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PeopleMargie Barbour

Margie Barbour

‘My parents, Jane Galbraith and Michael Barbour, were born in the early ‘20s and joined the services when war came. My mother became a meteorologist in the WAAF, and my father a submariner in the Navy. They were both keenly academic, and immediately after the war, went up to Oxford University where they met and married in ’46, and a year later had a baby, my sister Rosalind. My father became a lecturer in Geography at the University of Khartoum in Sudan and two years later I was born in Oxford while they were home on leave. During my early years, we spent the summers in England and the academic year in the Sudan. I remember sleeping on the flat roof in Khartoum under the brilliance of the stars with Dad pointing out the constellations.
In ’53, my mother, six months pregnant, my sister and I were on a flight to the Sudan across the Mediterranean when one of the engines caught fire. My mother heard we were going to ditch and knew from her Air Force days that the plane could flip and break up on hitting the water. Nevertheless, she got us all safely strapped into our seats, and the pilot, a WW2 veteran, managed to sit the plane on the surface of the sea, in the pitch dark, long enough for us to get out with our lifejackets on. We were picked up by Sicilian fishermen, and we may be some of the few people whose lives have been saved by the whistle and little light on lifejackets. Eventually, we made our way to Khartoum by boat where my brother David was safely delivered. Unsurprisingly, my mother wasn’t keen on flying after that so my father looked for a lectureship in the UK. He regretted leaving Africa as he had loved going off on treks across the Sahara researching his books, some of which became standard academic works.
My father was appointed to University College, London and we returned to England, to Wimbledon. My two younger sisters Katherine and Sarah were born. Family life of five children was lively, with a Mum who loved us but really wanted to be following her academic interests. After Dad died, I found some magical film he had shot of our wild camping holidays in Africa and Europe, which was a wonderful reminder of their shared sense of adventure.
In 1961 my father became Professor of Geography in Nigeria at the University of Ibadan, so schooling arrangements had to be made for us older ones who were staying in Britain, and at Christmas and Easter, we would fly out on our own. The University was an international campus, and we made friends from all over the world. Later I went there to study French and Drama, relishing the diversity. As part of my course, I was sent to Paris for a year to the Université International du Théâtre. It was 1968 and the May riots meant that everything was still in turmoil and the university didn’t start till after Christmas. However, directed by Andre Perinetti, we produced an inventive version of Madame de Sade by Yukio Mishima.
All through my childhood, I’d made little cardboard box theatres and at school got involved with any production going. By the time I left university, I knew I wanted to direct. And I was accepted on the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School’s Postgraduate drama directors’ course.
Just before I started at Bristol, when I was 21, my brother’s best friend committed suicide while they were taking their A levels at Charterhouse. It was a terribly painful time for my brother David, and we didn’t support him by talking about his friend’s death nearly enough. My parents were away on holiday and I was alone at home with him when tragically he took his own life too. It was a shattering event in all our lives and the silent misery of my parents in the following years meant as a family we never reached a place of peace and healing.
I threw myself into the world of the theatre, a place to escape reality. On leaving Bristol I went to the Kings Head Theatre Club in Islington as assistant stage manager. I loved it, but it was hard work, sometimes finishing the “get out” at 2 am before starting the “get in” at 3 am. But it taught me a lot about the business and led me to a job at the Citizen’s Theatre in Glasgow where I got my precious Equity Card. I was still keen to direct, and I applied for a job as Floor Assistant at the BBC, hoping there might be more opportunities in television. That was in 1974, and I would work at the BBC for 22 years. At first, I was just calling performers like Eric Morecambe and Prunella Scales to the studio, but then I stage-managed dramas, such as the first series of Angels. In my spare time, I directed plays in pub theatres, including a lunchtime show about Greenham Common at the Kings Head. Then the BBC gave me a chance to direct: Playschool, Jackanory, Grange Hill, Tucker’s Luck and Bodger and Badger. I learnt so much working with the actors, scriptwriters, camera crews and designers, and I was tremendously aware how lucky I was to have a career I loved and which chimed with my feelings about the world. Central to our work in children’s television was the Reithian ethos of inform, educate and entertain.
Working in Glasgow I had seen the terrible deprivation in the Gorbals, which led me to join the Labour party, becoming union rep for Children’s TV. Following John Birt’s shake-up at the BBC in 1996 I took redundancy along with many other creatives, but soon returned to train people to direct EastEnders.
My mother turned to the Quakers after my brother’s death, and like her, I experienced a sense of homecoming attending my first Quaker Meeting. It was there I met a fellow Quaker, we made a life together, and to our mutual joy had a son, Richard. We had a spare room in our house and were able to take in a young person from Ealing on the assisted lodging scheme. Marian arrived when she was seventeen and remains very much part of our family. These days Richard works in financial services in the City, specialising in International Development, and Marian is vice-principal of a sixth-form college in Bristol. Sadly, my relationship with Richard’s father didn’t last, although he remained a great father.
But through the Quakers, I then met the person who would change my life, Chris Savory. We fell in love and married at the Hammersmith Quaker Meeting House. Chris became a wonderful stepfather to Richard, took Marian under his wing and has been the most fantastic support for me. We moved to Thame near Oxford, and, inspired by working with Rik Mayall on storytelling programmes, I started telling stories in schools and at festivals. Chris and I and our neighbours began a film society, booking actors or directors to talk after the screenings.
Having had many holidays in Dorset in Uploders, and at Tamarisk Farm in West Bexington, when a job as director at the Marine Theatre in Lyme Regis came up I jumped at it, and was lucky to work there for two years. Then Lindsay Brooks, director of the Bridport Arts Centre, asked me to join her there. On holiday I had always thought I would love to work at the Arts Centre, and now I had the chance! I became one of the many people who holidayed in Dorset for 30-odd years before coming to live here. I was programme manager for 5 years, and our vision was to find creatively challenging, interesting work, to show music and performance from all over the world, and to give everyone in the town a reason to come through the door. I set out to maximise the use of the venue, using the café at the back for comedy, jazz and storytelling. Huge highlights were inviting Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler to play a fundraiser for us, squeezing Shaffer’s Equus onto our stage, and Imagined Village’s barnstorming performance. After five exciting years, I left for London to programme the little theatre inside the Cutty Sark.
Now I’m back in Dorset, I’m involved with the Friends of the Dorset Women’s Refuge and support the Youth Centre. I’m learning to play the saxophone, and I’m passionate about dance; my family are always first on the dance floor! I’m a member of Grace and Growl, a contemporary dance company for older dancers. I attend classes in ballet and musical theatre and have tried Morris dancing. In the future, I’d like more opportunities to be creative as a dancer, get better at the saxophone (for my neighbours’ sake) but make sure I find time for my family and to be a bit less busy!’

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