Coventry Stars of Stage and Screen

Avid readers of this blog may remember me reporting that I contributed to an anthology compiled by members of the Coventry Writers’ Group. (I’ll forgive you if you missed this, or have forgotten.) The theme of the anthology is anything relevant to the city of Coventry, to mark it being the UK City of Culture for 2021. My contribution to the anthology is an article about some of the famous actors, directors and playwrights who have Coventry connections.

The anthology has sold well, but I recognise that not everyone has £5.99 (e-book £1.99) to spend on a book, so here is my article in full. I have to say that I was surprised by the number of famous names linked to Coventry when I came to do the research for the article. No doubt you will be too – or maybe you will have an extra name to add. Please let me know if so.

Coventry hides its theatrical pedigree rather well. The city is known for ribbons and watches; the development of the motor industry; creating the first pedestrian shopping centre; winning the FA cup in 1987; and, since the English Civil War in the 1640s when the local Roundheads gave their Cavalier prisoners a shirty welcome, being the sort of place that people are sent to, rather than coming to of their own accord. Oh, and there’s a story about a naked lady on a horse.

But take a second look. Hundreds of years ago Coventry was one of the centres in Britain for drama, it is home to the first civic theatre built after the Second World War, and has the country’s only professional Shop Front Theatre. It has also been the birthplace of some of our most noted players and playwrights, past and present, or has played a role in their journey to greater things. Many of the names below will be familiar to you, even if their link to Coventry is not.

According to the Bible: In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth (Genesis 1.1). Manymillennia later Man created mystery plays to explain this and other Bible stories to ordinary people. The word mystery comes from the Latin ministerium meaning craft or occupation, and the plays were written and performed by members of the different trade guilds. There were ten Coventry plays known to have existed at this time. These brought to life stories from the New Testament, and were performed annually as pageants – starting near St Mary’s Priory and then paraded round the town on wagons.

Only two of these pageants have survived into the twenty-first century. One is the Shearmen and Tailors’ pageant, which includes the famous Coventry Carol that starts: Lullay, lullay / Thou little tiny child / By-by lullay, sung allegedly by the women on hearing the decree for the massacre of the innocents. The other surviving pageant was performed by the guild of weavers.

The mystery plays were performed in Coventry from the end of the fourteenth century until they were banned in 1579, during the Protestant Reformation. These plays would have been seen as being too closely linked to the traditions of the Pope and the Catholic Church, and not therefore acceptable to the more zealous religious reformers in the reign of Elizabeth 1.

They were not performed again for nearly four centuries. Then, in 1962, it was decided to use one to mark the consecration of the new cathedral in Coventry. This had been built after the old one had been almost completely destroyed during the blitz in November 1940.

Robert Prior-Pitt (1935 – 2020) was cast as Jesus. He was a newly married Coventrian who had recently moved back to the city as a silk screen printer after failing to get enough acting work to pay for a mortgage in London. He became enthralled by the mystery plays and, in 1965, he was appointed as drama director at the new cathedral to re-vive the mystery play tradition. He also encouraged new drama, and exchanges with Coventry’s twin cities in Germany (Kiel and Hamburg) and the American University of Valparaiso, as part of the cathedral’s mission to promote peace and reconciliation. With subsequent support from the newly built Belgrade theatre, there were performances of the mystery plays throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 2000s.

In 1970 Robert Prior-Pitt took up the post of drama lecturer in Coventry Technical College and by 1984 he was head of the theatre department for the new Coventry Centre for Performing Arts. Many of his students get a mention later in this article.

William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616) was not born in Coventry, but his father was a prominent man in his home town of Stratford – a mere twenty miles (or a full day’s journey) down the road. It is believed that the young William used to accompany his father on business trips to Coventry so may well have seen some of the last mystery plays to be performed here.

Shakespeare senior, and son, may have also attended performances of new plays as the city, the fourth largest in the country at the time, was one of the regular destinations for touring acting companies. Companies Shakespeare was known to have toured with as an unknown actor are recorded as being in the city during his early adulthood, so it is quite possible that he appeared on stage in the city too.

