“THE TIMES” Obituary, January 14, 2004
Painter, poet, writer, actor, performance artist, musician and gourmand who lived large and led the British 'happening'
Yoko Ono's Film No 4 may have made more sense to Jeff Nuttall than it did to the other performers. An experimental offering from 1966 and Nuttall's first screen appearance, this film was an 80-minute parade of bare backsides belonging to the celebrities and provocateurs of the day, accompanied by a soundtrack of trivial chatter. Ono meant it to encourage a dialogue for world peace - an aspiration Nuttall shared, though his own performances may have articulated this desire rather better.
It was not the first time Nuttall had stripped for art. The previous year he had appeared in Michael Horovitz's World Poetry Festival at the Royal Albert Hall, and his performance there called for him to appear in a bath and run naked across the stage covered in paint. This stunt was typical of him although, as good living swelled his figure to 21 stone, he tended to keep his clothes on in later life.
Remembered most as a pioneer of the British "happening" in the Sixties, Nuttall expressed himself in almost every conceivable way during his life, and each oeuvre he contributed to informed the others. He appeared in more than 20 films, from a key part in Peter Greenaway's outrageous The Baby of Macon to - most recently - a judge in the made-for-television adaptation of the Harold Shipman story. He also made brief appearances in many popular series, including Bergerac, Holby City and Men Behaving Badly. His greatest part was the imperfect holy man Friar Tuck in made-for-television Robin Hood (1991), in which he memorably snaps a Norman soldier's neck while giving benediction. This version of the legend, with a brooding Robin played by Patrick Bergin and a sword-twirling Uma Thurman as Maid Marian, was sadly eclipsed by the Kevin Costner-led epic of the same year.
Despite his robust stage presence and obvious talent, however, big budget productions were never of great interest. Painting was his first great love, and it was arguably his strongest talent. Born in Clitheroe, Lancashire, in 1933, Nuttall trained as a painter at the Hereford School of Art and became art master at Leominster, later teaching fine art in Leeds and Liverpool polytechnics.
Nuttall soon branched into performance, where his overwhelming need to express himself could find more immediate release. The same year Yoko Ono premiered her study of bottoms, Nuttall founded the People Show. The group's partially-scripted, largely improvised performances had a home in the basement of Better Books on London's Charing Cross Road, where the concrete poet Bob Cobbing had established a nexus of Sixties consciousness in books, performance art and experimental film. From there the group headed out to British streets and market squares and, eventually, to continental Europe and America. Nuttall paused to reflect on the Show's adventures in 1979's Performance Art, volume 2 of which also contains his scripts.
He would later refer to the beat-inspired scene that launched the People Show as "bomb culture", the same name he gave to his first major book, published in 1970. In this work he argued that youth could not expect to hold the same values as their parents when their lives could, at any moment, be snuffed out by nuclear apocalypse.
Nuttall was himself all too aware of having but one life - and even that all too easily truncated by war - and this may partially explain his reluctance to settle into a single medium. Although Bomb Culture was widely discussed in Parliament as a serious piece of social history, other books were a complete departure. King Twist (1978) explored the life of the Northern comic Frank Randle. The style of the book itself imitates performance: Nuttall sets himself up not as an omnipotent chronicler but as an adventurer stepping into the people, sounds and mysteries of Randle's life, which unfolds in a series of soundbites and witness's opinions.
Although a garrulous and energetic character with a great lust for life, the fear of it all coming to an end was always evident in Nuttall's work. Meeting Bob Cobbing had pushed Nuttall further into poetry, and in this metier he mixed with Michael Horovitz, Brian Patten and Roger McGough. Like them he was influenced by the earlier Beats and enjoyed the heyday of the small press, seeing his work published by Unicorn, Trigram, and Turret Press among others. Although he shared their desire to push poetry into the sunlight of public conscience, he gave voice to darker feelings too. Last month, a compilation, Selected Poems was published. The first of these - Waiting for the Holocaust - expresses a recurring conviction that there would soon be nobody left to read them,
Although the Cold War thawed and the world outlived him, Nuttall in 2000 released a fresh call to arms with Art and the Degradation of Awareness. In this well-received book he states that culture has bankrupted itself by turning away from truth and meaning and prostrating itself to pop culture and money. While rejecting the isms of political correctness he states that horror, cruelty and violence have become depressingly acceptable, simply because all art and emotion is now nothing more than a commodity.
Nuttall was never attracted to money for its own sake. A very witty bon vivant, he will be remembered most for his unstinting generosity. He was a keen jazz musician and singer, who would play cornet with his band every Sunday at the Hen and Chicks in Abergavenny - up to, and including, the day he died. Although he never ceased to be angered or motivated by the events surrounding him, Nuttall never became overtly political either. His core belief was the optimistic ideal that art, in its broadest sense, always contained truth and beauty, and that to seek it was vital not just to living life, but also to loving it.
His one marriage, to Jane Louch, was dissolved in 1979. He is survived by six children.
Jeff Nuttall, painter, poet, author and performance artist, was born on July 8, 1933. He died on January 4, 2004, aged 70.