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Joan Littlewood

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Joan Littlewood
Cover of Joan's Book: the autobiography of Joan Littlewood
Joan Maud Littlewood

(1914-10-06)6 October 1914
Stockwell, London, England
Died20 September 2002(2002-09-20) (aged 87)[1]
London, England
OccupationTheatre director
Years active1930–1975
(m. 1934; div. 1950)
Partner(s)Gerry Raffles
Philippe de Rothschild

Joan Maud Littlewood (6 October 1914 – 20 September 2002) was an English theatre director who trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and is best known for her work in developing the Theatre Workshop. She has been called "The Mother of Modern Theatre".[2] Her production of Oh, What a Lovely War! in 1963 was one of her more influential pieces.

Littlewood and her company lived and slept in the Theatre Royal while it was restored. Productions of The Alchemist and Richard II, the latter starring Harry H. Corbett in the title role, established the reputation of the company.[3]

She also conceived and developed the concept of the Fun Palace in collaboration with architect Cedric Price,[4] an experimental model of a participatory social environment that, although never realized, has become an important influence in the architecture of the 20th and 21st centuries.[citation needed]

Miss Littlewood, a musical written about Littlewood by Sam Kenyon, was performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2018.[5]

Early years[edit]

Littlewood was born in Stockwell, London, and was educated at La Retraite Convent School in Clapham Park. She trained as an actress at RADA, but left after an unhappy start and moved to Manchester in 1934, where she met folksinger Jimmie Miller, who later became known as Ewan MacColl. After joining his troupe, Theatre of Action, Littlewood and Miller soon were married. After a brief move to London, they returned to Manchester and set up the Theatre Union in 1936.[6]


Joan Littlewood and the Theatre Royal

In 1941, Littlewood was banned from broadcasting on the BBC and her personnel file was marked by an MI5 officer as she was deemed a security risk. The ban was lifted two years later, when MI5 said she had broken off her association with the Communist Party. She was under surveillance by MI5 from 1939 until the 1950s.[7]

In 1945, after the end of World War II, Littlewood, her husband the communist folk singer Ewan MacColl, and other Theatre Union members formed Theatre Workshop and registered it while staying at Ormesby Hall. The following eight years were spent touring. Shortly afterwards, when Gerry Raffles joined the troupe, MacColl and Littlewood divorced, though they still worked together for many years and Littlewood was godmother to MacColl's two children. Littlewood and Raffles were life partners until his death in 1975.

In 1953, after an attempt to establish a permanent base in Glasgow, Theatre Workshop took up residence at the Theatre Royal in Stratford, east London, where it gained an international reputation,[3] performing plays across Europe and in the Soviet Union. One of Littlewood's most famous productions was the British première of Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children (1955), which she directed and also starred in. Her production of Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be, a musical about the London underworld, became a hit and ran from 1959 to 1962, transferring to the West End.

The works for which she is now best remembered are probably Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey (1958),[8] which gained critical acclaim, and the satirical musical Oh, What a Lovely War! (1963), her stage adaptation of a work for radio by Charles Chilton. Both were made into films. She received a Tony Award nomination for Best Direction of a Musical for Oh, What a Lovely War!, becoming the first woman nominated for the award. Theatre Workshop also championed the work of Irish playwright Brendan Behan.

Later life and death[edit]

Philip Jackson's sculpture of Joan Littlewood at Theatre Royal Stratford
Plaque on the wall of the Theatre Royal Stratford, commemorating Joan Littlewood and the erection of the sculpture of her on 4 October 2015

After Raffles's death in 1975, Littlewood left Theatre Workshop and stopped directing. After a time of drifting she settled in France and became the companion of Baron Philippe de Rothschild, the vintner and poet, and wrote his memoirs Milady Vine. In the mid-1980s, she commenced work on her 1994 autobiography, Joan's Book.[9]

Littlewood died in 2002 of natural causes at the age of 87 in the London flat of Peter Rankin.[10][11]


Littlewood was played by Zoë Wanamaker in the 2017 BBC Television drama Babs, about the life of Barbara Windsor.[12]



  1. ^ Barker, Clive (May 2003). "Closing Joan's Book: Some Personal Footnotes". New Theatre Quarterly. 19 (2). Cambridge University Press: 99–107. doi:10.1017/S0266464X03000022. ISBN 978-0-521-53589-2. S2CID 194973320.
  2. ^ "Obituary: Theatre's defiant genius". BBC News. 21 September 2002. Retrieved 16 February 2009.
  3. ^ a b Stevens, Christopher (2010). Born Brilliant: The Life of Kenneth Williams. John Murray. p. 356. ISBN 978-1-84854-195-5.
  4. ^ Duffy, Stella. "Fun palaces: Joan Littlewood's dream for culture gets second chance". The Guardian. Retrieved 1 April 2016.
  5. ^ "Miss Littlewood: About the Play". rsc.org.uk. Retrieved 25 September 2017.
  6. ^ Rankin, Peter. "Littlewood, (Maudie) Joan". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/77256. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  7. ^ Norton-Taylor, Richard (4 March 2008). "MI5 Surveillance of Joan Littlewood During War Led to Two-Year BBC Ban". The Guardian. Retrieved 17 February 2009.
  8. ^ • Harding, John, Sweetly Sings Delaney. (Greenwich Exchange 2014). www.greenex.co.uk
  9. ^ Strachan, Alan (23 September 2002). "Joan Littlewood: Bold and innovative director celebrated for her work at the Theatre Royal, Stratford". The Independent. Archived from the original on 9 June 2022. Retrieved 16 February 2009.
  10. ^ Rankin, Peter (23 September 2002). "My friend Joan, the director who hated 'acting'". The Telegraph. London. Retrieved 2 June 2018.
  11. ^ "Obituary: Joan Littlewood". The Scotsman. Archived from the original on 28 March 2019. Retrieved 2 June 2018.
  12. ^ Pavey, Harriet. "Meet the cast of the BBC's Barbara Windsor biopic Babs". Radio Times. Retrieved 11 December 2020.

Further reading[edit]

  • Goorney, Howard, and Ewan MacColl (1990). Agit-Prop to Theatre Workshop: Political Playscripts, 1930–50. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press. ISBN 0-7190-2211-8
  • Littlewood, Joan (1994) Joan's Book: Joan Littlewood's Peculiar History as She Tells it. London: Methuen Publishing Ltd ISBN 0-413-64070-1
  • Littlewood, Joan (2003). Joan's Book: The Autobiography of Joan Littlewood. London: Methuen. ISBN 0-413-77318-3
  • MacColl, Ewan (1990). Journeyman: An Autobiography. London: Sidgwick & Jackson. ISBN 0-283-06036-0
  • Rankin, Peter (2014). Joan Littlewood: Dreams and Realities. London: Oberon Books. ISBN 978-1-78319-084-3

External links[edit]