Joan Littlewood, legendary director, anti-establishment rebel, and visionary creator of the anti-war ''musical'' Oh What a Lovely War! has died at the age of 87 in Paris.

Many years ago critic Ken Tynan predicted that ''when the annals of British theatre in the middle of the twentieth century come to be written, Joan's name will lead all the rest''.

In January this year, the Guardian's Michael Billington, obituarising the untimely death of a Scottish playwright wrote: ''No-one since Joan Littlewood did more to advance the cause of popular theatre in Britain than John McGrath.''

Littlewood, who had lived in France in self-imposed exile since 1975 would have no doubt allowed herself a nod of agreement. The aims she laid down for the company, the Theatre Union in Manchester that she ran with her husband, Ewan McColl, in her 20s, might have been freshly coined by McGrath himself for his 7:84 company.

These aims included an awareness of the social issues of the time; a theatrical language that working people can understand; an expressive and flexible form of movement; and a high level of technical expertise.

Her reaction to the eulogies that are bound to follow her demise, though, would more likely be met with some suitably robust expletive. She was nothing if not fierce in her rejection of cant or pomposity and always felt herself ostracised by the powers that be.

Yet the legacy of Littlewood, born illegitimately in south London to a teenage housemaid in 1914, is immeasurable if in recent years, to new generations, sadly unknown.

As Richard Eyre wrote in his recent Changing Stages, British Theatre in the 20th Century, ''she broke up the fabric, revolutionised the way that plays were presented, the way that they were written, and the way directors and actors and writers collaborated''.

Companies such as the David Hare/Howard Brenton/Max Stafford Clark Portable Theatre, Belt and Braces, Monstrous Regiment, Gay Sweatshop, Joint Stock, and a legion more co-operative, politically vibrant touring groups in the 1970s and 1980s could all be said to be her legitimate offspring.

But in the 1950s and early 1960s, it was the RADA drop-out's vision of a fun or people's palace (before the latter term had entered today's lexicon with its doubtful New Labour connotations), her rejection of middle-class West End values, and dedication to more populist approaches at the former rundown music hall in London's east end at Stratford East that produced the ''cutting-edge'' theatre of its time.

Plays like The Quare Fellow (which helped spawn the description, ''kitchen sink drama'', a label she hated) and The Hostage by former Borstal boy and IRA sympathiser, Brendan Behan (1956); Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey (1958), Frank Norman's Fings Ain't What They Used To Be (with music by a young Lionel Bart) all cemented the reputation of Littlewood's Theatre Workshop that had begun to make its name with fresh, unstuffy revivals of classics such as Jonson's Volpone, The Alchemist, Arden of Faversham, Richard II, and Edward II. The place also gave new meaning to the idea of ''run on a shoe-string''.

Whilst everyone including boilerman and cleaner had an equal share of proceeds (and a credit in the programme), these could amount to a pittance - (pounds) 85 for the entire Volpone cast after deduction for expenses.

Actors often slept in the building and, when they toured on the continent, even shouldered pieces of the set.

It had all started in Manchester in the mid 1930s when she had met Jimmie Miller (later known as Ewan McColl) and together they had become involved and committed to popular, political theatre presenting anti-war plays such as Lope de Vega's Fuentovejuna and Hayek's The Good Soldier Schweik.

During the war, Littlewood worked for the BBC. Afterwards with McColl and her new partner, Gerry Raffles, she revived the thought of running her own company after the hostilities ended and so Theatre Workshop was born.

At her height, a demanding and inexhaustible force, it was Littlewood's ability to reshape texts and indeed human resources that made her so remarkable.

John Bury, the RSC's mould-breaking head of design under Peter Hall (Wars of the Roses, Hamlet, and many more) learned his craft at Littlewood's Theatre Workshop, starting out as general factotum before graduating to designs for Taste of Honey, Quare Fellow, 'Fings, and Oh What a Lovely War!, all of which, irony of ironies considering left-wing leanings and anathema of all things bourgeois, transferred successfully to the West End.

The list of actors she ''discovered'' during her reign at the Theatre Royal, reads like a roll-call: Murray Melvin, Victor Spinetti, Brian Murray, George Sewell, James Booth, Harry H Corbett, not to mention ''Babs'' Windsor and EastEnders's Pam St Clement (though she famously turned down Michael Caine and Scotland's Sean Connery). Yootha (George and Mildred) Joyce, Roy Kinnear, Richard Harris, and a budding Nigel Hawthorne all went through her formidable hands. Hawthorne in his autobiography before he died paid homage to her influence: ''I owe her everything. Her encouragement stimulated me and transformed my work as an actor. She taught me to be truthful.'' The same might be said of Windsor whom Littlewood cast in her 1963 film, Sparrers Can't Sing. The two crossed swords but Windsor was clearly devoted. ''There are going to be a lot of very sad people,'' she said on hearing of Littlewood's

death. ''She was a great, great, great director.''

Even TV's latest cult ''bastard'', North Square and White Teeth's Phil Davis, formally untrained, is the result of formative years under Littlewood's tutelage.

By 1961, however, Littlewood had become exhausted. She left to work in Tunisia and Calcutta, returning only at Gerry Raffles's persuasion when she proceeded to have her greatest inspiration with Oh What a Lovely War! (1963), turning a cumbersome unplayable script about the First World War into a definitive anti-war satire told through songs of the period, back projections detailing the numbers killed (a technique picked up from Brecht and the East German director, Piscator), and an end-of-the-pier pierrot troupe.

She had also at one time, in 1955, directed and played the title role in Brecht's Mother Courage, not, it has to be said, to any great success. In 1975, Raffles died unexpectedly. Littlewood, broken-hearted, seemed to give up hope too and almost immediately turned her back on the Theatre Royal.

She seldom worked in England again thereafter, settling in France, working occasionally, enjoying a remarkable friendship with one of the Rothchilds and later writing her memoirs, Joan's Book (1994). In 1995, the received the Director's Guild Lifetime Achievement Award but spurned all others.

Self-taught, she has left behind an indelible template of populist, committed, skilful, colourfully direct, individualistic theatre that should be remembered wherever young actors and directors are gathered together hoping to stir audiences and by so doing, create a better world.

A private cremation will take place in London. However, a memorial will take place next year in her honour at the Theatre Royal to celebrate Theatre Workshop's creation 50

years ago.

Joan (Maud) Littlewood: director; born October 1914, died September 21, 2002.