The younger of two sons, James Humphrey Roose-Evans was born in London on November 11th 1927. His father, Jack, a commercial traveller dealing in ladies’ gowns, was a bully and drunkard who terrorized his family. The marriage was a disaster. His mother, Primrose (nee Morgan) eventually packed up all the furniture and, with the help of a local farmer, loaded it on to a wagon, leaving her husband a note to say that she and Jimmy had gone. While she looked for somewhere to live, she sent Jimmy to live with the parents of a schoolfriend, Mary Pollard, which changed his life. Finally feeling emotionally secure, Jimmy stayed with them for 2 years and settled down, excelling as a pupil at the Crypt grammar school in Gloucester and winning a scholarship to St Benet’s College, a religious private hall at Oxford University, where he read English.
Jimmy spent 2 years of national service in the Royal Army Educational Corps. Around this time, his parents had reunited and bought a house in Golders Green, north London, and announced, to Jimmy’s dismay, that he would be living with her from now on. One day the Pollards, with whom he had kept in touch, arrived to meet his mother, only to be summarily ejected by the angry matriarch, who forbade them from ever seeing her son again. His parents’ relationship broke up for good after a year, his mother selling the house and vanishing with the money. The emotional strain of these events led Jimmy to have a nervous breakdown and embarked on years of psychotherapy.
After leaving Oxford, he started out as an actor in rep in the early 50s, but his interest in behavioral psychology suggested a career as a director.
In 1954, he was appointed artistic director of the Maddermarket Theatre in Norwich (the prototype Elizabethan model theatre). In the same year he met Martha Graham, and in 1955 joined the faculty of the Juilliard School of Music in New York City, where dance, drama and music were studied on an equal footing, and where he worked experimentally with dancers, singers and musicians, exploring new forms of non-verbal theatre.
He returned to London in 1957 to teach at R.A.D.A. (the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art), staying on the staff until 1961 and taught at the Central School of Speech and Drama, teaching the likes of John Hurt, Vanessa Redgrave & Judi Dench. Another of his students was the future film director Mike Leigh, who was particularly influenced by Jimmy’s exercises.
Jimmy had 2 major relationships in his life: the first was with the actor David March whom he met as a student in Oxford and with whom he lived until 1960. In 1958 he met the actor and opera performer Hywel Jones, who would be his partner for the next 54 years. Hywel died in 2013, and Jimmy wrote a memoir of their life together.
In 1959, Jimmy founded the Hampstead Theatre by persuading the Hampstead parish church in Holly Bush Vale to rent out their scout hall (Moreland Hall) to him as a center for the work of new writers. His first season, in 1959-60, included a Welsh language classic (translated into English), SIWAN, by Saunders Lewis, starring Siân Phillips; Eugène Ionesco’s JACQUES; and Ann Jellicoe’s THE SPORT OF MY MAD MOTHER. Harold Pinter was a permanent fixture in the early years, trying and testing many of his plays in front of the loyal Hampstead audience. Jimmy had great enthusiasm for the young Pinter, directing a double-bill of THE DUMB WAITER and THE ROOM in its London premiere at the Royal Court to rave reviews in January 1960.
Asked by the parish church to shut down the theatre in 1962, Jimmy’s now galvanized Hampstead theatre club was instantly rehoused when the local council came up with a £7,000 grant for a temporary prefab two miles away at Swiss Cottage. Jimmy raised £10,000 for fixtures and fittings. Dame Peggy Ashcroft, Jimmy’s associate director, formally unveiled a plaque launching the (new) Hampstead Theatre on November 2, 1962. Under Jimmy’s leadership the Hampstead Theatre pioneered & championed the work of a youthful Harold Pinter and other new writers. He was also responsible for the Hampstead’s commissioning of Peter Luke’s highly successful play HADRIAN VII. It was at the Hampstead Theatre that talents such as Jude Law and Ewan McGregor 1st spoke lines on the professional stage. Over the years, it has provided a stage for some of the greatest actors in the world including John Malkovich, Alan Rickman, Rowan Atkinson, John Hurt, Felicity Kendal, Edward Fox, Faye Dunaway, Tom Conti, Rupert Everett, Maureen Lipman, Sheila Hancock and Zoe Wanamaker.
In 1963 Jimmy revived the career of Noël Coward with his commercially successful production of PRIVATE LIVES in his Hampstead Theatre – signaled what Coward himself dubbed “Dad’s renaissance” as the show transferred to the West End.
Jimmy regularly visited the USA and toured the UK to lecture and conduct experimental theatre workshops.
Widely regarded as one of Britain’s most original theatre directors, James Roose-Evans directed numerous West End hits, including UNDER MILK WOOD, PRIVATE LIVES, SPITTING IMAGE, THE HAPPY APPLE, AN IDEAL HUSBAND, AN INSPECTOR CALLS, THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH, CIDER WITH ROSIE which he also adapted and designed.
He adapted and directed Helene Hanff’s 84 CHARING CROSS ROAD into a multi-award winning stage play in the West End and on Broadway, winning awards on both sides of the Atlantic for Best Director and Best Play. Jimmy and Hugh Whitemore later adapted 84 CHARING CROSS ROAD again as a feature film starring Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins.
Jimmy produced and directed Hugh Whitemore’s THE BEST OF FRIENDS starring Sir John Gielgud (returning to the stage for the first time in 10 years, and his last appearance at the age of 83) and shortly after, directed former President of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel’s TEMPTATION starring “Dr. Who’s” Sylvester McCoy and real life Countess Rula Lenska. To critical acclaim, Jimmy adapted and directed both Joyce Grenfell’s collection of letters into RE: JOYCE, starring Maureen Lipman as well as VENUS OBSERVED at Chichester in 1992 starring Donald Sinden.
He had written a number of documentaries for the B.B.C. including “The Female Messiah”, about the Shakers, which was nominated for the Italia Prize. He was a regular contributor to the B.B.C.’s program “Kaleidoscope”, and “Woman’s Hour”.
James Roose-Evans is the author of 21 books on theatre and life including his best-selling Experimental Theatre from Stanislavsky to Peter Brook (currently in its 4th edition and still reprinting). Jimmy also wrote a number of children’s books, including The Adventures of Odd and Elsewhere (1971) The Secret of the Seven Bright Shiners (1972); Elsewhere and the Gathering of the Clowns (1974); Odd and the Great Bear (1974); The Return of the Great Bear (1975); Odd to the Rescue! (1975); The Christ Mouse; The Secret of Tippity Witchit (1975) and The Lost Treasure of Wales (1977). His 7-volume saga, about Odd and Elsewhere became synonymous with British teddy bear history.
Jimmy founded the Bleddfa Centre for the Creative Spirit in Wales in 1974. He was the first British theatre director to be ordained a non-stipendiary priest in 1981, and has regularly preached in Westminster Abbey, Winchester Cathedral, Chichester, Gloucester, and Norwich cathedrals.
Jimmy’s papers are now lodged at the Harry Ransom Center, the University of Texas at Austin.
Jimmy never stopped working, directing, teaching, or talking. He remained a familiar figure in the London theatre scene and a loyal friend.