My friend Michael Birkett, who has died aged 85, was a familiar figure in the world of British cinema in the 50s and 60s, serving as chairman of the British Film Academy (1965-66), and at the National Theatre in the 70s. He had diplomatic skills aplenty but no theatre experience when Peter Hall appointed him deputy director of the National; Michael Blakemore, one of the associate directors, found him “impossible to dislike … fair-minded and enthusiastic”.
Lord Birkett was chairman of the British Film Academy in the 1960s and served at the National Theatre in the 70s
Earlier he produced Hall’s delightful film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1968), with a dream cast that included Helen Mirren, Judi Dench and Diana Rigg. Three years later Michael was producer of another Shakespeare landmark, filmed in Denmark, Peter Brook’s version of King Lear, starring Paul Scofield.
Michael was born in London, the only son of the distinguished lawyer Norman Birkett and his Swedish wife, Ruth (nee Nilsson). He went to Stowe school, Buckinghamshire, and in 1945 attended the Nuremberg trials, where his father was one of the British judges. At Trinity College, Cambridge, he read English and produced plays, though his acting was always limited to the role of Chorus.
He began his film career at Michael Balcon’s Ealing studios, serving as third assistant director on The Lady Killers (1955). Other credits, mostly as first assistant director, included Billy Budd, directed by Peter Ustinov. This was released in 1962, the year Michael succeeded to the peerage to which his father had been appointed only four years earlier. As a crossbench hereditary peer he spoke in support of the National Lottery and arts funding, but lost his seat in the reform of the Lords in 1999.
He worked in films up to the mid-70s, directing four shorts himself and producing half a dozen transfers to celluloid, among them the RSC’s Marat/Sade and Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker, directed by Clive Donner. Michael’s subsequent spell at the National (1975-77) ended when the theatre found itself in financial straits and he declared himself to be expendable.
Ian Richardson (right) as the French revolutionary Marat and Patrick Magee as the Marquis de Sade in the film of the RSC’s Marat/Sade, produced by Michael Birkett
His happiest work period was probably as director of recreation and the arts for the Greater London council (1979-86), but the job disappeared when Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government did away with the GLC. Thereafter Michael rarely sat behind a desk.
In 1989 he co-created the Royal Philharmonic Society’s annual music awards. He was chairman of the governors of the Brit School for performing arts and technology, in Selhurst, south London (1990-2001). Michael loved music, and adored playing the piano both solo on his beloved grand and with friends as a duet partner. He co-created the Donatella Flick conducting competition in 1990 and served as jury chair until 2008.
His love of Wagner resulted in the publication of The Story of the Ring (2009), with illustrations by Elizabeth Bury. This prose account of the legend provides a sensitive introduction to Wagner’s mythical world.
Michael’s first wife, Junia Crawford, whom he married in 1960, died in 1973. Five years later he married Gloria Taylor, adopting her first son, Siddig, now known as the actor Alexander Siddig, as part of the family. In 1982 they had a son of their own, Thomas. Gloria died in 2001, and Michael is survived by both sons.