Remembering Patrick Garland

Patrick Garland, who attributed a great part of his theatrical success to his time at Oxford
Patrick Garland, who attributed a great part of his theatrical success to his time at Oxford

The Oxford drama scene in  1958 was marked by the return of graduate Peter Dews, then a director for BBC Midlands, to direct an open-air production of Henry V in the Madgalen College grounds. For the leading role he chose Patrick Garland, a first-year student at St Edmund Hall reading English.

The casting of a novice as the lead was unprecedented at Oxford, but Dews chose wisely: Ken Tynan, writing for the Observer, wrote: “Harry himself, Patrick Garland, conquered lack of inches and facial unimpressiveness by sheer driving intelligence”. It was considered an explosive debut; Garland himself described it, almost thirty years later, as “pretty good”.

At the time Garland came up to Oxford in 1957, age 22, he had already completed two years in the National Service, and was an accomplished amateur actor. He was also a skilled poet, whose work had appeared in the prestigious PEN anthology. Garland followed his striking debut as Henry with central roles in an eclectic range of plays: including A Man Has Two Fathers, an original play by the then-unknown John McGarth; Creon in Oedipus at Colonus in the Playhouse in 1958; and the university’s first Coriolanus in 1959. Described by Vernon Dobtcheff in ISIS as “the best Oxford actor since goodness knows when”, Garland rose to become President of the OUDS (succeeding Ken Loach, a contemporary student and thespian).

After graduating in 1959 Garland spent two years training at the Bristol Old Vic. The technique and stagecraft he was taught prepared him as an actor, but no training could provide for the unpredictable and varied future ahead. In 1969 he began working for the BBC as a director for the arts programme Monitor and Alan Bennett’s comedy series On the Margin. In 1960 he appeared in the principal cast of the TV serial An Age of Kings, which presented all eight of Shakespeare’s History Plays (amongst other characters Garland played Prince John in Henry IV Part 2 and Clarence in Richard III). He continued his poetic development as the Director of Poetry for the RSC, a tenure chiefly marked by his 1963 anthology The Rebel, written to celebrate the company’s quatercentenary celebrations. In the same year he also set up Poetry International with Ted Hughes, an organisation that publishes the work of poets from around the world.

After the success at the BBC together with Bennett, Garland directed Bennett’s first full play Forty Years On, in a 1968 production which premiered at the Apollo Theatre and starred John Gielgud. The resulting acclaim led to Garland also directing Bennett’s second play Getting On in 1971. In the same year Garland created a television film called The Snow Goose, which is based on a novella by Paul Gallica. The feature was a major critical success, winning a Golden Globe for best television movie and nominations for both BAFTA and Emmy awards (Garland himself was nominated for the ‘Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Drama’ Emmy Award). With these credits to his name Garland returned to Oxford in summer 1973 to direct an open-air Twelfth Night. Kenneth Tynan described it in his diary as “the most joyful and moving Shakespearean occasion I’ve attended for years”. Jeffrey Hackney, a retired Law Fellow at Wadham, recalled a comical last-minute addition to the play, indicative of Garland’s natural humour, when Malvolio accidently fell in the Worcester Lake during rehearsals “and Patrick decided it was so wonderful he decided to incorporate it into the production”.

Garland continued his theatrical success as the Artistic Director of the Chichester Festival Theatre (following in the footsteps of Loach again) in 1981-85 and 1990-94. In eight years he directed a total of twenty-four productions, ranging from Shakespearean texts to musical adaptations (Pickwick opened in 1993) and modern premieres.

Outside of Chichester he directed Eileen Atkins in a 1990 solo performance of A Room of One’s Own and staged two monologues for Simon Callow, playing Charles Dickens, in 2000 and 2010. Garland’s position amongst the greats of British culture was consolidated when he directed the 1989 memorial service for Sir Laurence Olivier, a close friend and co-worker; as well as the ‘Fanfare for Elizabeth’, a celebration of the Queen’s 60th birthday at the Royal Opera House.

Garland attributed a great part of his theatrical success to his time at Oxford (although he later cited his theatrical success as the reason he got a third), and was named an Honorary Fellow by St Edmund Hall in 1997. Years after graduating, he spoke of Oxford student drama as in some ways infinitely preferable to the professional equivalent “You rarely get that divine spark in the professional theatre”. However, he also insisted that Oxford drama should be seen as a source of enjoyment, rather than an alternative to drama school: “You shouldn’t go to Oxford for that. You should profit from everything else, and do acting as a sideline”.

Garland’s light-hearted but dedicated approach to Oxford drama proved an excellent start to a strikingly brilliant career. The OUDS, St Edmund Hall and the whole University should be proud to include him amongst our alumni.


Patrick Garland, theatre, film and television director and writer passed away 20 April 2013.


PHOTO / Allan Warren


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