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Greville Poke

Poke, Greville John (1912-2000), Arts Administrator

Greville John Poke was born in Chelsea, London on 19 August 1912 to Frederick Robert Poke and Ethel Esther Mulcaster. He was educated at Harrow School and obtained a degree from Cambridge University, where he studied History and Archaeology and Anthropology at Jesus College (1931-1934). From a young age he was enthusiastic about the theatre and took part in amateur dramatics. In 1947 he married actress Patricia Lawrence (1925-1993) in City of Westminster.

Poke first worked in his family’s newspaper distribution business before going on to become the editor of his father’s weekly magazine, ‘Everybody’s’. In 1953 he stepped down from this position and did some publicist work, selling advertising space for the 1953 Taw and Torridge Festival of the Arts in Devon. The festival was run by Ronald Duncan along with Lord Harewood and Edward Blacksell. Duncan and Poke had known each other at Cambridge and in 1954 Duncan invited Poke to join a group, initially known as the ‘English Stage Society’. Duncan wished to form a theatre company dedicated to the performance of non-commercial plays. With the help of the festival’s organisers, Oscar Lewenstein and later George Devine, this ambition led to the formation of the English Stage Company (ESC). The ESC registered incorporation on 16 October 1954, changing its name from ‘Society’ to ‘Company’ within weeks to distinguish it from existing organisations. Poke was one of the founding members, serving as Honorary Secretary for the ESC from 1954-1973.

One of Poke’s first contributions to the ESC was helping to secure Neville Blond, an influential businessman who would make an invaluable financial advisor. In 1954 Poke and Duncan approached Blond and presented the ESC’s vision. Blond agreed that he would join them once the company had secured a theatre. Poke negotiated buying Alfred Esdaile’s neglected Kingsway Theatre. However, the Kingsway required lengthy refurbishment and the company instead based themselves at the Royal Court Theatre, leased from Esdaile. Nonetheless, Blond joined the group and became the first ESC Chairman (1954-70).

Poke played a significant role in managing the company’s accounts, being on the finance subcommittee. He also expressed opinions about the artistic direction of the theatre. On several occasions he clashed with Devine, the ESC’s 1956-65 Artistic Director, over artistic control and the selection of potential plays. Generally, Poke had a taste for traditional English plays and he sometimes expressed concern for the left-wing politics and cheerless mood of the plays the ESC was staging.

In January 1966 Poke, as Secretary, was summoned to Marlborough Magistrates Court along with Director, William Gaskill, and Licensee, Esdaile, to represent the ESC. The company was being prosecuted for their 1965 performance of Edward Bond’s ‘Saved’. The play, which includes a scene in which a baby is stoned to death on stage, was denied a licence by Lord Chamberlain without major cuts being made. The hearing was adjourned until March when Poke, Gaskill and Esdaile pleaded not guilty. It was ruled that the performance had been in violation of the 1843 Theatres Act and the ESC was fined £50. However, the case of ‘Saved’ contributed to the Theatres Act being repealed in 1968, freeing theatres from censorship.

In 1967 Lord Chamberlain also banned the ESC’s performance of ‘Early Morning’, another play by Bond. To avoid prosecution, Poke suggested that the company stage the performance as dress rehearsal with no entry fee. This was successful and soon the 1968 Theatres Bill followed, abolishing Lord Chamberlain’s censorship of plays.

Poke played an invaluable role in addressing the ESC’s 1969 press controversy. The Directors withheld tickets for the ESC play ‘The Contractor’ from Hilary Spurling, the drama critic for The Spectator newspaper, because of her disruptive behaviour. Poke alone opposed this decision. As an ex-journalist, he did not want to challenge the freedom of the press. He warned the ESC that the Arts Council would take objection to such practices and could threaten to withdraw its funding. Poke was proven right: the Arts council conveyed their disapproval and other newspaper drama critics boycotted Royal Court performances. The directors were forced to back track and conceded they wished they had listened to Poke’s advice sooner. The company’s policy of inviting the press to performances was reaffirmed.

Poke declined his offer of Chairmanship in 1970, but later accepted in 1973 and served as the ESC Chairman until 1978. He remained on the council until the 1990s and was president until his death in 2000.

Poke worked for a variety of theatre organisations outside of the ESC. He was chairman of both the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts and Thorndike Theatre, Leatherhead. He financially supported new theatre productions such as the musical ‘Evita’. He also worked with the Royal Theatrical Fund, the Actor's Centre and the Richard Haines Trust.

Poke and his wife had two sons, Christopher Frederick Lawrence Poke and James John Lawrence Poke. He died on 4 March 2000 in Chelsea, London.

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