Chris Parr

Born: September 25, 1943;

Died: November 24, 2023

Chris Parr, who has died aged 80, was a producer and director, who led Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre during a crucial time in the new writing theatre’s history, before carving out a successful career as a TV producer. With little interest in the London or international theatre scenes, Parr was, according to Joyce McMillan in her book, The Traverse Theatre Story (1988), the nearest thing the Traverse had to a working class director.

Parr’s career, McMillan said, was “marked by a cultural antipathy to the British establishment, and its metropolitan values”. What this meant in real terms was opening the door on an already vocal wave of Scottish writers who spoke directly in their own voice. Both Tom McGrath’s play, The Hardman (1977), written by McGrath with convicted murderer Jimmy Boyle, and The Slab Boys (1978), by John Byrne, were produced during Parr’s tenure.

Parr retained his localised approach when he moved into television. Early success came with Graham Reid’s Billy trilogy, starring James Ellis and a young Kenneth Branagh. The three plays – Too Late to Talk to Billy (1982); A Matter of Choice for Billy (1983); and A Coming to Terms for Billy (1984) – were set against the backdrop of the Northern Irish Troubles, and were shown as part of the BBC’s Play for Today strand.

Parr went on to produce Donna Franceschild’s BAFTA-winning six-part series, Takin’ Over the Asylum (1994). The series was set in a psychiatric hospital, where a new hospital radio station is started, and starred Ken Stott, Katy Murphy and a young David Tennant.

Parr grew up in Littlehampton, Sussex, and went to Chichester High School for Boys, where contemporaries included playwrights Howard Brenton and David Wood and director David Horlock. Parr won a Classics scholarship for Queen’s College, Oxford, but left without finishing his degree, intent on a career in theatre.

In 1969, he became the First Fellow in Theatre at the University of Bradford. For the next three years, he worked closely with Bradford University Drama Group, directing early plays by Howard Brenton and David Edgar. Both would come to define the post 1968 left-leaning generation of English playwrights whose state of the nation works came to prominence in the 1970s.

Parr arrived at the Traverse in 1975, initially on a temporary basis to fill in for then artistic director Mike Ockrent, who had taken a year’s sabbatical. Once it became clear Ockrent wasn’t returning, Parr took up a permanent role.

He set out his store in his 1976 season, with his own productions of Tom Gallacher’s Shakespeare-inspired play about North Sea oil, Sea Change, and Hector MacMillan’s comedy, The Gay Gorbals, about an attempt to set up a gay organisation in Glasgow’s macho heartland. The season also featured the premiere of Tom McGrath’s Laurel and Hardy, directed by Robert Walker.

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Parr’s output as a director that year also included Outside the Whale by Robert Holman, The Kibbo Kift by Judge Smith, Saigon Rose by David Edgar, Nero and the Golden House by Richard Crane, and The Silver Land, by George Byatt. Over the next three years, while Byrne and McGrath’s plays became hits, and the Traverse hosted new plays by Billy Connolly, Parr directed CP Taylor’s two Walter plays, Getting By, and Going Home (1977). He also directed Rents (1979), Michael Wilcox’s play about Edinburgh’s gay scene, produced at a time when homosexuality was still illegal in Scotland.

Parr’s biggest undertaking at the Traverse came with Animal (1979), Tom McGrath’s epic that looked at what McMillan called “the idea that the catharsis of human violence through theatre has its equivalents in the rituals of ape behaviour”. Featuring 16 actors, Animal played at the Moray House gymnasium as part of Edinburgh International Festival.

Parr’s parting shot before leaving the Traverse was his production of Tom McGrath’s trilogy, 1-2-3 (1981). Co-commissioned by the BBC, Who Are You Anyway?; Very Important Business; and Moondog were performed in rotation in repertoire, and later broadcast on Radio Three. McGrath spoke in The Riverside Interviews (1983) how many of his plays “probably wouldn’t have existed without the encouragement and audacity of Chris Parr as an artistic director.”

Moving into television, Parr directed The Long March (1983), written by his partner, Anne Devlin. The couple collaborated on several other works, including A Woman Calling (1984), and Naming the Names (1987), and a three-part adaptation of DH Lawrence’s The Rainbow (1988).

Many of the writers Parr worked with on television he knew from theatre. These included The Nuclear Family (1982) by McGrath, and a version of Howard Barker’s stage play, Pity in History (1985). Parr also worked with Hull Truck Theatre’s John Godber on six-part series The Ritz (1987), a sequel, The Continental (1987), and later on My Kingdom for a Horse (1991). He also worked with David Edgar on Buying a Landslide (1992).

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It was the Billy plays, however, with which Parr made his name. Speaking about them in 2022 prior to them being screened as part of Play for Today’s 50th anniversary, Parr is quoted in the Irish News as saying the plays “truly transcended the Troubles,” in a way that was “welcomed by both parts of the community. It was about family life and working-class life and you could be from either side or neither side.” Parr and Reid collaborated again on You, Me and Marley (1992).

In 1994 Parr was appointed head of drama at BBC Birmingham, producing Takin’ Over the Asylum, and David Lodge’s take on Martin Chuzzlewit (1994). A year later he moved to the BBC’s central drama department in London to become Head of Drama Series. Parr went on to become head of drama at Thames Television, working as executive producer on programmes including The Bill (2001-2002).

Parr returned to theatre in 2003, directing Brian McAvera’s Belfast set comedy, Kings of the Road, in Edinburgh. In 2007, Parr founded his own company, Grey Cat Productions, teaming up with fellow producer Anthony Rowe to make features that included Pumpgirl (2009), starring former Citizens Theatre actor Gerard Murphy.

Throughout his rich career, Parr retained a focus on new writing that put real lives on screen and stage in a way that was both accessible and popular.

He is survived by his wife, Anne Devlin, their son Connal and daughter-in-law Kyra, a grandson, Cuan, and his brother Andy.