Viv Jacobs: Fighter pilot and theatre director who discovered Kiri Te Kanawa

PUBLISHED: 11:48 23 July 2012

vivian jacobs

vivian jacobs



A fighter pilot and theatrical producer in Norfolk, Sqn Ldr Viv Jacobs, who has died aged 93, discovered the acclaimed international opera singer Dame Kira Te Kanawa.

On active service throughout the second world war, he served in the RAF for 17 years before spending a quarter of a century in Norfolk, where he became heavily involved in encouraging drama and the arts.

Although his dream of creating a performing musical academy in Norwich never materialised, he helped many young and aspiring youngsters over the years. His “Search for Talent 92” at Norwich Sport Village was just one example.

He established the Jubilee Theatre Arts Society, at the instigation of Dick Condon, when he was working at the Theatre Royal, Norwich, administering the theatre arts course.

Born in New Zealand, his studies at Auckland University were interrupted by the outbreak of war. He enlisted in the Royal New Zealand Air Force in 1939, and was sent to Canada for training. In early 1941, he was then posted to 136 Squadron, stationed at Kirton-in-Lindsey, Lincolnshire, flying Hurricanes and then Spitfires.

After it became operational later that year, the squadron joined South East Asia Command, where their dozens planes were heavily out-numbered by the Japanese.

It was in a jungle clearing in Burma 40 miles from the Japanese that he staged his pantomime. Then, several days later an action on New Year’s Eve 1943, so impressed prime minister Winston Churchill that he sent a telegram of congratulations.

In 1947, he obtained a permanent commission, and converted to flying Meteors. He served in Malaya for three years in the mid 1950s, commanding 45 Squadron against the communists before retiring in 1958.

His book, The Woodpecker Story, charted the success of 136 Squadron’s “green” aircrew as the unit became the most successful, winning five DFCs and two DFMs in its first two-and-a-half years of continuous operations.

After returning to his native New Zealand, he became involved in the travel industry for 25 years, later starting his own business. While heavily involved as a producer and director for operatic societies, he discovered a young singer in the chorus in Auckland and gave her a starring role in his next production. She was Kiri Te Kanawa.

After working in the US, he returned to England, later becoming administrator of the theatre arts course at Norwich for two years. He directed numerous productions at the Puppet Theatre and also St Gregory’s Music Centre. His efforts to create an Academy of Music Theatre were unsuccessful despite appeals to the theatre world. The singer songwriter Phil Collins sent the only donation – of £500.

His academy project received royal recognition when he was presented to the Queen in November 1992.

In the following years, he staged musicals at the Noverre and Assembly House, and also St Andrew’s Hall, Norwich, before retiring to his native New Zealand.

He leaves a son, Martin, who is an actor in Australia, daughter Louisa, and six grandchildren.

A funeral will be held on Monday, July 23 in New Zealand.

Michael Pollitt

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