Theatre producer

Theatre producer

Born June 19, 1948 Died June 13, 2014

DAVID MacLennan, who died yesterday in Glasgow's Western Infirmary aged 65, was Scotland's top theatre producer. He had been suffering from Motor Neurone Disease.

Describing MacLennan as the country's "top theatre producer" is not hyperbolic. His list of achievements in theatre over the past 40 years range from the remarkable to the astounding.

The flamboyant character, famous for wearing sunburst cord trousers, a 1950s Tour de France moustache and red body warmer, set up 7:84 Theatre Company in Scotland and went on to establish Wildcat Theatre.

And in the past ten years he has developed the hugely successful Play, Pie and a Pint lunchtime theatre event at Glasgow's Oran Mor.

His reputation in the acting world was such he was able to attract major talent in the form of Robbie Coltrane, Bill Paterson and Elaine C.Smith to his basement theatre in the West End.

The son of doctors, (his father was the eminent obstetrician Sir Hector MacLennan) it was expected David MacLennan would follow his parents into medicine. Yet, his parents made the mistake of drip-feeding their son with a range of theatre, from high drama to variety.

"I've loved theatre since I was around six-years-old and my parents took me to the King's Theatre to see Peter Pan," MacLennan recalled in a recent interview with The Herald.

"As the little Tinkerbell light faded, Peter Pan came forward and called out; 'Boys and girls, Tinkerbell is dying! But we can save her. I want you all to stand up and shout out: 'I believe in fairies.'

"Before I knew it, I was standing on my seat shouting at the top of my voice. And I've been captivated by the magic ever since."

His parents who lived in the west end of Glasgow, were friends of variety performer Jimmy Logan, who was a neighbour, and the family of four ­children were taken along to see Logan's Five Past Eight Shows at the Alhambra Theatre.

"I'd visit Jimmy in his dressing room, with all the wonderful mirrors, costumes and make-up boxes then go backstage and see the Bluebell Girls dancers close up, with their legs all the way up to their oxters," he recalled.

As a boy MacLennan made his stage debut at boarding school, in Charley's Aunt, playing Lord Fancourt Babberley - in drag. He'd fallen in love with acting. "I don't think my parents fell in love with the idea, though," he says. "They would have been happier with a stethoscope around my neck as opposed to a string of beads."

In 1969, with his parents' approval, MacLennan went on to study acting at the Gardner Arts Centre in Brighton, but considered himself to be "second division".

However, he came to appreciate his role could be one of theatre producer and in 1971 joined with John McGrath to form the England-based 7:84 Theatre Company, setting up the Scottish version two years later.

With his troop of actors, including Alex Norton, John Bett and Bill Paterson, the company toured the Highlands and Islands in rickety vans playing to tiny audiences. But along the way, productions such as The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black Black Oil saw audiences - and reputations - soar.

The agitprop ("Our politics was Marxist-MacLennanist," said Paterson) captured the mood of the period.

In 1978, MacLennan was now an established playwright as well as a director/producer and went on to set up renowned theatre company Wildcat, another politically-inspired production unit, with friend and musician Dave Anderson.

"We never got rich, but we never stopped touring," MacLennan recalled."I'm so lucky I came into the business when it was growing. It was fun, sharing attitudes and politics."

His achievements didn't end there. MacLennnan went on to set up the Pleasance Theatre in Edinburgh and in 1983 established the cultural celebration Mayfest in Glasgow.

In 1989, he opened the Clyde Theatre in Clydebank, and after funding for Wildcat Theatre was withdrawn, established himself as a freelance writer/producer.

In 2003, MacLennan took a trip to Dublin to oversee Anderson perform at Bewley's Cafe-Bar, which operated a lunchtime theatre programme. The afternoon changed his life. Buoyed with excitement, he came back to Glasgow and pitched his idea for lunchtime theatre to pub boss Colin Beattie.

The idea became a phenomenal success, with MacLennan going on to produce 337 plays over a ten-year period. Married to actress Juliet Cadzow in 1988, the pair would on occasion appear together on stage.

When MacLennan was diagnosed with the terminal muscle-wasting illness MND, the news conveyed by his consultant a year ago, it did not blunt his enthusiasm for theatre.

"We were still having creative differences about the Oran Mor summer panto just a few days ago," says co-writer Anderson. "He loved his work. And he loved his life."

MacLennan, who once appeared on stage wearing nothing but a giant nappy and a pleased expression, revealed that to be the case. "I've been remarkably lucky," he said of his life.

"I think one of the things about getting this wretched illness is it focuses the mind on how lucky I've been with my work, my family and my friends."

MacLennan leaves a formidable legacy. His lunchtime theatre concept A Play, A Pie and a Pint is now being copied around the world.

Co-productions now operate throughout the UK, and the winning formula has been franchised to Philadelphia, with Caracas and Sao Paulo due to follow soon.

Oran Mor writers' efforts have been translated into Italian and Russian, performed in New York, Moscow, Adelaide and, later this year, Paris. And legions of writers, actors, directors and technicians owe him huge debts of gratitude for encouraging them into theatre.

Indeed Coltrane cites MacLennan as the reason for his first return to theatre in 15 years, appearing during Oran Mor's second season.

In February this year, MacLennan admitted he would have come up with a different ending for his Final Act. "I can imagine choosing to die in the middle of the Tay, with a salmon on the line and a hip flask in my pocket, going out to a giant heart attack aged 104," he said with a wry smile.

MacLennan is survived by wife Juliet Cadzow, his son Shane, brothers Robert and Kenneth and sister Liz.