All new plays had to be performed first in front of the mayor, invited dignitaries, and members of their families – most probably in St Mary’s Guildhall. The tapestry in the Guildhall is said to have influenced Shakespeare’s interest in the history behind the plays he set during the Wars of the Roses. There are several mentions of Coventry in these plays: Falstaff and Bardolf are ‘on the road to Coventry’ in Henry 1V part 1; battles take place in the city in Henry V1 part 111; and there is the meeting on what is now Gosford Green ordered by Richard 11 for the duel between the lords Bolingbroke and Mowbray. This in fact proved to be an anti-climax, from a theatrical point of view anyway, as the king decided to banish them instead. But banishment did allow Bolingbroke to stay alive and return to the country after a few years to claim what he and his supporters regarded as his rightful inheritance, overthrow Richard 11, and become Henry 1V – giving the plot for several more of Shakespeare’s history plays that ended with Richard 111.

The Welsh born actress Sarah Kemble (1755 – 1831) was married to William Siddons in Holy Trinity church in 1773 whilst on tour in the city. Sarah Siddons, as she was subsequently known, became famous for her depictions of Shakespeare characters, notably Lady Macbeth and Hamlet (actresses playing prominent male roles is not as new a phenomenon as we might think).

Less well known than Shakespeare and Sarah Siddons, but whose links to Coventry are a little better documented, is Ira Aldridge (1807 – 1867). He was the American-born son of slaves who was one of the few black children in New York to receive a decent early education that included trips to the theatre. Inspired by what he saw, he joined the African Grove Theatre at the age of 13. Slavery had not yet been abolished in America, it was not a safe place for an ambitious young black man, and his opportunities to perform on stage were severely limited. He and a friend set sail for England, where he felt his talents would be better received, and by the age of 17 he was playing Othello on the London stage (admittedly in a rather low profile theatre). But his performances were noticed and he was soon playing other major Shakespearean roles in bigger theatres in London, and elsewhere around the country.

This included the Theatre Royal in Coventry. In 1828, at the tender age of 21, he became the actor-manager there, the first black actor-manager in the country. As well as being passionate about acting, he was passionate about ending the slave trade. It had already been abolished in Britain, but he would address the local audiences after each performance about the situation elsewhere. As a result, he was instrumental in persuading Coventry to petition parliament to abolish slavery in the colonies.

Ira Aldridge died at the age of 60 whilst touring in Poland. In 2017, on the 150th anniversary of his death, a blue plaque was unveiled at the site of the Theatre Royal. This had long since closed and been demolished, so the plaque was placed on the wall of the BHS shop, sadly now also closed.

A noted Shakespearean actor with a Coventry connection was Ellen Terry (1847 – 1928) who was born in the city. Both parents were actors in a touring company and she was destined for the stage from birth. She had no particular links to Coventry beyond infancy, appearing as she did in many theatres around the country including the Theatre Royal in Bristol, the Haymarket in London, and with the Wigan theatre company where she first met Henry Irving.

Henry Irving subsequently rented the Lyceum Theatre, London, and invited Ellen Terry to join him. Acting opposite him, in mostly Shakespearean roles, she became the most famous actress on the world stage. When Irving’s company ran out of money, she and her son took over the management of the Imperial Theatre, where they staged plays by new playwrights such as George Bernard Shaw and Henrik Ibsen, and attracted a whole new audience to the theatre.

Ellen Terry’s fame made her an obvious choice to open the new Empire theatre (formerly the Corn Exchange) in Hertford Street, Coventry, in 1906, her jubilee year. Again this theatre is no more, but the foundation stone was saved and can now be seen in the foyer of the Criterion Theatre, a small volunteer led theatre based in Earlsdon, Coventry.

T. E. Dunville (1867 – 1924) was born and brought up in Coventry. He is best known as a music hall comedian and was once described by Charlie Chaplin as ‘an excellent funny man.’ This did not inure him to depression however, and he committed suicide, aged 57.

