Oliver Emanuel (1980-2023)

Dan Rebellato pays tribute to fellow playwright and audio dramatist Oliver Emanuel, who sadly passed away last month
Oliver Emanuel

Oliver Emanuel was a deeply inventive writer for stage and radio, the plays filled both with a deep sense of emotional loss and exuberant creativity. It seems that his mother’s diagnosis of cancer in her forties, when Olly was in his twenties, propelled him forward in his writing. In 2003, his university friend Daniel Bye directed Iz, Olly’s play about three men grieving for a dead partner. Loss threads through the subsequent plays Dan and Olly worked on together: Bella and the Beautiful Knight (2005) and Shiver (2006).Olly moved to Glasgow around this time, becoming a key figure in Scottish theatre, working prolifically with the National Theatre of Scotland, for whom he wrote Dragon (2013), The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish (2013) and his trilogy about World War One The 360: Dawn, Day and Dusk (2016-18).In these and other works, he showed himself to be an exemplary collaborator, with a particular enthusiasm for working in visual theatre where his writerly contributions sat alongside ferocious scenographic invention, puppetry, music and magic. Alongside these plays of epic scope, he wrote punchy short plays for Òran Mór (VideotapeOne Night in IranSpirit of Adventure Prom and Storytelling).He was a brilliant playwriting tutor both formally – as a lecturer at the University of St Andrews – and informally – his Zoom playwriting seminars launched during lockdown were a rallying point for emerging playwrights in those dark days.Olly was also a significant writer for radio. Unlike some, he neither patronised nor short-changed the medium, seeing it as a canvas on which all pictures were possible. His numerous radio plays – mostly directed by Lu Kemp and Kirsty Williams – were ceaselessly inventive explorations of audio drama and its potential. Some of the great plays include A History of Paper (2016), The Truth About Hawaii (2018) and When the Pips Stop (2018, which won the Tinniswood Award), The Tenderness of Boys (2020), and A Close Approximation of You (2022, also shortlisted for the Tinniswood Award 2023). He was a lead writer on Radio 4’s epic adaptation of Emile Zola’s 20-volume Rougon-Macquart novels as Emile Zola: Blood, Sex and Money (2015-16), which won Best Series in the BBC Audio Drama Awards. His work in radio drama alone would have made him a major writer of the past 20 years.It is true that grief was an abiding theme in his work and it is hard not to see that as connected to the loss of his mother (her death is more or less explicitly treated in The Tenderness of Boys). He was drawn again and again to exploring childhood and loss, but his deeply humane plays opened up a redemptive imaginative landscape in which grief and loss could be understood, faced and lived with. There is nothing depressing or self-indulgent about Olly’s work. When he was diagnosed with brain cancer a few short months ago, he faced it with resilience, calm and – just as in his plays – a deep loving concern for those who would be left behind.Olly Emanuel is survived by his longtime partner, Vickie Beesley, whom he married shortly before he died, and his children Matilda and Isaac.

Listen to Oliver In conversation with the Tinniswood Award 2023 finalistsRead Dan Rebellato’s tribute on his websiteListen to When the Pips Stop on BBC iPlayerListen to A Close Approximation of You on BBC iPlayer

Photo: Kate Glasspool