Alan Dossor obituary

Theatre and TV director who oversaw a brilliant five-year period at the Liverpool Everyman in the 70s

The theatre and television director Alan Dossor, who has died of cancer aged 74, supervised a golden five-year period in British regional theatre at the Liverpool Everyman when, between 1970 and 1975, he produced plays by John McGrath, Alan Bleasdale, Mike Stott and Willy Russell, and forged a brilliant, irreverent company of new actors that included Julie Walters, Alison Steadman, Antony Sher, Trevor Eve, Jonathan Pryce, Matthew Kelly, Bernard Hill, Bill Nighy and Pete Postlethwaite.

Unusually for “golden periods”, it seemed like one at the time, as Dossor’s company, building on the Everyman founding principles of informal classicism and locally applied satirical pungency, forged a link between Joan Littlewood’s influential Theatre Workshop and the new fringe generation – the provincial wing of it, at least – more interested in community conversations than metropolitan fashion and niche market approval.

When Dossor was appointed artistic director, he was the right man in the right place at exactly the right time. His first production, a radical musical about the Liverpool MP Bessie Braddock, set the tone and the temper for what followed: musical plays about factory workers, the Beatles – John, Paul, George, Ringo ... and Bert was a West End hit for Russell in 1974 – Enoch Powell, knockabout Shakespeare, and local industrial history.

Alan Dossor was at the Everyman theatre from 1970 to 1975.
Alan Dossor was at the Everyman theatre from 1970 to 1975. Photograph: Everyman Theatre

The Everyman, founded by Terry Hands, Martin Jenkins and Peter James in 1964 in a disused Methodist chapel in Hope Street, opposite the glorious Philharmonic pub and suspended between both great Liverpool cathedrals, was established as the most exciting and innovative regional theatre of that time, alongside the Nottingham Playhouse under Richard Eyre and the Glasgow Citizens under Giles Havergal and Philip Prowse.

Their legacies, and Dossor’s, live on, not least in the careers of the generation of actors they all nurtured, some of whom switched between the venues, certainly in Nottingham and Liverpool, before moving into TV and film. Dossor himself was a product of an educational system that surfed on the wave of cultural change at the end of the 1960s.

Born in Kingston upon Hull in east Yorkshire, son of a clerk in a timber firm, Fred Dossor, and his wife, Ann, Alan won a scholarship to Hymers college, an independent school in Hull, completing his A-levels and living with relatives while his immediate family relocated to Nottingham. He then spent a year working – and becoming involved in union politics – in the Players’ cigarette factory in Nottingham before taking a degree in drama, English and philosophy at Bristol University (1963), followed by a postgraduate acting course at the Bristol Old Vic school.

He returned to Nottingham as an actor and stage manager at the Playhouse, then run by John Neville. His renowned “lippiness” as an underling in a company that included Judi Dench led Neville to think he might have the makings of a director; he put him in charge of a Sunday night production of CP Taylor’s Bread and Butter, and Dossor found his vocation.

Before landing in Liverpool, and after three seasons at the Nottingham Playhouse, Dossor freelanced widely as a director in Newcastle, Bolton, Edinburgh and Sheffield. Dossor’s Everyman rapidly became a flashpoint for new regional drama, with three great plays by McGrath, Chris Bond’s Tarzan’s Last Stand, featuring Sher in a leopard skin as Enoch Powell, Pryce as a sizzling Richard III and Postlethwaite as a ferocious, contemporary Coriolanus; there were, too, Ayckbourn-style domestic comedies with a dark heart and a Scouse twist from Russell and Bleasdale, and two hilarious plays with a fellatio feature – Adrian Mitchell’s Mind Your Head and Stott’s Funny Peculiar, a frantic farce of promiscuity in the Pennines with its mouth full of gags.

Suzan Cameron, left, and Julie Walters in 1976, getting ready to appear in Alan Dossor’s production of Mike Stott’s comedy Funny Peculiar at the Mermaid theatre, London.
Suzan Cameron, left, and Julie Walters in 1976, getting ready to appear in Alan Dossor’s production of Mike Stott’s comedy Funny Peculiar at the Mermaid theatre, London. Photograph: Milton Wordley/Getty Images

Dossor’s house in Grove Park, Liverpool, where he lived with his first wife, Dinah, a lecturer at the Liverpool School of Art, John Lennon’s alma mater, and their daughter, Lucy, was a second social hub for the Everyman company, and close friendships matured into serious relationships – between Walters and Postlethwaite, for instance, and Pryce and Kate Fahy – while Dossor’s professional contacts widened to include such innovative BBC TV producers of the time as Tony Garnett, David Rose and Michael Wearing.