Another actor with a link to the Criterion Theatre is Nigel Hawthorne (1929 – 2001). Like Ellen Terry, he was born in Coventry, but left at the age of three when his family moved to South Africa. He returned to England in the 1950s to pursue a career as an actor, and is perhaps best known for his role as Sir Humphrey Appleby, the permanent secretary, in the sitcoms Yes Minister, and Yes Prime Minister. He also played an award winning role as King George in Alan Bennett’s stage play The Madness of George 111, that was later made into a film in which he also starred. Although by this time a household name, he agreed to a request by the Criterion Theatre to become their patron, and remained so until his death.

Derbyshire born Elizabeth Spriggs (1929 – 2008) moved as a child to Fillongley, a village just outside Coventry. She was brought up there on her parents’ farm and later taught speech and drama in Coventry. She subsequently made her name with repertory theatres in Birmingham and Bristol, the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC, and the National, and became a well-known face on the big and small screen.

Billie Whitelaw (1932 – 2014) was born in Coventry in the year that Nigel Hawthorne left the city. She too left as an infant and was brought up in Bradford where, despite the family being poor (her father died of lung cancer when she was nine) she started to make her name as a child actress and subsequently trained at RADA. Initially she specialised in playing blousy blondes, but in 1965 she memorably replaced Maggie Smith to play Desdemona opposite Laurence Olivier in Othello. Her chief claim to fame however is her professional partnership with the playwright, Samuel Beckett, who said that many of his more experimental plays – such as Happy Days – were created especially for her.

            Sir Ian McKellen is still very much alive and is one of the country’s foremost living actors, famous for his roles on both stage and screen. But it was in Coventry that he made his first professional appearance when he joined the Belgrade Theatre in 1961. The Belgrade was the first civic theatre to be built in Britain after the Second World War and opened officially in 1958, putting on progressive new dramas with a string of talented young actors and directors. Together with the new cathedral, the theatre symbolised an optimism for the future of the country generally, and Coventry in particular. The Belgrade, incidentally, is also the venue where, in 2017, it was officially announced that Coventry was to be the City of Culture in 2021.

            Within four years of starting out at the Belgrade, Sir Ian was appearing in West End theatres, and he also performed on several occasions with the RSC in Stratford and London. In 2005 he fulfilled a lifelong ambition when he appeared in several episodes of Coronation Street. He is known as well, of course, for his career on the big screen, not least in the box office hit Lord of the Rings.

            In 2019, Sir Ian celebrated his eightieth birthday by touring Britain in his one man autobiographical show. He returned to the regional theatres that had played a part in his life as an actor, including the Belgrade – where it had all started.

            Other names associated with the pioneering days at the Belgrade include Arnold Wesker, Sir Trevor Nunn, Bob Carlton, Ron Hutchinson, Laurence Boswell, Clive Owen and Katy Stevens.

The playwright Arnold Wesker (1932 – 2016) was given his start at the Belgrade in 1958 with his new play Chicken Soup with Barley, which he had been unable to get staged anywhere else. He returned in 1959 with Roots, which starred Joan Plowright and later transferred to the West End. Always a dogged individualist, he returned to Coventry in the early 1970s when the RSC refused to put on his latest play The Journalists, (which they deemed it was too controversial). He agreed to the Criterion’s offer to step in, and reported that he was pleased with their interpretation when he came to watch it.

Ipswich born Sir Trevor Nunn won a scholarship to become a trainee director at the Belgrade before forging an impressive career at the RSC (he directed Sir Ian McKellen in Macbeth there in 1976, to critical acclaim) The National, and elsewhere. In 2008 he returned to the Belgrade to direct Scenes from a Marriage starring his third wife, Imogen Stubbs.

            Bob Carlton (1950 – 2018) was born and educated in Coventry. His association with the Belgrade also stems from the time he won a scholarship with them as a trainee director. He is perhaps best known now for his juke box musical Return to the Forbidden Planet (1989)

            Ron Hutchinson is known as an Irish screen writer and playwright and the author of, among other things, Moonlight and Magnolias. What is not so well known is that his family moved to Coventry when he was young and he also cut his teeth at the Belgrade. Much of his work reflects the experiences of Irish people living and working away from home which would resonate with many of the Irish who had moved to Coventry. He did not however write specifically about Coventry.

