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Stratford mourns much-loved actor Robert Lister who played Lewis Carmichael on The Archers on Radio 4

TRIBUTES have been paid this week to much-loved Stratford actor Robert Lister who died on Friday (21st July) aged 79.

He had many successes in his career, including on the RSC stage and playing Lewis Carmichael on The Archers on Radio 4, but he will also be fondly remembered for his many recitals and performances locally..

The Pity of War (a program of World War I poetry and prose) was led by Robert and premiered at the International Poetry Festival at the Shakespeare Institute, before touring Warwickshire villages in the 100th year after the beginning of the war. From reading poems at Remembrance Day services to, most recently, joining the Shakespeare’s Coming Home fundraiser readathon at Stratford Town Hall (as a memorable Falstaff) he will be remembered not just for his actorly skills but for his tremendous warmth and humanity.

“I fell in love with his wonderful voice – that amazing voice that everyone commented on,” his wife Pat Lister told the Herald.

Robert Lister. Photo: Richard Smith
Robert Lister. Photo: Richard Smith

Recalling when they first met in London in the 1960s, she said: “I was a post-grad at Goldsmiths College and he took over running an evening class for people who wanted to teach drama.

“That was 1969. We were friends at first, but we would have been married 30 years next week, although we’d been together a few years before that.”

When Pat moved to Stratford to teach English and drama at the Girls’ Grammar (where she used her maiden name, Friday), Londoner Robert eventually joined her.

“The theatre has been a vital part of both of our lives,” recalled Pat.

“One thing we shared, and I will miss so much, is that we did the Guardian crossword together every day.

“We travelled – although Rob often had to be persuaded to go abroad – but we loved it; climbing the Great Wall of China is a fond memory.

“We both loved going to art galleries. Compton Verney was a source of great consolation to us during the pandemic.”

Pat said they had lived with mutual support of one another. She added thoughtfully: “I’ve been looking at the possibility of playing Wing Beneath My Wings for the funeral – for both of us really.”

As Pat has been looking through scrapbooks and memories of Robert’s life, she says she is grateful that he lived such a full life.

After Robert completed his drama training at the Rose Bruford College in 1966, and after teaching for one year, he changed course to become a professional actor.

He joined The Archers in 2004 after a long career in radio drama, theatre, musical theatre and music hall.

Robert described himself, modestly, as a ‘journeyman-actor’ but was a veteran not just of the RSC but also the Royal National Theatre, the New Shakespeare Company, and English Touring Theatre among many others. During an extremely varied career he has played nearly every major theatre in the UK, and toured overseas to the Far and Middle East, Greece, Western Europe, and both North and South America.

Despite his many credits on the ‘legitimate’ stage, and numerous appearances on television and radio, Robert has always nursed an abiding love of Edwardian music hall. In 1986 he finally managed to combine the two disciplines with his one-man show, Mr Marie Lloyd; a portrait of the star's second husband, Alec Hurley. This enjoyed great success and was televised by HTV as part of their series Singular Performances. It also ran at The Loft, Leamington, in 2019.

Robert himself said: “My acting career has now lasted over 40 years and each one of them has had some minor highlight or other.

“If I’m forced to choose, I’d say I’m proudest of the success of my one-man show Mr Marie Lloyd. As a supporting actor it was an eye-opener to discover that I could write, sing and play a leading part sufficiently well to end up on TV!”

A few of his performances that stand out for Pat include his Prospero for the Creation Theatre’s Tempest, his recent Falstaff, and playing the Abbot in The Worcester Pilgrim.

She said: “He was modest and reluctant to take the role of Prospero, he thought he wasn’t right for it, I had to spend the weekend persuading him. And of course he was brilliant.

“He did a lot of radio plays with Peter Leslie Wild, who directed him in The Worcester Pilgrim – that was stunning, set in the cathedral.

“Rob loved speaking verse, and did a lot of Shakespeare. He understudied Michael Gambon playing Falstaff at the National but he only got to do it for the understudy run, so it was lovely that he recently read the part in the three plays for Shakespeare’s Coming Home. The National held fond memories for him – where he worked with another Stratford actor, David Bradley, who he admired.”

Among those mourning the loss of Robert this week is Michael Rolfe, who worked in theatre for many years and first met Robert in 1971 in Greenwich at a pub near where they both lived.

“We became friends then and kept in touch through work, then reunited on a more frequent basis when we both settled in Stratford 30-odd years ago,” said Michael. The frequency was linked, as in our early days, to the enjoyment of a decent pint in a cosy pub, although now we had many more stories to recollect and shared memories to exchange.

“From time to time in recent years, whilst he was still able to do so, Bob volunteered his services at the Guildhall, introducing visitors to the delights of Shakespeare's schoolroom. With his advice and help, I wrote a short screenplay located there. I am now determined to get it funded and filmed as a fitting memorial which will be dedicated to a lovely, talented and kind man. I am one of many who will miss him a lot.”

Sue Moore, artistic director at the Loft Theatre, where Robert last performed professionally, added her thoughts: “News about Rob is incredibly sad for all at the Loft Theatre who knew him. Such a talented actor and such a warm and wonderful man. He took the role of master of ceremonies for our production staged as a tribute to music hall in 2019, bringing a wealth of knowledge from that genre. It was a delight to work with him and a privilege. The unforgettable Robert Lister. “

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