Born: April 11, 1930;

Died: October 19, 2021.

BARRIE Hesketh, who has died aged 91, was an actor, writer, and theatre director who transformed Mull’s cultural life after he and his wife Marianne co-founded Mull Little Theatre.

Born in Birmingham, Hesketh trained at Central School of Speech and Drama, where he met the then Marianne Richards. He began his career in rep before moving to Manchester to work in TV and radio.

The Heskeths’ great island adventure began in 1962 when the couple and their children visited Mull to adjudicate the local drama festival. Attracted by the rugged beauty of the island, and anxious to escape city life, they bought Druimard, a former Free Kirk manse outside the village of Dervaig, and established it as a guesthouse.

“One day,” Hesketh wrote in 2006, “Marianne and I looked out of an upstairs window in Druimard at what was then a tumbledown byre. I can say with certainty that the idea of turning it into a theatre came to us simultaneously, for all we said to each other was ‘shall we?’ We walked to the building and looked in. One side of the floor was slightly higher than the other. It would do very well – audiences like to look down on their gods.”

What began as the Thursday Theatre, an entertainment for their paying guests, was officially launched in 1966 as Mull Little Theatre. The Guinness Book of Records heralded it as the ‘Smallest Professional Theatre in the World’.

The Heskeths earned a worldwide reputation, producing seasons of classic plays adapted for two actors. Puppets became essential co-stars, and their children became part of the troupe.

Hesketh’s son Richard remembers his father as “a difficult genuine genius who painted, played the piano and taught us boys more than any teacher managed to do. He and mum worked as a dynamic, creative unit. Lots of discussion about how to adapt plays for a small venue. When I say ‘discussion’...

“Dad was a lifelong Shakespeare scholar. He wrote, performed and taught the great man, and his plays were what he lived and breathed. He was also very adept at getting the great and the good to part with their cash in the name of advancing the arts. Lord Marks [of Marks and Spencer] coughed up after a visit in the 70s”.

At that time, the theatre’s 37 seats were an assortment of sagging armchairs and benches, the box-office an adjacent caravan. The grant from Lord Marks built a new foyer and a backstage area from which lighting and sound could be operated. With further financial support from the Scottish Arts Council, the Heskeths engaged occasional helpers, stage managers and acting assistants.

With rural touring of professional theatre in its infancy, the SAC asked the Heskeths to take their shows to village halls throughout the Highlands and Islands. These tours were often gruelling affairs, with everything – and everyone – bundled into the back of a Land Rover for one-night-stands all over Britain and. on occasion, Europe, with the Heskeths believing that this would attract people to Mull.

The couple were both awarded MBEs in 1983 in recognition of their contribution to the arts in Scotland.

The stresses of constant touring and running cash-strapped theatre seasons took their toll, however. Marianne’s health suffered in the late 1970s, and she was eventually diagnosed with breast cancer. The couple kept working right through to the end of the 1983 season, before Marianne died in 1984. She was buried in the cemetery by Calgary Bay, on the north coast of Mull.

Hesketh kept the theatre going for two more seasons with productions performed by professional actors recruited from the mainland. At the end of 1985 he sold Druimard and left Mull to start a new life.

Marianne’s death was a major challenge to him. He lost interest in acting and focused on painting, which he had done since his early years. Resuming his life in teaching and academia, he returned to England, where he lived with Philippa Comber, his partner of over 30 years, whom he married just before his 90th birthday. He maintained a strong interest in theatre, particularly Shakespeare and, of course, puppetry, right to the end of his life.

An in-depth portrait of the Heskeths’ lives and work on Mull was featured in an edition of the BBC’s TV arts documentary series, Arena. The film provided a rare and remarkable insight into a theatrical life on a Hebridean island, and helped normalise the idea of professional arts activity being created in rural areas, rather than being brought in from urban centres.

Although Hesketh never returned to Mull after the heartbreak of losing Marianne, he always kept a keen eye on developments at the theatre, and was magnanimous in his support during what were at times difficult changes at the institution he and Marianne created.

Among his wise words were these: “The Board of The Mull Little Theatre supported Marianne and me by keeping out of our way and by giving moral support where necessary. If we had a philosophy it was something along the lines of the imaginative and creative use of nothing.”

Barrie Hesketh will finally return to Mull to be buried at Calgary alongside Marianne. He is survived by Philippa, and his three sons with Marianne, Richard, Nicholas and James.

Alasdair McCrone