News Story

Tamara Malcolm MBE – 1937–2023

Passionate, inspirational and formidable - The Theatre marks the passing of its Founder and first Director who died in August, aged 86.

A fierce independent spirit – Tamara was born in Swiss Cottage, London, in 1937. Aged 19 she graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Her early career, initially under her maiden name Tamara Fuerst, was as an actor working in regional repertory theatre, film and TV, highlighted by a long stint with the Royal Shakespeare Company, including in Peter Brook’s Marat/Sade. Tamara’s early acting career and life experience such as living in Africa allowed her to meet and work with a diverse set of people from different social and national backgrounds. Partly from this, she developed a life-long passion for social justice and inclusion and she would positively bring these values to her work and life later in Chipping Norton.

Building a wonderful legacy – With her then husband, actor John Malcolm, Tamara came to Chipping Norton in 1968. A little later, in the early 70s, John first mooted the idea of a theatre having spotted the old Salvation Army Citadel in Spring Street. In 1970, Tamara, admitting she no longer got nervous waiting in the stage wings, said it was time she stopped. Surrounded by Chippy folk and volunteers, she and John threw themselves into the building project and fundraising (everything from jumble sales, rousing the community and putting on puppet shows in the villages). The first two pantomimes (Beauty and the Beast 1973 and Old King Cole 1974) were in the Town Hall, the Theatre charity was established, and the Theatre was finally opened early in 1975 by Dr Who’s Tom Baker.

Formidable passion for excellence – Tamara pursued the vision of a theatre, in and with the community, with dedication, energy and humour. Her daughter Aimée recalled how she, no longer then with John, was joined by key staff (mostly women like her with young children), by lifelong theatre-world friends such as Murray Melvin, Dudley Sutton, Jeff Clarke, and by many others. Fundraising was never-ending, from ‘buy a brick’ to a Friends of the Theatre organisation now over 1000 members strong, and to one of the earliest successful bids to the National Lottery. But it was artistic excellence that Tamara put first, creating a national reputation for her successful pantos – she loathed ‘bad theatre’. She was proud of her inhouse professional productions such as Quack Quack, Jeff Clarke’s Sweet Liberty (on the French Revolution), and, with Collective Artistes, the iconic Lorca’s Yerma. She was passionate about nurturing young talent and encouraged the often-oversubscribed Youth Theatre. She cared about staff and her ‘actors’, cooking them hearty meals with great enthusiasm.

A curiosity for the world – Tamara spent 29 years as Founder/Director of the Theatre, was awarded the MBE in 2000, presented in the Theatre by the then Lord Lieutenant. She had insisted on sharing her medal with all those who had made The Theatre possible. She retired on her 65th birthday (VE Day!) in 2002, saying she needed to pass the Theatre on to a younger generation. She and her partner of 45 years Harold Hurrell moved to Stroud but she always kept in touch. She continued working as an artistic consultant – particularly for several years with Collective Artistes, one of the most influential black theatre ensembles. She now found time for all her passions, visiting Europe to see many of the wonderful operas and theatres – not just for the shows but also for the buildings.

Tamara, as son NOJ said at her funeral, ‘lived so large’. She loved and was loved by many. In an extraordinary life, she touched so many people. She was flamboyant, laughed loud and long, loved the absurd, and retained a generosity of spirit. She will be much missed and Chipping Norton is better for her ‘passing through’. Oh yes they are!

Obituary by Keith Ruddle at Chippy News

Memories of Tamara

John Terry, Artistic Director of Chipping Norton Theatre

Having Tamara Malcolm as one’s antecedent was, on my arrival at Chippy Theatre, as source of some trepidation. Her reputation as high-art Svengali and all-encompassing theatre matriarch echoed down the backstage corridors. It was only when I got to meet her that I discovered that the single-minded determination and creative flair, of which I had heard so much, was offset with great charm, mischievous humour and sensitivity. Tamara’s legacy to The Theatre, and those of us that work there now, was absolute. An extraordinary conjuring act to produce a theatre with such influence and character in this tiny town. We remain in awe of her courage and skill in bringing The Theatre into being, and I personally remain grateful that I was able to get to know Tamara personally.

Graeme Garden, writer and comedian

Tamara was a force of nature, a commanding presence, endless energy and a head fizzing with ideas. Whenever we spoke together I felt that Tamara was already half way through the conversation we hadn’t yet had.

I wrote three pantos for Chippy Theatre, two directed by her dear friend the great Murray Melvin. Before the property next door had been acquired, Tamara’s office was upstairs above the bar and, as Panto Season approached, the bar would be full of people busily making costumes and props, Tamara presiding over the apparent chaos like a General. She was always keen on ensuring that the panto scripts should contain a moral message. When I wrote ‘Jack The Giantkiller’ she was adamant that Jack shouldn’t kill the giants just because they were giant. That would be racist. She made sure that I wrote the giants as a threat, invading Cornwall and eating the locals. That gave Jack the authority to slay them.

