MURRAY Melvin couldn't go to Joan Littlewood's funeral two Sundays ago, even though the death a few weeks ago of the woman whose Theatre Workshop company at Stratford East redefined post-war British theatre forever with the mighty Oh What A Lovely War visibly grieves him still. His eyes well up at the mere mention of her name, but he can't help himself talking about the often-fierce woman who gave him and an entire generation of actors a go in the spotlight.

''Her death was the passing of my youth,'' Melvin says gravely. ''It

wasn't expected. We're all quite

devastated by it, because we thought she'd outlive us all, she was such a domineering character in our lives.''

Story after story, each peppered with hushed asides and punctuated with prim, precise, near-Tai Chi-like gestures, gushes lovingly from the archetypal Littlewood actor; a back-street unknown who went from sweeping the stage to the West End, Broadway, and beyond, and whose films include turns with Joseph Losey, Stanley Kubrick, Lewis Gilbert, and Ken Russell.

Melvin admits he hasn't come to terms with his loss of the visionary matriarch he refers to as ''Miss Littlewood'', or, quite simply, ''Madam''. In an ideal world he'd have been at her graveside, singing the Brendan Behan song he'd done likewise with as a homage to the playwright in Theatre Workshop's Oh What A Lovely War.

Alas, instead, Melvin was rehearsing in Glasgow, doling out elder statesmanly advice to men who would be king in Jean Racine's utterly nasty Brittanicus, which opens at the Citizens' Theatre next week. It wasn't the first time he'd kept an eye on Paul Albertson, the actor playing Melvin's vicious protege, Nero. Because not that long ago, Melvin watched Albertson as Geoffrey, the effete young man providing sanctuary for single mum Jo in Shelagh Delaney's A Taste Of Honey.

Melvin had created the role both on stage and screen more than 40 years before. Now a Citz semi-

regular, Melvin regards the theatre as his second home.

''Having been brought up with a company that was family, you don't often get that anymore,'' he mourns. ''The Citz is family in the same way that Joan was family. She was our mum and we were her children. Even right up until Joan died, if any of us was in trouble, she'd be on the phone, saying, you know so and so, well, they're not working just now, so why don't you give 'em a call and make sure they're all right.''

There is also the big screen

re-release of Tony Richardson's adaptation, which not only became a defining moment of that era's wave of ''kitchen-sink'' cinema, but much later provided a fledgling Morrisey with an album-load of bon-mots to poach from for his band, The Smiths.

Not that this is something Melvin goes into on his commentary for the forthcoming DVD of the film but, as legacies go, it's not a bad one.

''You didn't realise you were part of history,'' Melvin implores, pouring himself a large glass of red wine at the end of an intense day's rehearsal. ''It was just another play. But what a play.''

A play, too, notable for its risque depiction of a gay man onstage. Or was it?

''Oo-er,'' Melvin teases. ''Oo-er. Nowhere in the play does it say that Geoffrey is what we now call gay. We didn't have that word then anyway, but Geoffrey was gentle, and his gentleness came from how he moved, and that movement all

came from what Joan taught me. She was an innovator in that way. An innovator.''

Melvin first encountered Joan after being taken to Stratford by a drama tutor at the youth club set up by his parents. The long trek from north to east was like visiting another world he yearned to be part of, especially after watching Harry H Corbett, who later became famous in Steptoe And Son, as Richard II. It was and remains, the most remarkable classical production Melvin has ever witnessed.

Yet he was just another north London office boy stuck in the City before he eventually fell in with Littlewood full-time. To ease the desk-bound tedium, he began night classes in acting, which led to two more evenings, in mime and classical ballet. Only after three years of rigorous training did Melvin consider doing anything with his new skills, and managed to secure a small grant, if only for a year.

With this in hand he went knocking on Littlewood's door, and told her if they wanted him for that year, he was theirs. Within six months A Taste Of Honey was up and running. By the time he reached what should've been the end of his tenure, he'd also created the role of The

Soldier in Brendan Behan's The Hostage. ''I didn't sweep the stage for long,'' he says with an impish glint in his eye.

Melvin became the first student of what is now known as East 15, the London drama school rooted in Littlewood's methods, which she in turn had taken from a European avant-garde still alien to all the posh boys creating their own little thing down the road at The Royal Court. Murray is now archivist of East 15, where the Harry H Corbett Theatre repays another debt.

''You could never say thank-you to Joan,'' Melvin recalls, ''or she'd give you a clip round the ear and kick you out. Thank-you simply wasn't a word that came into her vocabulary.''

Neither did you touch her. Only two years ago, at an exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, at which props and costumes from Oh What A Lovely War were being displayed, did an elderly and infirm Littlewood link arms with one of her ''nuts'' to lead her down the stairs.

''We were her nuts,'' says Melvin. ''She said we had to be cases to work there. 'Hello, nut,' she said.'' Melvin is on his feet, acting it out as if it were yesterday. '' 'Sorry I'm late, but the bloody bus never turned up on time.' That was the first time in 40 years that she'd ever let me touch her.''

Melvin is quietly fighting back the tears at the remembrance now. ''Why is it in this country we only ever celebrate greatness after the great have left us?'' he asks.

Greatness was out in force at the Imperial War Museum that night, as a queue of sixties faces - Terence Conran, Mary Quant, David Bailey - formed to pay homage to the old woman resting on a little one-man submarine, champagne glass in hand, as Melvin stood to one side, ''in attendance to the queen. They were all kneeling before her, saying thank-you. '' 'Thank you?' she said. 'What for, love?' Just for being there, they all said. 'Oh,' said Joan, and she looked over to me. 'We were just having a laugh,' she said, 'weren't

we, nut?' ''

Britannicus, Citizens' Theatre, Glasgow, October 23, until November 16.