Obituary: Ian Smith, businessman and impresario

Ian Smith
Ian Smith
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Ian Smith, who has died at 80, was founder, chairman and artistic director of the International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival which takes place each year in Harrogate and Buxton.

A uniquely English phenomenon involving some 2,000 performers each time, its spirit of absurdity and eccentricity was instilled in it by its creator. Performing groups, he decreed, should have just a few hours to set up their lights and scenery, and rehearse with the orchestra before curtain up, after which would they have to strike everything and clear the stage for the next group.

It was a pantomime in which he revelled. “There is simply nothing else quite like it,” he said, also reflecting upon “some artistic triumphs and some financial disasters”.

Originally from Halifax, he had begun his professional life as a local journalist before turning businessman, working for the British Aircraft Corporation, David Brown Industries and the Vilene Group of Companies.

In 1974, he started his own business, the British Sewing, Knitting and Needlecraft Association, to assist suppliers around the country and attempt to kick start a declining industry.

A decade later, he was behind the Automatic Identification Industry Association for Europe, promoting the new practices of barcoding and biometrics, and later heading up a Government project on food traceability in the wake of the outbreak of BSE, or mad cow disease, as it became popularly known. He also led global watch missions to America and Japan for the Department of Trade, and worked closely on the development of anti-counterfeit solutions.

Not one for standing still, he opened companies in the USA and Hungary and in the days before the internet or even the fax machine, formed International Travel Partners, a group of 40 travel agents around the world, to help him operate and run exhibitions and conferences.

But it was the music and words of Gilbert and Sullivan that were his enduring passion. Throughout his life, he played all the “patter roles” and eventually formed his own amateur society, the West Yorkshire Savoyards, and performed with them in Ireland, America and Hungary.

The international festival was born in 1994, at Buxton Opera House, moving five years ago to the Royal Hall, in Harrogate. Mr Smith created the professional National Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company to perform there, and it now also tours the UK in its own right.

The glorious music of Sir Arthur Sullivan, coupled with the astute satire of Sir WS Gilbert, he observed, “would not be out of place in today’s party political spats”.

He is survived by his wife, Janet, and children Belinda, Neil, Oliver Henry and Charles.