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 Kitty Black

Kitty Black - Obituaries - Times Online
Kitty Black

APRIL 30, 1914 - DECEMBER 26, 2006

Distinguished play agent and translator who chronicled her long and varied career in the theatre Kitty Black was a successful theatre administrator and distinguished translator of continental plays who eventually became a leading play agent.
While exploring the prewar West End for work as a junior shorthand typist Black found the job of her dreams. On Shaftesbury Avenue was a theatre called the Globe, now known as the Gielgud, and it housed the offices of H. M. Tennent. She progressed from junior secretary to aide and adviser before becoming assistant administrator of the Company of Four at the Lyric, Hammersmith, a non-profit-making branch of Tennent's. Black had brought a stenotype machine with her to the first meeting at Tennent's and it was to this that all eyes were drawn. Harry Moncrieff Tennent was first to demand a demonstration; Noel Coward was the second. Offered 2 Pounds10 shillings for a start, Black learnt that there would be a rise of five shillings if she came up to scratch. In what was to become the most successful independent London management of the century, the new recruit prospered for 16 years.
Whether the immaculate Hugh (Binkie) Beaumont himself hooked the new theatre-struck employee or whether it was the prospect of other stage celebrities coming into the office, Black's career progressed through a number of roles. She would become an occasional off-stage pianist to actors who lacked a musical education; a regular reader of plays and a trusted friend and comforter of some of the leading artists of the period.
She later recalled: "Binkie was in his mid-twenties. He was one of the most beautiful young men I ever saw. Medium height, with pale blue eyes and startlingly white skin of magnolia-petal quality, with white shirts and pale blue or gray ties - I never saw him wear stripes or a pattern - and was always immaculate."
Long before the era of state subsidy or civic grants, Tennent's kept on its books actors, dramatists, directors, designers and translators. It controlled most of the country's leading theatrical talent. Among actors were John Gielgud, Edith Evans, Ralph Richardson, Paul Scofield, Margaret Rutherford, Emlyn Williams and Peter Brook. Among dramatists were Christopher Fry, Terence Rattigan, Jean Anouilh, Jean Cocteau, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and Jean-Paul Sartre.
To some - especially those who did not belong to it - it seemed like a monopoly. Black denied that blacklists existed but admitted that if anyone crossed Beaumont they would never work for him again. This amounted to lifelong exclusion from the West End; Beaumont would have as many as 15 productions at a time in the West End or touring.
Though she got the post without having to argue her way into it - no need to mention music diplomas, her years of theatregoing or her experienced taste in drama - this intelligent, enthusiastic and highly talkative young woman knew her own mind.
While Black would leave Tennent's after 16 years to set up as one of London's most influential play agents, it was the spell from 1937 to 1953 on which she based her autobiography, Upper Circle: A Theatrical Chronicle (1985). In it she gave a lively impression of the wheeling and dealing and the crises, financial and otherwise, out of which plays are born.
Black's relish, discipline, gossip and goodwill towards the theatre extended to editing translations for Peter Daubeny's world theatre seasons at the Aldwych Theatre.
The daughter of a successful builder, Dorothy Black, known as Kitty, was educated at Roedean, Johannesburg, an offshoot of the English public school, and after attending a finishing school in Paris, trained to be a concert pianist. She and her family moved from South Africa to England and settled in London before the war.
When Black was establishing at the Lyric, Hammersmith, in 1945 the Company of Four (teasingly defined by Emlyn Williams as attracting an audience of two), parliamentary questions were asked about the definition of "educational plays" to avoid entertainment tax. Beaumont gave evidence to a parliamentary committee. Black ran the Lyric with Murray Macdonald for eight years, and enjoyed the chance to produce new plays and satirical revues, picking her own directors and designers.
As the doyenne of play agents she dealt with Samuel Beckett and other leading figures in modern drama. She had no truck, however, with John Osborne's Look Back in Anger (1956); the playwright recalled a letter from her in which she wrote: "I feel like the headmistress of a large school in which I have to tell its most promising pupil that he must think again." Black also translated plays by Sartre, Anouilh and Cocteau; and had a hand in more than 80 productions.
She never married.
Kitty Black, play agent and translator, was born on April 30, 1914. She died on December 26, 2006, aged 92

