Stage star Barrie Rutter faces cancer fight

For the past half-a-century, he has carved out a stage career that has garnered praise and has seen him at the forefront of Yorkshire’s arts scene.

Barrie Rutter

But now Barrie Rutter OBE, the Hull-born veteran actor and director, is facing up to his biggest battle yet as he has been diagnosed with throat cancer.

The man who founded the Halifax theatre company, Northern Broadsides, was told last week that he had the condition and will begin treatment within the week.

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Rutter, 73, said: “You can’t walk around with your head down by your heels. You get news like this and it has to be medical pragmatism from now on. I’m in the good and skilled and compassionate hands of the wonderful NHS.

“All I’m doing is putting my great trust in a wonderful organisation, having friends and family around to help and that sounds like a goodly trio to me.”

The actor knew something was wrong over the Christmas period when he started to experience “something like a fish scale trapped in my throat that I couldn’t cough up”.

“On December 29, I was passed straight to the consultant, I had a biopsy a week later and last Wednesday I got the results,” said Rutter. “I just accepted it and wanted to know what the practical next step was. The speed of the diagnosis prepared me for something bad, but it’s still a body blow.”

On Friday last week, two days after the diagnosis, Rutter took to the stage in his native Hull at Hull Truck Theatre to perform an evening of music, storytelling and poetry with folk singer Eliza Carthy. Audience members were not told that they were attending what is likely to be Rutter’s last stage appearance for some time.

He said: “Because you have no idea how the treatment will affect you, I thought this is probably my last performance for a while. I was on great form. I knew I wanted to have a good time and I did.

“It was a bit weird, but you get on stage and you have some good material and you get a few laughs and you think ‘why spoil this by throwing in the hand grenade of the news?’. A good last one prior to the treatment.”

Rutter starred alongside Diana Dors in the 1970s sitcom Queenie’s Castle and appeared in the movie version of Porridge but is best known as the man who founded and led Northern Broadsides for over 25 years.

He was driven to create Northern Broadsides in the face of local opposition and national derision after being told he could never play a king while working at the National Theatre, because of his Northern accent.

His response was to set up a company in 1992 where everyone from the kings down, would share his own Northern tongue.

Rutter grew Broadsides to a company which toured the country from its base in Halifax’s Dean Clough Mills.

In 2000, he was awarded the £100,000 top prize in the Creative Briton awards.

In 2017, Rutter left Northern Broadsides with a series of blazing jabs at the Arts Council, after his request for an uplift in funding for the company was turned down.

He has since worked at the Globe and around the country.

Appointed an OBE in 2015, highlights of Barrie Rutter’s career include convincing Sir Lenny Henry to take on his first stage role as Othello and staging a marathon trilogy of Shakespeare plays in 2006.

With Northern Broadsides, he played most of Shakespeare’s major roles, and received the Sam Wanamaker Award in 2003 for promoting the Bard. He was given honorary doctorates from the University of Bradford and Lancaster University.

On Desert Island Discs in 2016, he refused the Bible, but took the complete works of Shakespeare and a collection of Tony Harrison’s poems.