John Corvin — Actor & Artist

John was one of the founding members of Peter Hall’s Royal Shakespeare Company

John at work. Image: Steve Newman

I first met John Corvin over forty years ago and was immediately overwhelmed — as many were — by his enthusiasm. It wasn’t long before I joined him on many an adventure, whether helping him with his one-man shows, acting alongside him on the stage of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, or getting involved as an extra on the odd film set or two. He was always fun, always helpful, always serious about his work, and extremely generous with his time, advice, and red wine.

John was born in London, and by the time of the Second World War he lied about his age (he was only 15) and joined the army, only to be dragged out screaming by his protesting mother. A year later he ran away and joined the Merchant Navy, and for the next four years sailed the U-boat invested waters of the North Atlantic, where, armed with only the collected works of Shakespeare, staged at least one play every trip, with one performance of Julius Caeser using-up every bottle of tomato ketchup on board.

It was during his years in the Merchant Navy that John also discovered he could draw, a talent the Canadian photographer, Yousuf Karsh (who was sailing from Halifax to the UK to take that famous photograph of Churchill), encouraged him to develop and broaden.

But after the war John decided it was the acting life for him and, as so often happens, a chance meeting was to change his life.

By the early 1950s John was working as a travelling theatrical lighting salesman who, when in London, parked his pre-war Vauxhall on a bomb site near the Thames at Blackfriars. Then, one day, he found the site fenced-off with a small wooden shed plonked in the middle. John knocked on the door of the shed only to be confronted by the celebrated actor Bernard Miles, who offered John a cup of tea from his Thermos flask and explained that he planned to build a theatre on the site. It was going to be called the Mermaid.

The two men quickly became friends, with John acting out a little Shakespeare on Blackfriars Bridge most lunchtimes in the hope that the passing public would hang around just long enough to buy a brick for the new theatre at half-a-crown a time. And they did, in their thousands. The Mermaid Theatre was completed and opened in 1959.

As a way of showing his gratitude Bernard Miles helped John obtain a scholarship to RADA, where the young actor and artist shared classes with the likes of Tom Courtney.

That chance meeting with Bernard Miles in the early 1950s, and that scholarship to RADA, led, in 1961, to John driving up to Stratford-upon-Avon to become one of the founding members of Peter Hall’s Royal Shakespeare Company.

John Corvin died eleven years ago and is sorely missed.

A fine drawing of Anne Hathaway’s Cottage by John

Playwright, Historian, Biographer & Freelance Writer Living and Working in Shakespeare’s Stratford

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