Copyright 2007 Times Newspapers Ltd.
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The following by Kitty Black on one aspect of her involvement in British pirate radio - a story that was a major scandal at the time.
A Pair of Golf Stockings
Or Kitty the Radio Pirate
On a warm Sunday night in June about forty years ago, a tug slipped her moorings in the London docks and headed down stream. There was a motley collection on board - apart from the crew, twenty riggers, three Trinity House pilots, a lone business man named Oliver Smedley, and one female who described herself as the cook - but as Big Alf the foreman of the riggers said later, "We soon found out she was no cook". The pilots and the riggers were temporarily unemployed, as London Docks were on strike, so as the tug continued on her way, she passed literally hundreds of riding lights from the ships anchored in the fairway waiting for the strike to be resolved, creating an effect not very different from the naval review at Spithead during George V's Silver Jubilee when the BBC announcer got carried away and declared "The Fleet's lit up".
The object of the exercise was a strange destination. Following on the creation of pirate radio ships, various groups had installed themselves on the derelict forts that had protected the Thames Estuary during WWII. Some genius had come up with the idea that as territorial waters only extended three miles offshore, some of these forts could technically be considered as being in international waters. The pirate radio ships had taken advantage of this same point to launch their activities, and according to maritime law were not liable to pay royalties on any music performed. One of these forts had been taken over by Reg Calvert, who called his station Radio City, while another, Radio London, was directed by a businessman of the name of Ted Allbeury. Calvert had accepted but never paid for radio equipment to the value of 10,000 Pounds from another organization known as Radio Atlanta and was now planning to sell his interest in Radio City to Radio London. The curiously assembled group of passengers on the tug represented the interests of Radio Atlanta and were intending to take over Radio City in a surprise raid and and so prevent the sale. This is perhaps the moment to explain that I was the female involved. I had supported Radio Atlanta from its beginnings, and had watched with dismay as Radio Caroline and its Irish-born director Rohan O'Rahilly, had gradually ousted our interests until they were dominated by Radio Caroline.
This last piece of chicanery on Calvert's part was the final straw, and we felt we had to do something to retrieve at least some of our money before it was too late. The Trinity House pilots had passed the old forts in the course of their normal duties and had noted that there was no security on any of them. Access was via perpendicular steel ladders which led straight up from the water and should have been closed by a hatchway, giving access to the gantries where the radio equipment was installed, but these hatches were never closed and it would be a simple matter for our storming party to climb on board and put the radio equipment out of action.
Like the hero of the play Crime Passionnel by Jean-Paul Sartre, one of his plays which I had translated, I had never taken part in any direct action, so it was an easy matter for the Trinity House pilots and my friend Oliver to persuade me to come on the trip. (Up till then, all I had contributed to the action was to guarantee the bank overdraft.) I was on holiday in Norfolk at the time and took the train down to Liverpool Street to join Oliver and the rest of our supporters.
Knowing that we had at least 8 hours of travel ahead of us, I did as I always used to do during dress rehearsals having equipped myself with wool and knitting needles, as soon as we were under way I cast on the stitches for the first of a pair of golf stockings I was making for a friend. I have always found this exercise fascinates the onlookers as the pattern slowly emerges and heels and toes take shape, and the clicking needles seem to settle tempers when in the small hours irritation threatens to interrupt the proceedings. After a suitable interval, we arrived at Radio City and the boarding party climbed up the ladder and took over the fort. DJ's and technicians were all asleep when we arrived but as they came tumbling out of their beds blinking and yawning they were quickly persuaded to hand over the crystal which operated the radio station. The atmosphere was entirely friendly, punctuated by cups of tea and although some papers said the raiders were armed, I know that nothing more dangerous than an electric torch had been carried by our team. Eventually the pilots, and Oliver and I embarked on the tug leaving the riggers to maintain control of the station. We were delighted with ourselves during the return trip and before we landed in an early dawn I had finished the first golf stocking.
Next morning, we arranged a meeting with Reg Calvert in which we explained the situation and I have never seen a man look so angry. He had been planning to go away on holiday with his wife, and frustration must have added to his initial rage. He embarked on a series of threats saying he had a friend who was the best shot in England who would help him, and he himself produced an object like a fountain pen, which he claimed was a gas gun. He boasted he had sufficient technical knowledge to set up a lethal cloud, which could overwhelm the riggers on Radio City - though made no mention of what effect this gas might have on his own personnel. Eventually he stormed out of the meeting without making any concessions. I went back to Norfolk with a friend who was the widow of a well-known politician/crime writer, and arranged to ring the office the following morning to find out what progress had been made. But when I made the scheduled phone call, Oliver's manager answered and said "Calvert's dead. Oliver is in prison accused of murder, and the police are looking for you."
