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Roger Clarke’s Saltaire people: HATTIE TOWNSEND

I’ve always thought that the performance of an actress is enhanced when the role she plays resonates with her own personality. Hattie Townsend played Dinah Stuart, housekeeper to the Salt family, in this years Saltaire Festival.  Mrs Stuart was a competent, organized woman whose attention to detail and ability to pull disparate staff together as a team ensured the success of Sir Titus’s grand banquets catering for thousands of people.  She was bossy too.  These are just the qualities which Hattie needed when she assisted Eddie Lawler with his highly acclaimed “Saltairy Tales” in the 2005 Festival.

A look at Hattie’s background explains why she was such a successful director.  She’s had a long and varied career in the Creative Arts, involved with drama, music, art, film, direction and teaching. After a sheltered education in a girl’s boarding school, she attended Drama School in London, sharing her experience with Tom Baker of Dr Who fame.  She found that she had a penchant for direction and teaching, and went on to jobs in a range of different settings.  These included 4 years in Jamaica as adviser on dramatic art in schools there (devising an interpretation of Macbeth in which the witches were cast as Obia women, the local mystics).

Conventional jobs in Britain as Head of Drama and Creative Arts in schools were interspersed with more intriguing tasks, such as a year in Turkey writing the speeches and press releases for a multi millionaire ship owner.  And then her restless personality took her to Greece as a lecturer in Language, using drama to increase language fluency and communication skills.

Hattie’s first contact with Saltaire came in 1987 when she came to see a production at the Mill – part of Jonathan Silver’s cultural revival and regeneration here.  She was enchanted with the Village, and resolved to return. In 1999, when she eventually retired from her last job, as Head of Theatre at the Legat School of Ballet in Sussex, she headed here to buy a house in the Village.

Hattie sees retirement as an opportunity and a chance for new beginnings.  She talks with huge enthusiasm about the satisfaction of helping to produce a real community musical like “Saltairy Tales”.  “There’s nothing village hall about this production”, she says.  “So much talent and polished performance from such a small area”.  Typically self deprecating, she describes her own contribution as “putting out the chairs and picking up a lot of sweet papers”.  But the bouquets and accolades which came her way after the performances contradict this.

In the 1970’s, when Hattie’s career was at its height, there were few opportunities for women to be directors of national productions – which she found frustrating.  But now her pride is obvious when she talks about her daughter, Tamzin, who is an internationally acclaimed director in Spain, with 3 major productions on national tours there.  Tamzin’s actor husband and 2 small children complete Hattie’s family in Spain.  And with Leeds/Bradford airport just down the road, visits to them are regular.

Between Festival productions, Hattie’s time is divided between tour guiding (she was once blue badge guide for Cambridge), Open University home invigilation, and working on her novel.  The novel is a long term project “but I keep letting things get in the way of it’s completion”.  It’s set in the Bronze Age with a strong heroine at the centre of the story, and is about the invention of the wheel and the story of silk.

And watch out for Hattie’s appearance with John Craven on BBC2 one afternoon in October in a series called “Castle in the Country”.  The series is about a walk from pub to pub across the country, and features Saltaire because it doesn’t have any!  

She’s sure that Saltaire was the right choice of home for her, and I’m equally sure that our lives are richer for having her here.

© Roger Clarke, September 2005


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