Jack Phipps obituary

Farsighted champion of music and theatre

High-quality work in the performing arts frequently depends on a combination of private enterprise and public support. But the need for a dynamically entrepreneurial approach remains a constant, and that is what Jack Phipps, who has died aged 84, brought to classical music and the theatrical world.

Born in Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia, where his father was a tobacco farmer, Jack was educated in Johannesburg and spent a term at Harrow school, north-west London. At Merton College, Oxford, he took a degree in history, but music was his guiding passion and he gained early professional experience with Ian Hunter, director of the artist management firm Harold Holt. There, he was closely involved with the violinist Yehudi Menuhin, the conductors Colin Davis and Bernard Haitink, and the conductor-pianist Daniel Barenboim.

In 1962 Jack was a prime mover in the setting up and running of the City of London festival, reviving the area's cultural life. In 1965 he and his second wife, Sue (Pears), whom he had married the previous year, established their own management agency, looking after Benjamin Britten and the tenor Peter Pears, Sue's uncle, and other singers, including Pilar Lorengar, Jessye Norman and Jill Gomez.

In 1970 Jack was asked to help reorganise the Dramatic and Lyric Theatres Association national touring scheme. This turned into the touring department of what was then the Arts Council of Great Britain. When the Moss Empires and Howard and Wyndham theatre circuits started to break up in the late 1970s, Jack helped secure the future of these venues. He persuaded the Arts Council to work with commercial producers to get first-class work into these theatres and secured support for the touring musicals produced by the young Cameron Mackintosh.

He worked hard to establish English National Opera North (subsequently Opera North) in 1977 and the Royal Shakespeare Company's regular seasons in Newcastle upon Tyne, as well as its annual tour that took Shakespeare into leisure centres in towns with no theatre. Other projects included Opera 80, later English Touring Opera, and the move of Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet to become Birmingham Royal Ballet.

Under Jack's leadership, Arts Council Touring became an enterprising force, supporting small-scale and experimental work and investing in marketing and audience development. He had an uncanny knack for spotting gaps in the market and talent, and was an early champion of Nicholas Hytner, now director of the National Theatre.

From 1979 to 1981, Jack was responsible for the enlarged regional department, and then he became general manager of the Aldeburgh Festival in Suffolk. This had been the creation of Britten and Pears, but the composer died in 1976, and the tenor stopped singing four years later. Jack's move there did not work out, and 18 months later he moved to Bath to work at the Theatre Royal, returning to the Arts Council in 1986.

In 1992 he was appointed CBE, and retired that year to Alderton, Suffolk. There Jack indulged his passion for opera by mounting a number of modest but notable productions in his local church. In 2001 it became evident that Jack was suffering from Alzheimer's disease. He is survived by Sue, by their son Martin, and by his children, Polly and Simon, from his first marriage, which ended in divorce.

• John "Jack" Richard Noel Phipps, born 24 December 1925; died 5 August 2010


Humphrey Burton

The GuardianTramp

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