Anyone living in Norfolk now complains about the lack of police presence, but it was no different 40 years ago. There was no police station in my village. What had been the nearest station two villages away had recently been closed, and the next establishment was 10 miles in the other direction. But when I presented myself there they had no knowledge of any raid and directed me to Bishop's Stortford as being the nearest station to the scene of the crime. After some difficulty, I arrived at my destination and told my story to the sergeant on duty. In true constabulary manner, he listened carefully and then asked me to repeat the story while he took it down in longhand - at which point I demanded a typewriter, paper and carbons, and typed the whole thing out in triplicate with my usual speed and skill.
Fast forward to the scene in the magistrate's court where Oliver was to make his first appearance. To my amazement, I had been cited as a witness for the prosecution and although I tried hard to explain I was Oliver's partner, so was entirely on his side, this carried no weight. I had to remain outside the courtroom while the initial proceedings were carried out. Another friend had been able to attend the trial from the beginning and told me the details later. Apparently Oliver had gone home in his usual way after office hours to his cottage in Wendon's Ambo, which he shared with an attractive young woman, Gail Thorburn, who acted as his secretary and had at one time looked after his children. At about 8 o'clock, he heard car noises outside the house, and looking out saw Calvert and a strange man whom he correctly identified as "the best shot in England". Leaving Gail behind, Oliver slipped next door to ask the help of his neighbour, who was in bed with flu, but well enough to promise to ring the police as Oliver was sure Calvert's arrival spelled trouble. Once back in his own cottage, Oliver picked up a shotgun and went back to the living room where he saw Calvert apparently about to clobber Gail with an object he was holding above his head. Coming down the stairs was Calvert's friend who shouted when he saw Oliver "There's the b... now". Calvert swung round and threw what he was holding at Oliver, hitting him on the arm. The gun jerked up, Oliver fired, catching Calvert full in the stomach. Calvert spun round and fell to the ground. After making him as comfortable as they could, Oliver tried to telephone for an ambulance, but the phone had been ripped from the wall and it took a few minutes to realize that the extension upstairs was still working. The ambulance arrived ahead of the police but too late to save Calvert. When the Bill arrived, they decided the scene represented a real life Crime Passionnel, and the two men had been fighting over the girl. Nothing Oliver said would convince them otherwise, and they arrested him for murder. His sporting friends said Oliver couldn't possibly have meant to shoot Calvert as if he had aimed he would have missed.
Giving evidence in court was not nearly as frightening as I had expected, as I was so enraged by the stupidity of the police - only equalled by the stupidity of Calvert's death - that I found myself offering evidence that had not been requested, and having to wait for council for the defense to tell my full story. Calvert's marksman friend, quite obviously deeply nervous of his own position in the affair, did his best to explain what he was doing in Oliver's house, and only succeeded in making the whole case for the prosecution even more absurd. A magistrate's court has no authority to grant bail to a man accused of murder who must stand trial by jury in an assize court, but as the police had obviously been proved wrong, this no longer applied to Oliver who was released, and we all had to wait for three months until his case could be heard. This proved a mere formality, and the jury didn't even retire to consider their verdict, but found him not guilty, and all lined up to shake his hand as they filed past the dock.
There were one or two odd sequels to the story. One of the French evening papers had unaccountably managed to get hold of a studio picture of me, which appeared on the back page, where it was seen by a friend of mine who was on holiday in Cannes. It was also seen by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, who promptly contacted their lawyer and prohibited the use of any of my translations of his plays. Ted, later Lord, Willis cancelled my appointment as secretary of one of the translators' committees, and the government brought in litigation as an effective stop to all the pirate radio activities. None of us made the expected millions we thought we would, but at least we opened the airwaves to the performance of non stop pop music by the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Elvis Presley, which the British audience demanded as their right. The careers of DJ's such as Tony Blackburn, John Peel, Keith Skues, Simon Dee and Colin Nicol prospered. The second golf stocking was duly completed in more normal circumstances, and the pair presented to its grateful new owner.