We’re very lucky to have Chippy Theatre, and by supporting it we can ensure it continues as a fitting memorial to Tamara

Jo Higgins, Former Youth Theatre Director at Chipping Norton Theatre

When I and my family first moved here, Tamara, Instantly recognisable with her slightly incongruous shopping trolley WAS Chipping Norton . She was extraordinary: creative, determined, an excellent truffle hunter (her term for funding applications), innovative and, to a new and youngish employee, very slightly frightening! I am for ever indebted to her for taking a risk in allowing me to start a Youth Theatre….thank you Tamara and farewell.

Jeff Clarke, Former Chipping Norton Theatre Pantomime writer and Director of Opera Della Luna

Tamara would often rent a home in Italy for a number of weeks and would often invite me to visit her. One year, I had read about an extraordinary ancient theatre in a town called Sabbionetta, where the walls of the auditorium were covered with murals depicting all the people of the town, so that it looked as though they were always there, watching the play. Tamara was intrigued as I was, and we went off to visit this extraordinary place, and spent the night in a hotel before having a tour of the theatre the next day. It was just before the time that the property in Goddards Lane became available, allowing Tamara to build the extension to the theatre which would completely transform the place. Tamara had the idea that she would do the same thing in the new building; but she didn’t want the murals in the auditorium itself but in the re-designed and reconfigured front of house area. The original plan was to have portraits of worthies of the town, as had been the case in Sabbionetta. I went with Tamara to a stately home in Worcestershire called Hagley Hall where the artist Graham Rust had painted murals of the family’s ancestors on one of the staircases. Tamara was enchanted and Rust was duly engaged. It was Graham Rust who once he got to know the theatre and its history, suggested changing the plan from painting the people of Chipping Norton to painting characters from the pantomimes.

Heather Leonard, Chipping Norton resident and long-term Theatre Friend

Early 1970’s, we used to get our second-hand furniture from there. The Old Sally Army Citadel. The bottom was full of wardrobes, and chairs scrambled pell-mell over the balcony. Then in no time at all, with other Chippy-ites, I was wheeling junk and bricks out to a line of skips in Spring Street. What had happened? John and Tamara Malcolm had hit town and a Theatre was in the making. The Malcolms were there pushing wheelbarrows with the rest of us - John with his large piercing eyes and Tamara, stately and imposing even when covered in dust. Chippy was less sophisticated in those days, and these Stratford actors were regarded with some suspicion. It was conservative with small and large ‘C’s’ so that Tamara’s early bid to be a Town Councillor for the Labour Party was unsuccessful. She wouldn’t have had the time with two small children to care for and a Theatre to create.

A dividing of the ways early on left Tamara to take the role of Artistic Director which she did with aplomb, dignity and loads of drive. There was no money. From ‘dukes to dustmen’ Tamara spread her appeal over everyone, in all senses of the word. I recall meetings at Ditchley Park with David Astor in the chair; and in contrast the jumble sales, flea markets, garden fetes, fun runs, auction sales, anything that could be sponsored and a monthly (or was it weekly?) lottery done by door-to-door collection by us more ordinary folk, who became the Friends of the Theatre. A cross over into the acting fraternity when Freddie Jones drew an anniversary lottery; and Tamara engaged all her friends – Tom Baker opened the Theatre and Ronnie Barker, Dudley Sutton, Murray Melvin and so many more were all part of the family. When funds were especially low Tamara would say, with a sigh, can’t we find some more barons? In fact, I believe there may still be a category ‘Tamara’s Baron’ on the computer! Moreover, the Theatre was in competition with the Playgroup and Lido -dipping into the pockets of the good folk of Chippy.

(I was involved in all three. No wonder my children crossed the road rather than acknowledge me selling yet more raffle tickets!)

Tamara always strived for excellence and the very best in Theatre. Chippy had more plebian tastes, and bums on seats meant revenue. The Malcolm’s early dreams and intentions were for a repertory company, and I believe they had even planned a tour, which had to be curbed by an anxious Cyril Aydon, first treasurer, who’s perpetual cry was ‘we have to keep the doors open’. Tamara had to be content with the bi-annual home productions of Old Tyme Music Hall and the annual Panto. Nonetheless she introduced us to plenty of serious and classical theatre; and many years on, when the current director John Terry achieved ‘Chippy Theatre on tour’, Tamara was absolutely delighted for him and for the Theatre. I’m sure she accepted her OBE and MBE with pleasure, but did not take the credit for the wonderful Theatre that is her legacy.

Finally, a word from an original Pippin, now in her late fifties, ‘What a power house! A very big influence on many people, including me’.