One Irish playwright who did write about the city, was Tom Murphy (1935 – 2018. He is not recorded as having set foot in Coventry, but used the city as the backdrop for his play – A Whistle in the Dark – about the tensions and social challenges experienced by Irish immigrants to Britain.

            Laurence Boswell, who has directed big names like Madonna and Eddie Izard, is Coventry born and educated. He has talked about ‘the extraordinary support’ he received as a young actor and director at the Belgrade Youth Theatre. He returned to The Belgrade in 2014 for his Spanish Golden Age Season.

Clive Owen was born and educated in Coventry and is now famous on both sides of the Atlantic for performances on stage, in film, and on television. He also started out at the Belgrade in the late 1980s, where he worked with the budding young director, Laurence Boswell. He subsequently became better known in the UK for his role in the ITV series, Chancer (1990) before moving to America. His first major Hollywood role was in The Rich Man’s Wife alongside Halle Berry. He has retained his stage career, starring in a highly acclaimed theatre revival of Peter Nichols’ play A day in the Death of Joe Egg and, more recently, in the West End production of Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguanas.

Katy Stevens is another award winning British actor who has lived and worked in Coventry and performed extensively at the Belgrade in both classical dramas and pantomime.

Several other actors, such as Terence Davies, who are not normally associated with Coventry started their training here, often under the direction of Robert Prior-Pitt. Davies is now one of Britain’s most acclaimed filmmakers. Whilst he was a student in Coventry he wrote the screenplay for Children (1976), and then went on to write Madonna and Child and Death and Transfiguration. The three films, largely autobiographical, were screened together at film festivals across Europe and America, as The Terence Davies Trilogy, and have won many awards.  

Much of his other work is also autobiographical, and he has adapted the work of other writers, including Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickenson, Edith Wharton, and Terence Rattigan. Productions of his work have been limited by his desire to only work on what interests him rather than what makes money at the box office.

Jeffrey Kissoon came to Coventry College of Education where he trained as a drama teacher. His first teaching post was at St Peter and St Paul’s primary school in the city. Born in Trinidad, he arrived in Britain at the age of ten, had his first acting experience whilst in school in London and, following his stint as a teacher in Coventry, became a full time actor in the early 1970s.

Jeffrey continued to tutor aspiring actors and directors whilst his own acting career expanded. This includes working with the RSC, and many other companies around the country. He has also appeared on television (Grange Hill and EastEnders) and with Lenny Henry in the BBC Radio 4 sitcom Rudy’s Rare Records (later turned into a play and performed at the Birmingham Rep). He directs plays and is, among other roles, on the Board of directors for the Warehouse Theatre, Croydon, London.

            Ron Cook moved to Coventry when he was six and was educated at Wyken Croft junior school and Caludon Castle. He must be one of very few schoolboys who was advised by his headmaster to try acting as a career rather than going for a ‘proper’ job. He took the advice and went to the Rose Burford College to study drama. One of his teachers at secondary school was Geoff Bennett, a founder member of the Criterion Theatre, and Ron made a number of appearances there before becoming a professional actor.

            Ron Cook has appeared in numerous theatres around the country and in a large number of television productions including Bergerac, Black Adder, Dr Who, several instalments of the BBC’s The Complete Works of William Shakespeare and, in 2019, in Netflix’s The Witcher. He has also appeared on the big screen, including playing the role of Napoleon Bonaparte in both Sharpe (1994) and Quills (2000). He is currently a patron of the Criterion Theatre and his letter of acceptance is displayed in the foyer.

Playwright Chris O’Connell and producer Julia Negus are both names inextricably linked with the current Coventry theatre scene. Both are alumni of Coventry University – Chris completed an MA in theatre there, and Julia studied visual arts. In 1992 they founded Theatre Absolute, and plays written by Chris for the theatre include the Edinburgh Fringe award winning Street Trilogy (Car, Raw, Kid).  He also performed and directed at the Criterion throughout the 1980s.

