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Colin O'Brien: King's Head Theatre Club, Islington

Deborah Norton at the King's Head Theatre Club, 1970sAdministrative/Biographical History: During the 1970s young photographer Colin O’Brien was recovering from 1960s swinging London when the harsh reality of earning a living appeared on the horizon.  Colin had been photographing the London Street scene since 1948 when he had taken a picture of two of his young Italian friends in Hatton Garden Clerkenwell with his battered Box Brownie.  He was eight years old but showed promise.  Cameras came and went, especially when money for the rent was needed.  In the 1970s Colin had two cameras, a Leica IIIB which had a broken shutter and a Nikon FM with a 50mm lens.  The odd job came along but not enough to live on. A close friend, an actor by the name of  Walter Hall had established a lunch time theatre in a basement in Soho putting on some ground-breaking plays.  He asked Colin to photograph his productions, one of which was ‘Mr Joyce is leaving Paris’ which eventually moved over to the Kings Head Theatre Club in Islington.

Colin was introduced to Dan and Joan Crawford who ran the pub and the theatre. For some five or six years in the mid to late 1970’s Colin photographed the exciting and creative fringe theatre scene in London of which the Kings Head was one of the most well known.  Plays such as The Blood Knot by Athold Fugard, Funeral Games by Joe Orton and most famously Robert Patrick’s seminal Kennedy’s Children which was eventually transferred to the west end.  O’Briens’ camera recorded the young actors of the day, such as John Hurt, Stephen Berkoff, Janet Suzman, Shirley Anne Field, Ben Kingsley, Doreen Mantle, Deborah Norton, Tom Georgeson, Maureen Pryor and many many others.

Colin would photograph the dress rehearsal, stay up all night to develop the negatives and print them ready for the opening performance the next day. Hanging out in the Kings Head was a way of meeting many fascinating people, musicians, writers, designers etc. but mostly actors. 

O’Brien’s career progressed over the years and he is now recognised as predominantly a social documentary photographer being compared with Roger Mayne and Bill Brandt. His numerous exhibitions over the years have rarely shown these fascinating fringe theatre pictures and the archive remained dormant.  However, a recent meeting with the archivist Stefan Dickers at the Bishopsgate Institute led to a re-appraisal of the work.  Stefan kindly offered to scan the negatives which eventually resulted in some 5000 or more images.  Having remained neglected for so many years it was felt that this unique collection should be exhibited and made more accesible to the general public. How exciting it would be if on private view night one could persuade some of the stars of today to come and see themselves as they were all those years ago.

O’Brien met Dan Crawford at the Kings Head a couple of months before he died.  They sat and reminisced comparing Colin’s pictures with those of some more well-known photographers of the day.  Dan very kindly said he had liked Colin’s pictures because he broke the rules, did things differently; shooting for instance directly into spotlights for example, to create that theatrical effect.  It was hoped that Colin could take a portrait of Dan but that never happened. Perhaps it was better to remember him as he was, in those exciting, creative and productive days way back in the 1970s.

Scope and Content: c5,000 images by Colin O'Brien of productions and rehearsals at the King's Head Theatre Club, Islington, c1970s.

More photographs can be viewed at his Colin O'Brien's website.