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A Biography

Ken Hill (January 28th, 1937 - January 23rd, 1995) was a critically acclaimed British playwright, and theatre director.

Born in Birmingham in 1937, Ken Hill began his show business life as a television interviewer and reporter before setting out to try his hand as a writer. His first play was produced at his local repertory theatre in Birmingham and his early television writing was for shows such as Crossroads. The one hundred plus television scripts he wrote over the years included episodes for series such as United, Z Cars, Softly Softly and The Newcomers as well as single plays. His Midland roots were also reflected in a notorious documentary about his home city of Birmingham, entitled The Second City, which he made for the BBC. The uproar that it caused led to more work with ATV where he also became a presenter.

He was invited by Joan Littlewood to join the Theatre Workshop at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, London in 1971. His first play for the group, Up Your End, was directed by Joan. He also appeared in plays such as Costa Packet, The Hostage and The Protector. From 1973 to 1975, Ken took over as director of the Theatre Workshop in Joan's place. During this time he wrote and directed Is Your Doctor Really Necessary?, The Count of Monte Cristo, Land of the Dinosaurs, Bloody Mary, The Pirate Queen and Dracula, all of which have been revived around the world.

A period spent as Artistic Director of the Musical Theatre Company saw productions of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and others. Around this time he was also commissioned by the National Theatre to write a version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame which was directed by Michael Bogdanov. At the same time he wrote a musical play for television entitled All the Fun of the Fair. Other commissions for various theatres included Curse of the Werewolf, The Mummy's Tomv, Mafeking, The Three Musketeers and The Living Dead. In 1982 he became Aristic Director of the Tyne and Wear Theatre Company in Newcastle, a post he worked in until 1987. During this period he adapted two Catherine Cookson novels, Katie Mulholland and The Gambling Man, and a series of children's shows based on three of C.S. Lewis' Narnia books: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Silver Chair.

Although it is clear that Ken has worked with an eclectic range of genres and ideas, there is a definite preponderance of popular, exciting shows based on themes of horror or the supernatural. Indeed he has become noted for quality productions of such genres, other examples being a version of H.G. Wells' The Invisible Man (1991), The Wicked World of Bel Ami and, of course, The Phantom of the Opera, which first saw the light of day in Morecambe in 1976. He revived the production in Newcastle in 1984, after which it transferred to the Theatre Royal, Stratford East for a successful run, followed by a UK and US tour and revivals around the world.

At the time of his untimely death in 1995, Ken Hill was working on a production of Zorro at Stratford East. It went ahead as a tribute to the master of popular theatre.

Written by Mo Bhula
Copyright 2000 John Good Holbrook

Ken Hill is survived by his wife, the actress Toni Palmer (who appeared in many of his shows, as well as Phantom and Zorro), and two sons. Toni Palmer is the trustee of Ken Hill's estate.

The Ken Hill Memorial Trust was set up after Ken passed away in 1995, to aid the Theatre Royal Stratford East in supporting new talent in musical theatre. It now offers a biennial Musical Theatre Award annually to help nurture new talent in theatrical writers. The award in 1997 was a total of 5,000 for the winner - 1000 in cash, with the balance going towards the production costs of a week's showcase at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, where many of Ken Hill's works were premiered. In addition, royalties were paid to the writer for the showcase. The trustees also offered small cash prizes to five runners up.

There are also "Ken Hill awards" for new talented playwrights and for the Best New Musical.

One of the theatre bars inside the Theatre Royal Stratford East is named "The Ken Hill Bar" as a further tribute. It can be located inside the theatre on the first floor, next to the Dress Circle and is open from 30 minutes before each performance up to the end of the interval.

Some of Ken's plays, The Invisible Man, The Curse of the Werewolf, The Mummy's Tomb and his version of The Phantom of the Opera, are available to purchase from Samuel French Ltd. in London. The rights to produce these shows can also be obtained by theatre groups, professional or amateur.