English and Drama blog

On literature and theatre collections from the 16th century to the present day

26 April 2023

In Memory of Murray Melvin

We were very saddened last week to learn of the death of the actor, director and archivist, Murray Melvin (1932-2023) on the 14th April. Murray had a long association with the Library over a number of years and we were always grateful to him for sharing his knowledge and reminiscences with us, as well as being such good company. With that in mind we would like to celebrate Murray’s life and work today and in particular to highlight the way in which he worked to create and preserve the archive of the Theatre Royal Stratford East.

Murray had a long and distinguished career including time spent in the theatre company, Theatre Workshop, under the visionary director, Joan Littlewood. Murray joined the company in 1957, as a student and ASM (Assistant Stage Manager…or ‘dogsbody’ as Murray called himself). He went on to play Geoffrey in A Taste of Honey (both on stage and film), and acted in other significant Littlewood productions The Hostage, The Quare Fellow and Oh! What a Lovely War. His later career included films such as Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon and Alfie with Michael Caine, and appearances in television series including Torchwood and The Avengers.

Photo depicts Murray Melvin standing in front of a van. He is looking at the camera with a wry smile and his arms folded
Murray Melvin supervising the Theatre Workshop Archive being transported by van to the British Library in 2020. Photo with kind permission of Karen Fisher

Theatre Workshop remained important to Murray for the rest of his life and he was particularly concerned about the legacy of the company and its director, Joan Littlewood. Littlewood’s company had developed out of agit-prop theatre in the 1930s, formalised itself as Theatre Workshop in 1945 before settling permanently in Stratford in 1953. As well as preserving this history, Murray also cared a great deal about the history of the Theatre Royal building and of its location in Stratford, East London, and what the theatre symbolised and meant to the local community. 

Over the course of thirty years, Murray set about gathering archive material that was already held at Theatre Royal bringing it together in Littlewood’s own office and re-housing and listing it.

But he didn’t stop there. Melvin also used his extensive contacts, and an advert in the paper, to encourage others with relevant material to consider donating it to him at the theatre. It is a fitting tribute to the love and trust that people placed in Murray that so many were willing to do so.

The archive that Melvin created is remarkable—from the history of the building in the late 19th century, to a record of every production all the way to 2017.

Photo shows the Theatre Workshop Archive arranged on shelves onsite at the British Library, it is arranged neatly in flat blue boxes
The Theatre Workshop Archive in its new home at the British Library

In 2020, the Theatre Workshop Archive was donated to the Library with the support of Murray, the theatre and its trustees. It was a great source of pleasure and pride to Murray that the archive should come to the Library and it is a generous gift that the Library is incredibly grateful for.

The archive joins Joan Littlewood’s personal archive, which was acquired in 2015 from her estate. Together these archives contain over 1000 files and offer an unparalleled insight into Theatre Workshop and the Theatre Royal Stratford East.

Murray Melvin was one of those people that it was always a pleasure to work with. His dedication as the archivist of the Theatre Workshop Archive was tireless, but it was also joyful and captivating. He not only brought together the archive but it clearly gave him great pleasure to see others using it and he was always ready to tell a rich and colourful story on any aspect that caught interest, as well as assist curators and colleagues at the British Library in any query they might have. We will miss him greatly and always remember him fondly.

In 2022, Murray began recording a Life Story with the British Library. This complete oral history of his life began from his earliest years, through the course of his life and career, and, at the point of the last recording reached over eleven hours. It will no doubt be another great resource for researchers wishing to know more about Murray’s life and work and 20th century British theatre more widely.