While the Everyman closed for a refurbishment in 1974, he took a TV director’s training course at the BBC and then handed over the reins at the theatre to Bond. He continued to work in London theatre as a freelance – he directed Bill Morrison’s scabrous, brilliant black comedy about the Troubles, Flying Blind (1977), and Glenda Jackson in Andrew Davies’s Rose (1980) in the West End and on Broadway – but his TV career really took off with Bleasdale’s The Muscle Market, a 1981 BBC Play for Today starring Postlethwaite and Steadman.

He and Dinah, whom he had first met at the Nottingham Playhouse and married in 1968, separated in 1972 and divorced in 1980, remaining good friends throughout his second marriage, to the actor Elaine Donnelly, his life partner, whom he had first cast in McGrath’s Soft Or a Girl in 1973.

His television work included a lovely Michael Frayn TV movie, First and Last (1989), starring Joss Ackland walking from Land’s End to John O’Groats in retirement; many episodes of the Bafta-award-winning police drama series Between the Lines (1992-94), produced by Garnett and starring Neil Pearson; a two-part comedy drama, The Missing Postman (1997), broadcast on successive nights by the BBC and starring James Bolam as the eponymous postie who, threatened by the advent of new sorting systems and “rationalisation”, sets off to deliver the last post, literally, by hand on his bike and becomes a celebrity eccentric; and Glenn Chandler’s The Life and Crimes of William Palmer (1998), featuring Keith Allen as the Victorian doctor and poisoner described by Dickens as “the greatest villain who ever stood in the dock at the Old Bailey”.

Dossor became frustrated at the increasing imbalance of power in TV between those who commissioned the programmes – the suits – and the artists who made them, a running theme among directors and actors who felt, probably correctly, that they had had the best of their “independent” TV drama days in the 70s and 80s. He had returned to the theatre in 1999 at the invitation of Jude Kelly at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, where he directed fine revivals of Alan Ayckbourn, Alan Bennett and Bill Naughton. In 2005, he directed Stephen Lowe’s Old Big ’Ead in the Spirit of the Man, about the football manager Brian Clough, at the Nottingham Playhouse and on a national tour.

He is survived by Elaine, Lucy, his sister, Josephine, and three grandchildren.
Michael Coveney

Antony Sher writes: I consider myself fortunate to have begun my career at the Liverpool Everyman. When you’re starting out as a young actor, you’ll go anywhere that’ll take you. So it was pure luck that I landed at the Everyman, a very special place because of Alan Dossor. While some reps were churning out plays to meet their annual quota, Alan believed that since the Everyman was situated in Liverpool, it needed to serve the Liverpool audience. He was a fiercely committed man – committed to socialism and to theatre – and could be quite fierce in life as well. But this covered a tender side in him, and a very funny side, too. (He was great at directing comedy, especially anarchic comedy.)

He had enormous respect for actors. He certainly taught me to respect my work more. Before I met him, I thought of acting as a rather secondary art: interpretive rather than fully creative. “Bollocks,” he roared at me one night in the bistro under the theatre, where we ate and drank after the shows.

“You won’t become a really good actor till you put yourself on the line, till the job’s vital to you. Which plays you do, why you do them, how you do them. Otherwise, if it’s just a craft, go be a plumber. If it’s just talent you’re offering, don’t bother, there’s plenty of talented actors, only bother if you – you – have got something to say.”

Good God. I reeled away towards my digs, my head buzzing. Actors are taught to be passive, to be grateful for any work, to do as they’re told. But for me, things would never be quite the same again.

Alan John Dossor, theatre and television director, born 19 September 1941; died 7 August 2016

  • This article was amended on 16 August 2016. Alan Dossor’s degree at Bristol was not just in English, but also in drama and philosophy, and he gained it in 1963.


Michael Coveney and Antony Sher

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