In 2009, tired of touring and aligning their work to available funding streams, they approached Coventry City Council to see if they could use one of the empty premises in the city as a ‘pop-up’ theatre. The council offered them the empty fish and chip shop at the bottom of City Arcade.  Within months they had opened the UK’s only professional Shop Front Theatre. The theatre is still going strong, specialising in original and experimental work, and supporting emerging writers whose work they feel is new and relevant to the city and beyond. 

            Some actors who spent at least part of their early life in Coventry and made, or are now making, their names elsewhere, include Carmen Silvera (1922 – 2002), Hazel O’Connor, Jefferson Hall, and Jennie Jacques.

            Carmen Silvera (1922 – 2002) was born in Canada to a Jamaican father who had Coventry connections. They moved to the city when she was a child. She is best known for her role in the TV series ‘Allo, ‘Allo. The year before she died she returned to Coventry for the production at the Belgrade of You’re Only Young Twice – and took the opportunity for a sentimental reunion with old school friends.

            Hazel O’Connor is unlikely to return to the city for any reunions. Though born in the city she had an unhappy home life and ran away when she was sixteen. She lived a nomadic existence for the next few years before her acting and singing talents were noticed, in particular in the 1980 production of Breaking Glass for which she wrote the songs and also played the role of Kate.

Jefferson Hall, who used the name Robert Hall in his early career, was born in Coventry and is perhaps best known now for his role as Hugh of the Vale in Game of Thrones.

Jennie Jacques was also born in Coventry. Her first major role was as Annie Miller in the 2009 BBC series Desperate Romantics about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. More recently she has played the part of the Saxon Queen, Judith, in Vikings.

            Debbie Issit, on the other hand, was born and brought up in Birmingham, but her name has been strongly linked to Coventry since her film Nativity! premiered in the Skydome Arena. The film is about a failed actor, turned Coventry school teacher, who reluctantly takes on the task of producing the school’s nativity play. The film is set in and around the cathedral and proved to be the most successful independent film in Britain for 2009. In 2012 she did a follow up: Nativity 2 – Danger in the Manger, which made twice as much at the box office as the first film and, more recently, Nativity 3 – Dude Where’s My Donkey? However, these films were not the first time Debbie Issit had been to Coventry – like a number of other successful actors, writers and directors, she has credited the drama classes she attended in the city – and Robert Prior-Pitt – with starting her on the path to success.

            Robert Prior-Pitt was a link between Coventry’s medieval past and, through his own performances and teaching, the city’s more recent place in the history of stage and screen. Another Coventry resident has also, albeit accidentally, reached across an even greater span. Remember the naked lady on a horse mentioned in the opening paragraph?

Lady Godiva, the wife of the eleventh century Lord Leofric, was reputed to have ridden naked through the streets of Coventry in a bid to dissuade her husband from increasing his taxation of the townspeople. Whether she actually took all her clothes off, rode bare-back, simply removed her jewellery, or stayed happily at home, remains a matter of debate. But her ride is an integral part of Coventry’s story and it will no doubt feature in some way in the 2021 celebrations.

            In 1982, in a bid to cheer people up during a recession (the city had yet to win the FA cup) a local beauty queen, Pru Poretta, was asked to play the part of Lady Godiva in a one-off revival of the city’s carnival procession. Nearly forty years later she is still playing the role and can be said to have made the part uniquely her own.

Usually clad in a rich red velvet gown – and never performing naked to my knowledge – she has paraded through the city on horseback, steamroller, and tractor; even travelling by helicopter on one occasion. As Lady Godiva, she has opened events, shops and retirement homes, and has gone into schools to teach children about the Godiva tradition. Along the way, she has also raised thousands of pounds for local charities.

Pru Poretta never thought, in 1982, that her role as Lady Godiva would still be so popular in Coventry. But perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. So many of the city’s traditions – the Godiva legend; the mystery plays; the old and new cathedral; the interest in innovation and experimentation (not just in motor cars and other machines, but in theatre and other arts); and the historic anti-authoritarian tendency – are ingrained in the city’s DNA. Ingrained too in the city’s rich culture to be celebrated in various forms in 2021.


Telling Tales. Anthology from Coventry Writers’ Group to mark Coventry being the UK City of Culture in 2021. £5.99 paperback. £1.99 e-book.