Former Chichester Festival Theatre boss Keith Michell dies

Keith Michell, Chichester Festival Theatre artistic director from 1974-1977 and the man who brought Captain Beaky to life as an unlikely pop sensation in the 1970s, has died at the age of 89, his family have confirmed.

Keith Michell
Keith Michell

Michell, whose daughter Helena lives just outside Chichester, was also the actor who so famously portrayed King Henry VIII in the landmark television series The Six Wives of Henry VIII in 1970. He enjoyed a long and illustrious career on the screen and the stages of the West End, Broadway, Chichester and his homeland Australia.

He died peacefully at his home in Hampstead today (Friday) with his family at his bedside.

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A private family funeral service will be followed by a planned retrospective exhibition charting his career as an actor, singer, designer, director and fine artist in the summer of 2016, at the Menier Gallery, London, as a memorial celebration of his work and life in the arts.

Speaking to the Chichester Observer three years ago on the occasion of the CFT’s 50th anniversary, Michell recalled he had been part of the CFT’s very first season before returning to run the venue as artistic director from 1974–1977.

“I knew (CFT founder) Leslie Evershed-Martin, and I suppose I was seen as the leader of the pack,” he recalled.

It was an immense undertaking, a huge amount of work, Michell recalled: “But I knew as a human being that I had to do it if I wanted to be seen as being serious about theatre - and it was a great compliment.”

In his first season in charge in 1974, he offered Tonight We Improvise by Luigi Pirandello, directed by Peter Coe; The Confederacy directed by Wendy Toye; Oedipus Tyrannus, by Sophocles, directed by Hovhannes Pilikian; and A Month in the Country by Ivan Turgenev, directed by Toby Robinson.

Keith appeared in the Pirandello, a choice which, he joked, was made out of desperation: “I didn’t want to swamp the place with Michell, so I thought I would do something on the periphery of theatre as it should be.”

Later that season, he was Oedipus - a must-play role, he recalled. Just as strongly he remembered that running a theatre was inevitably a huge commitment “especially when you are playing in the plays as well. But other people had done it. But I did have to work very hard.

“That was my only attempt at it, and I would have to say that I was not too bad. I was very proud of quite a few of the productions. One of them was totally dismissed by the critics, but I rated it very highly, and that was In Order of Appearance (which Keith directed himself in his final year at the theatre, in 1977).

“It provided a great look at the history of England by presenting the kings of England in order of appearance.”

Michell didn’t play Henry VIII, the monarch he had so memorably embodied on the BBC: “I had rather done Henry by then!”

His final season also included Waters of the Moon by NC Hunter, directed by John Clements; Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare, directed by Peter Dews; and The Apple Cart by George Bernard Shaw, directed by Patrick Garland.

Among his many other accomplishments, Michell will also be remembered for his part in Captain Beaky & His Band (Not Forgetting Hissing Sid!!!) - a project more usually shorted to Captain Beaky & His Band or Captain Beaky. The project was the title of two albums (volumes 1 and 2) of poetry by Jeremy Lloyd, set to music by Jim Parker and recited by various British celebrities. Michell was Captain Beaky.