Director, Octagon Theatre, Bolton
Phil Butterworth, one of five Loughborough students who approached their tutor Robin Pemberton-Billing in 1966 with the idea to create a new theatre in Bolton, recalls the achievements of his former tutor.
Robin Noel Pemberton-Billing was best known for his vision in setting up the Octagon Theatre, Bolton. Together with five of his students from Loughborough Training College he created and opened the Octagon in 1967. His theatrical far-sightedness focused on the concept of flexible theatre forms which were practically translated at the Octagon into open, thrust and theatre-in-the-round stage forms. Such flexible theatre forms were unknown in the English professional theatre in 1967.
His early interest in theatre arose when he was serving in the Royal Navy in Malta. At the same time he ran a small repertory theatre and was sufficiently inspired by this work for it to condition his later dramatic and theatrical thinking. In order to join the Navy he ran away from home at the age of seventeen.
As a child, both he and his sister were brought up in a children's home in Kent. Their father, Noel Pemberton-Billing, was a well-known independent MP, an aeronautic inventor and an outspoken political figure who, as it happens, also ran away from home at the age of thirteen. This left little time for the children and it was not until the age of eight that Robin lived with his parents. His school days were spent at the Kingston Technical College.
He met his wife to be, Maggie, at Portsmouth while she was serving with the W.R.N.S. They married in 1951 and went on to have four sons.
After his service years he took on a variety of jobs until he went to train as a teacher of theatre and pottery at Loughborough. He gained exceedingly high marks in his study and an appropriate reputation to go with them. His first teaching post was at Long Sutton, Lincolnshire where he became involved in the creation of children's theatre. From there he moved to Ashby-del-la-Zouch where he collaborated with J D Clegg on their influential book Teaching Drama: An Approach to Educational Drama in the Secondary School (University of London). In 1965 when this book was published there was very little published material to help teachers formulate their work in teaching drama.
In the mid-1960s, having been an exemplary student at Loughborough, he was offered a post at the Training College as a lecturer in drama. It was from here that he and five of his students developed their vision of the Octagon. His vision fired the imagination of all those with whom he came into contact. Town councillors, the press, subsequent members of the Octagon Trust, teachers and the general public all fell under the spell of Robin's drive, imagination and commitment. Support for the project was immense. Even so, there were many detractors who were quite comfortable in their non-theatrical surroundings and all were gently brushed aside or assuaged for the greater good of the town's community.
In 2011 he published The Octagon Theatre, Bolton: Concept to Reality in which he described the genesis of the theatre and its first five productive years. Many household names performed for and with him in that time. Actors such as Alison Steadman, Mathew Kelly, Mike Harding and Robert Powell all went on to become national figures. They, and others, spoke highly and warmly of Robin and their experience at the Octagon.
In his last years Robin was stunned by the growing quality of multi-skilled performers engaged by the Octagon. He described his response as 'gob-smacking'. He could not speak highly enough of the whole operation of the Octagon and it has become a fitting tribute to his earlier vision.
If only he had been well enough to hear and respond to the comments made last week by Danny Boyle along with other regional theatre directors he would have been overjoyed with the powerful and moving demands made for the crucial support of English regional theatre.
The Guardian (15/11/2012) reported: 'But it all began at the Octagon Theatre in Bolton. "My first experience of walking into a theatre—you didn't go to the theatre in the background I came from—was when I went to be an usher at the Bolton Octagon. It was doing a play called Spring and Port Wine, Bill Naughton's play. And I was just—'if you haven't been to the theatre just go'. That live sense is one of the wonders of the world."
Robin prefigured these thoughts in 1970 and later in 2011 when he wrote:
Of course, the one great advantage that theatre still has over mediums such as film and television is that it is live. It is the difference between watching some disembodied person talking at you on a television screen, and a person talking to you in the same room. It is the difference between reality and apparent reality. I do not think any amount of technical innovation in the future will ever be able to bridge that gap. I certainly hope not.
Robin Noel Pemberton-Billing died peacefully at his home in Bolton on the 18 November, 2012. He leaves his wife Maggie and four sons.