07 December 2011
Posted in General
Bill Morrison – playwright, director, producer, actor, screenwriter and former Chair of the Writers’ Guild – died in Liverpool this morning after a sudden illness. He was 71. Many people in the Guild and the wider world of writing and the theatre will mourn his loss.
Bill was widely known for his work, much of which dealt with the troubles of his native Northern Ireland, and for his involvement with the Everyman in Liverpool, among other theatres. But the Guild also knew him as a strong leader, able to focus his experience and intellect on guiding his union through some troubles of its own.
Guild President David Edgar writes:
Bill Morrison's death is a loss to the theatre (for which he not only wrote but also acted and directed), to television and radio, to the Writers' Guild and indeed to the principle of writers' unionisation.
I met him in the late 1970s when we were both founder members of the Theatre Writers' Union, which collaborated with the Guild in negotiating the first minimum-terms agreements for writers in the British theatre. Bill remained a stalwart TWU activist, and was a key figure - firm but wise - in the sometimes tortuous and occasionally tempestuous negotiations for the TWU to join the Guild. Following a successful merging in 1997, Bill went on to the Guild executive and was its chair from 2001 to 2003.
His career as a writer began in the late 1960s. Abandoning his university subject of law in order to go on the stage, Bill quickly refocussed his attention on to writing, undertaking writing residencies at the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent and the Liverpool Everyman, for which he wrote his hugely successful black farce about the Northern Ireland troubles, Flying Blind, which was revived at the Royal Court in London, produced off-Broadway and then around the world.
Another comedy about the land of his birth (though in this case set in Liverpool), Scrap!, was one of the plays produced under a rare period of writer power in the theatre. Facing closure in 1981, the Liverpool Playhouse Board appointed Willy Russell, Alan Bleasdale, Chris Bond and Bill as joint artistic directors. A not always easy collaboration nonetheless saved the theatre, produced premiere productions of plays by Jimmy McGovern, Claire Luckham, Nell Dunn and Adrian Henri, and Willy Russell's legendarily successful Blood Brothers. After Russell and Bleasdale left, Bill carried on as joint artistic director until 1985, and as a board member till 1991. In 1993 he returned to the theme of the Irish troubles with his most considerable stage project, a three-play family drama beginning with partition in the 1920s and ending in the present, directed by Nick Kent at the Tricycle.
Bill also wrote widely for television, his best-known single plays being Shergar, Force of Duty and A Safe House, a play about the wrongful imprisonment of the Maguire family in the 1970s. His radio work, much of it produced by the formidable John Tydeman, includes an innovative two-part adaptation of Crime and Punishment and a series of five Raymond Chandler novels, as well as many original plays.
Bill will also be remembered as a staunch defender of the theatre (particularly in Liverpool), as a community writer (bringing victims of IRA bombings together on both sides of the Irish sea) and as a trade unionist. His period as chair of the Guild saw difficult negotiations with the BBC and conflict with the Guild's partners, as well as the appointment of Bernie Corbett as General Secretary. His role in the expansion of the Guild's remit to cover all theatre writers is also a lasting legacy.
Bill had been combatting illness for some years, but had been improving over the last two, before a sudden rupture of the oesophagus caused his death last Wednesday. His final public engagement was the launch of a book about the first 100 years of the Liverpool Playhouse, to which he made such an important contribution. His partner, Ann Bates, is a drama teacher with whom Bill worked in his latter years, and he also leaves a daughter (Tilly) and a son (Patrick). He will be missed by them, but also by us.
Guild Treasurer Rupert Creed writes:
Bill Morrison was an accomplished writer for stage, radio and television, and his prolific output across a wide range of platforms was informed by his experience, initially as a professional actor, and subsequently as director and producer. His skill as a writer was embedded in his practical experience of the collaborative process of production- be it in theatre, radio or television.
Bill was born in Ballymoney, N.Ireland in January 1940 and studied Law at Belfast Queens University. He worked as an actor in Belfast, Dublin and London. By 1969 he was Resident Playwright at the Victoria Theatre Stoke on Trent under Peter Cheeseman. His work for radio was as prolific as his work for the stage, both as writer and Radio Drama Producer with the BBC in Belfast from 1975-6. During this time and after, he wrote and adapted over 25 plays for BBC Radio 3, 4 and the World Service, including all of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels. He also wrote extensively for television, including Potatohead Blues, Shergar, A Safe House, and Force of Duty.
Bill’s association with theatre in his adopted city of Liverpool is legendary. He was Resident Writer at the Liverpool Everyman 1977-79, and his play Flying Blind’ transferred to the Royal Court London and to New York. The play was translated into six languages and produced in 10 countries. In the 1980s he was Artistic Director of the Liverpool Playhouse – a member of the Gang of Four alongside Alan Bleasdale, Chris Bond and Willy Russell – during a period of intense creativity both within the city and beyond. Less well known is the work Bill undertook for the benefit of all writers young and old. He was a founding Board member then Chair of the Merseyside Young People’s Theatre, a founding member and first Chair of the Theatre Writers' Union, and Chair of the Writers' Guild of Great Britain from 2000-03. He oversaw the amalgamation of the TWU into the Writers' Guild, ensuring that the principles of grass-root consultation with writers through regional branches, was carried through into the Guild’s revised structure.
I had the privilege of being Deputy Chair with Bill during this period, and know at first-hand how skilled he was at engaging and motivating people in a spirit of genuine partnership and collaboration. He steered the Guild through a difficult period of internal division, and was instrumental in securing the appointment of a new General Secretary. He was brilliant at resolving conflicts, whilst equally unafraid of making difficult decisions. He initiated much-needed reforms including broadening the membership base, particularly to encourage young writers new to the profession, but also safeguarding the interests of older members who had served the Guild over many years through his promotion of the Life Membership scheme. Although this element has proved financially unsustainable, it was a testimony to Bill’s unwavering support for all of the Guild’s members - both old and young. He had the ability to lead incisively, whilst at the same time, give space for everyone’s points of view, canvas a broad range of perspectives, and distil all this decisively into a coherent effective policy.
Bill had a huge generosity of spirit, and that spirit will live on in the fond memory of those who knew him and worked with him.
Gail Renard, Chair of the Guild's Television Committee writes:
The Guild owes a lot to Bill Morrison and so do I. When I unexpectedly found myself Chair of the Guild, Bill stepped in immediately to be Deputy. He was a kind, loyal friend who shared the heaviest of loads and became my own modern Praetorian Guard. Bill succeeded me as Chair and, as he did throughout his career, made the world a better place for all writers.
As the tributes show, Bill commanded and deserved respect as a writer, director, producer, trade unionist and man. I’ll miss his firm and gentle wisdom but, most of all, his deep booming laugh which seemed to come from his boots. All of us who knew Bill are richer having had him in our lives. My sincere condolences to his family.
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