The sudden and unexpected death of Brien Chitty on 25th March at the age of 67 came as a devastating blow both to his family and to his wide circle of friends and acquaintances. A devout enthusiast for the theatre in general and the Victorian theatre in particular, his knowledge of the life and career of Sir Henry Irving was profound.
Our late Secretary was born in Aldershot on 30th August 1934. His father ran a garage and his mother was a hair-dresser, a background which suggests no predilection for the theatre. But such was to be his destiny, for Brien secured his first job as ASM at Morecambe at the tender age of 17. After leaving the Webber-Douglas Academy in 1954 he worked as an actor at the Farnham Castle Theatre, making the move into theatre management in 1957. It was as front of house manager that Brien found his true métier, running theatres at Cheltenham, Bristol, Newcastle, Swindon, and Oxford. For five years from 1973 he ran an hotel in Torquay, followed by two years as landlord of a pub in Somerset. But in 1980 after the break-up of his marriage and subsequent divorce he returned to the theatre, becoming FOH manager at the Vaudeville in the Strand, London. His final billet was running–and revitalising–the Palace, Newark-on-Trent, where he remained after retiring in 1994.
Since his teens Brien had been fascinated by Henry Irving, often spending all his weekly pocket money on books and memorabilia related to the mighty actor. In 1995 he persuaded the Royal National Theatre to mount an exhibition to celebrate the centenary of Irving’s sensational knighthood. Curated by Brien and with many of the exhibits from his own enormous collection, the event attracted considerable attention and led directly to the founding of the Irving Society the following year. Inevitably Brien was voted in as Honorary Secretary, a post in which he revelled. It was only right and proper that the inaugural Chairman of the Society should be his old friend and fellow Irving buff, Michael Sharvell-Martin. Sir John Gielgud was Founder Patron; other significant names to become willingly involved in one capacity or another were Sir Donald Sinden, Ellen Terry Craig, John H.B. Irving (great-grandson of H.I.), Richard Briers, Henry McGee, Edward Petherbridge and Charles Vance, as well as a clutch of distinguished academics including Professors David Mayer, John Pick, William Potts and Jeffrey Richards.
Living in the birthplace of Sir Donald Wolfit, it was natural that Brien would be associated with the Wolfit Endowment Fund, established in 1997 to aid local drama students. To this Fund, as to the Irving Society, his dedication and zest for detail were hugely valuable. Yet another organisation which enjoyed the benefits of Brien’s appetite for administration is the Newark Arts Society, now, like the rest of us, bereft of their Secretary’s indefatigable enthusiasm and, perhaps even more importantly, his buoyant, benign and affable presence.