(Adapted by Miss Black from her item published in "The Author" of Autumn, 2005)


Colin Nichol (Colin Nicol)
Western Australian-born broadcaster, writer and original British radio pirate

THE Times of London obituary of Miss Kitty Black on 12 January covered her outstanding contributions to British theatre, but there was another side to this extraordinary woman that was overlooked, possibly because she was herself unsure of being remembered for her somewhat "nefarious" activities. In later years, she enjoyed the notoriety. My first encounter with Miss Black, as I then called her, was at the offices of Project Atlanta, sharing those of Merit Music and Rainbow Records, on the top floor of a Soho building, central London. We sat at adjacent desks. There was no way then of anticipating our futures or that she would become the Pirate Queen of Britain. I had been recruited as the first to be offered the job of disc jockey on a British pirate radio ship and we were preparing to surprise the country - and the world, with its first radio ship, Radio Atlanta. As fate would have it, a few months later in the following year of 1964, Easter saw the arrival of Radio Caroline, created on information gained from our operation. To them went the fame of being first. Before long, both ship-board operations joined forces and we operated under the names of Caroline South and Caroline North - each ship primarily covering half of the country. I broadcast from the south, in the Thames Estuary. Kitty Black was a Board member of Atlanta and one of the earliest instigators of that radio operation. It was through her theatre association with Australian-born Allan Crawford that she became involved and her contacts, prestige and financial support were crucial to the project. Crawford had previously been associated with Southern Music in Sydney and was the proprietor of Merit Music and of music publishing companies and owned several record labels, mostly specialising in inexpensive cover-versions of pop records. Like many before him, he encountered the difficulties of having records played on the very restricted radio monopolies of the day in the UK. Radio Atlanta was to be his answer - not principally to break the radio monopoly in Britain, but as the means to the end of getting his music on the air and to creating a musical empire. His business efforts failed in the end, but the "pirate" radio ships carried on, becoming hugely successful, controversial and famous world-wide. Many major artists of the day owed their success to those ships, still acknowledged today by household names. In the end, monopolies of broadcasting and of the music industry were broken and the BBC set up new stations to meet the demand and to counter the pirates, while new artists, record labels and music publishers proliferated. Black - real name Dorothy but called Kitty - was South African-born but educated in the best of English middle class tradition and was very much an Englishwoman. Arriving in England a couple of years before the outbreak of WWII, she achieved great success as an agent and in other fields, including translation of famous works from the French. She was a major figure in London and therefore British, theatre. Her earliest days were with the Tennent organisation, the country's leading agency, working with the glittering names of the period, particularly during the 40's and 50's. She could not have been more centrally placed to be able to comment on the world of theatre at the time, as she did in her 1984 book "Upper Circle" (Methuen Press). That year saw her visit Australia to promote her book and I very much enjoyed showing her the sights. My regret of that time was that, when looking skywards one evening and asking to be shown the Southern Cross, I inexcusably confused it with another constellation. Then I had to add to her disappointment by explaining that koala bears were not native to where we were, but to the east coast. For many years, Kitty lived in her large terrace house on Brunswick Gardens, Kensington, just off High Street. Her main reception room was large and long, extending from overlooking the garden at the rear, to the bow window on the street. There were comfortable, antique chairs and settees, occasional tables and a grand piano. Several floors extended above. Beneath, in the semi-basement, the kitchen was also large and very much in traditional style. Visits there on my few trips to London after I re-settled in Perth were lively in conversation and fearsome in gins, the latter large and strong and an appropriate accompaniment to gossip and news. As is so often the case after someone has gone, I would now like those conversations to have been more frequent. It was obvious on my last in April 1999 that she was failing in health and had to give up her beloved golf due to a shoulder injury. Driving had become a problem as well. A typed letter from her in April 2006 showed she was still very much in command of her mental abilities although succumbing to Parkinson's and no doubt she remained her sharp self to the end. In my mind we are still sitting at those desks, high above Dean Street in Soho, me wondering why she was there and what was her involvement, seemingly quite out of place in this pirate business - and where were we all going. Would we end up in prison together? She came close with her infamous and much-publicised leading of a night raid on one of the former WWII forts in international waters off the Thames estuary. This was used for the pirate Radio City and Kitty was determined to collect on an unpaid debt of 10,000 Pounds. Leading her "motley" (her words) crew, she climbed the tower and departed with the critical transmitter crystal as guarantee of payment. A man was shot and killed and one of the Sixties' famous court cases ensued. There are legacies I value, two of them her injunctions from those earliest days: never tear up paper before consigning it to the bin, screw it up if you must, but remember - you will need to pull it out to read it again, later. The other - always keep a notebook with you at all times and write everything down. She followed her own rules and wrote her early theatrical reminiscences from those notebooks I always saw her with, but resolutely refused my pleas to write a follow-up book on her involvement with pirate radio. Each year, her Christmas card arrived with the notation: "Still ticking along". There was no card last Christmas. An epoch is ending.

Colin Nichol
Perth, Western Australia
14 January 2007.

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