Peter Billingham obituary

Other lives: Playwright, author and academic who devoted his career to theatre and theatre-making

My friend Peter Billingham, who has died of cancer aged 66, devoted his career to engaging with theatre and theatre-making. He cast light on neglected radical genres in his book Theatre of Conscience 1939-53: A Study of Four Touring British Community Theatres, countering the presumption that before Look Back in Anger there existed a theatrical wasteland.

The acute Sensing the City Through Television (2000) was followed by At the Sharp End (2007), which was nominated for the Society for Theatre Research’s theatre book prize and the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain book award in 2008. His Edward Bond: A Critical Study (2013) was the first monograph on Bond in 20 years and provided a focus on Bond’s later plays, neglected in Britain.

Peter was born in his grandmother’s council house in Northampton. His mother, Grace (nee Breavington), was a cook, and his father, Ernie, worked in the local shoe industry, for Norvic shoes. Peter was grateful to have inspiring English teachers and a charismatic music teacher, Roger Tivey, at the Cherry Orchard secondary modern school for boys. Performing in Britten’s Little Sweep and Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors were the start of his lifelong love affair with the arts.

He trained as a teacher at Hertford College of Education, then spent 17 years teaching English and drama in secondary schools and further education colleges, and established the Harwich children’s theatre in Essex in the 1970s. In 1990 he was appointed senior lecturer in drama at Sheffield City Polytechnic and moved through various higher education institutions, finally being appointed professor in modern drama at Winchester University in 2013. David Edgar, the playwright, hailed Peter as “a great defender of serious political theatre”.

As well as focusing on neglected but pioneering theatre companies such as the Adelphi Players and the all-female Osiris Players, which toured Shakespeare throughout Britain and Ireland, Peter loved to write plays (including the award-winning Married Blitz), to direct, and to encourage artistic engagement with the wider community, through, for instance, initiatives with homeless people and dementia patients.

There was a profound Christian socialist and spiritual dimension to his work. A defender of human rights, Peter was invited to join the Soul of Europe peace initiative following the war in Kosovo.

He believed the purpose of education was “to awaken and pass on a lighted flame”, and was a kind, good-humoured, creative colleague and teacher.

Peter’s first marriage ended in divorce. He is survived by his second wife, Marilyn (nee Lee), whom he married in 1996, his children from his first marriage, Eve and Tom, three stepchildren, Sally, William and Ruth, four grandchildren, and his sister, Pauline.

Philip Crispin

The GuardianTramp

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