating effect. To the teams he created around him, his loyalty was boundless. They, in turn, returned the feeling – many becoming lifelong, steadfast friends.
His scrupulous editing eye, attention to detail and perfectionism set a standard that anybody working with him will have carried through – sometimes as almost a curse – for the rest of their lives.
It also served him well as editor of the Peter Hall Diaries (Hamish Hamilton), as editor of the classic British Theatre Design (Weidenfeld & Nicholson), as guest editor on director Bill Bryden’s photographic memoir (photos by Nobby Clark) and his own short, hugely successful primer to Shakespeare, A Short Guide to Shakespeare’s Plays (reprinted fifteen times) – scarcely bettered and, like its author, succinct, informed and enthusiastic.
He also adapted the Alphone Daudet novel, Sappho, about a passionate affair between an older woman and a younger man, A Most Sweet Poison (published by Oberon) and co-authored the actor, Trader Faulkner’s one man show, Losing My Marbles.
A theatre enthusiast to the end, Goodwin had the magical gift of listening. There will be many who will have poured their hearts out to him and the advice he could render would nearly always be to the point and wise. Conversations with him could range widely, over many subjects from theatre to literature, politics – he declared himself a lifelong Labour man – and latterly religion after his conversion to Catholicism following the death in 2008 of his beloved wife, the novelist, Suzanne Ebel, also a Catholic.
With perfect equanimity he would argue, after his conversion, that the attraction for him in religion was precisely its mystery and unknowingness – `unfathomable, unanswerable, unsolvable. It can’t be proved.’
His conversion remained all the more surprising and puzzling to friends who had always known him as a man of scepticism and, almost, agnosticism. But the attractions of its rituals and perhaps most importantly, of the promise of the life hereafter in which he would be reunited with Suzanne, may have provided the biggest pull on his imagination.
In later years, his views on current theatre trends would border on the acerbic – he was disappointed in the RSC and even the NT under Nick Hytner to whom he attributed praise for widening the NT’s audience but not his choice of plays or style of productions.
But the twinkle in the eye and his rich sense of life’s absurdities along with his enduring love for theatre never waned. It was after all in his blood. His ancestors were variety artists and strolling players who pulled a cart behind them. His mother was the musical comedy actress, Jessie Lonnen. His father, who died when Goodwin was three, was a Civil Servant with the Inland Revenue.
Goodwin tells a lovely story of how theatre became his chosen career: `When I came out of the Navy, my mother said “what are you going to do with your life?” I said I was interested in theatre and journalism. She said: “I know someone you should go to: David Fairweather”.’
`There were four theatre publicists for the West End at that time including David. They were paid in small royalties for as long as a show was on. I would go with David to the stage door; he’d get his money in cash. I thought, “This is the biz to be in”. He’d pick up £5-£700 a week – a vast sum in those days.’
Goodwin might have made a career as a journalist early on except, he later declared, he found it `boring’. How ironical coming from a man who subsequently went on to become one of the theatre industry’s most successful `handlers’ of journalists. (Coincidentally, Goodwin’s brother-in-law, by marriage to Suzanne, was John Bingham, thriller novelist and sometime M15 chief, one of the possible models for John le Carre’s famously modest but highly efficient secret service spy, George Smiley).
As conversationalist and mentor, loved and respected by many, John Goodwin’s professional legacy as Peter Hall’s master-mind is as assured as is his role as editor and publicist supreme. Rest in peace, old friend.
John Goodwin: b: May 4, 1921; d: July 30, 2018.
He is survived by his son, Timothy, his step-daughter, Marigold, seven grand, nine great-grandchildren and his much loved niece, Jess, his sister Mary’s daughter.
Obituary published on this site, Aug 19, 2018