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Charles Roberts: Critic, author, star of stage and voice of the EDP for 30 years

PUBLISHED: 14:40 11 December 2012

Charles Roberts pic

Charles Roberts pic

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Award-winning reviewer and the EDP’s long-serving arts and literary editor, Charles Roberts, has died aged 71, after a long illness at his home in France.

For almost 30 years, CVR, as he became known to generations of readers, wrote with decisive authority on the theatre and the arts and Norfolk.

As a performer, he entertained with his series of shows and was co-author of a definitive history of Norfolk’s medieval churches.

Always flamboyant, with a flair for the dramatic, he raised the profile of the arts and was a great ambassador for the EDP. As a campaigner, he fought equally hard for funding for the Theatre Royal and the Norwich Playhouse. He cared passionately about the smaller theatres too and was a founder trustee of the Sewell Barn Theatre in Norwich.

Born the youngest of three brothers in Staffordshire on August 20, 1941, he went to the local grammar school. He worked at a bookshop in Stone for three years and then applied to become a junior reporter on a north Staffordshire weekly paper, the City Times, in 1960. After six months, he joined the Evening Sentinel, Stoke-on-Trent but the lure of foreign climes led to a three-year posting in Saudi Arabia, where he became editor of the Kuwait Oil Company’s weekly news magazine.

He joined the EDP in July 8, 1968 at the paper’s former Norwich headquarters in Redwell Street, initially as a reporter covering Norfolk County Council. But his heart always lay on the stage and theatre, possibly because his mother had been a keen amateur actor.

He won the first John Bourne Memorial Award for a series of articles by a provincial journalist on the amateur theatre in 1970; two years later, he was runner-up and in 1973 he won the award again.

Although he formally became literary and (drama), later arts editor in 1975, he had been a long-standing reviewer, with the initials CVR. Just a few years later, he found a package on his office desk, just addressed: CVR, EDP, NOR1. In those days, the EDP did not hold with bylines for journalists but gradually the name of Charles Roberts became more widely known as editorial policy changed.

His enthusiasm for the stage led to writing, devising and producing original drama including his first documentary entertainment, Hero’s Daughter, which featured two stories about Nelson. The premiere, at St Mary’s Church, Burnham Westgate, in August 1976, was swiftly sold out.

It was quickly followed by others including Parish, Pew and Pulpit in the 1980s, which looked at the life of the Anglican church, especially in Norfolk and Suffolk during the past 150 years.

On stage, he also produced and performed a costumed musical play, Mr Handel in London, which was taken to Norwich’s twin city, Koblenz, and then featured in 1988 in Anglia Television’s Folio programme.

His long-running Evening with Charles Dickens had its first outing in west Norfolk at Oxburgh Hall and rapidly became a firm favourite with audiences across the region. As the EDP noted in May 1993, it “cast a spell over the large and appreciative audience” at Beccles Public Hall. The next year Mad Dogs and Englishman was equally well-received at Gorleston.

He fought for the arts throughout his whole career, which spanned almost 30 years until he wrote his final EDP column in April 2009. His efforts were recognised when in May 1990, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, the prestigious society formed in 1754 “for the encouragement of Arts, Manufacture and Commerce”.

Three years later, he became an honorary Master of Arts at the University of East Anglia, far right. His citation was for his work in stimulating the cultural awareness of the region “both through his incisive reviewing and his own work as a performer”. And Prof Malcolm Bradbury, who ran the university’s MA programme in creative writing, said that Mr Roberts had made an important contribution to all the arts in the area.

“It cannot be entirely by chance that over the 25 years of Charles Roberts’s stint at the EDP the cultural life of Norwich and Norfolk has blossomed enormously,” he said.

His enthusiasm for churches led to a joint venture with Sam Mortlock to produce the first volume of the Popular Guide to Norfolk Churches, published in 1981. CVR, who wrote the 20,000 word glossary, noted that his favourite churches were Edingthorpe and then Barney. By 1985, when they had completed the three volumes, the co-authors had driven more than 7,000 miles to research the book covering the county’s 659 medieval churches.

Then, in 1989, he wrote a comprehensive guide, extending to 95 pages to the city of Norwich through its 1,000-year history. He wrote a good biography about the Earl of Kimberley and a book about Newmarket’s racing history.

He was never one to dodge a scrap. When Norwich’s Theatre Royal became a political football, supported as it was by a Labour-controlled city council, he threw himself into battle to secure funding. And with an ally, a little Irishman, Dick Condon, who had the dream of turning a small provincial theatre into a national treasure, it was saved. As the EDP recorded: “For a positive CVR review would guarantee a successful week. Bums on seats was Dick’s measure of success.”

He interviewed many of the leading British actors and delivered his “carefully-considered” opinion fearlessly. When he said that Richard Briers as King Lear did a poor job, he wrote just that. Then a couple of days later, Dick Condon introduced him again. Expecting a tirade of abuse, the actor said that he had read CVR’s notice and agreed, so had changed his portrayal.

In October 1992, he was named Britain’s top regional arts critic. He was a member of the Eastern Arts Association and the Norfolk drama committee and since January 1974 had been an associate of the Guild of Drama Adjudicators.

His columns became required reading and a glint of his humour always shone through.

When he wrote about the death of his beloved horse, he was taken aback by the support from dozens and dozens of EDP readers.

He relished the chance to write about food, in his Eating Out column, launched in March 1993. On other topics, he wrote with compassion. In January 1991, he reflected that he had been in Prague during the 1968 Dubcek spring – and then recalled, a short time later, watching television with tears running down his face as Russian tanks smashed their way in. And then living in Cyprus before Greco-Turkish ferment wrought destruction and then again, his memories of Lebanon before civil war reduced Beirut to dereliction.

But he could be savage too as he admitted in March 1982 when he recalled for only the second time in his professional reviewing career that he left a performance in disgust – at the Puppet Theatre in Norwich.

His love of the country, and keeping a horse to ride to hounds, when he could afford the cap, was another strand. He also competed in events, had two nasty falls and full blue light dash to hospital, by ambulance. In March 1984, he fell from his mare, Chorus Line in a hunter trial at Gresham and sustained a fractured cheek bone.

He transformed his home at Yaxham, near Dereham, into a small country estate even planting 450 trees. He became a superb cook and was always an exceptional host. Having spent holidays in France, he became hooked and decided to settle in his retirement with his partner Guy in a remote region.

When he took early retirement at the age of 56 in the summer of 1997, he kept in touch with Norfolk and the EDP with his regular column for another dozen years. As a former editor, Peter Franzen, wrote when CVR drew down the curtain on his writing career in 2009: “He proved that the pen (or keyboard) was still mightier than the sword although he always wielded this weapon with precision and fairness.”

A funeral service will be held in France on Saturday, December 8. Michael Pollitt

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