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Obituary: Canon Brian Cook

11 September 2020

The Rt Revd Graeme Knowles writes:

IT IS hard to know where to begin when trying to encapsulate the life and influence of Brian Edwin Cook: husband, father, grandfather, actor, theatrical director, teacher, puppeteer, priest, confessor, trainer of curates, and friend.

Born in 1936, but bombed out of central London, he grew up in Tunbridge Wells. His mother sang with the D’Oyly Carte, and Brian found his way into the choir at King Charles the Martyr, Tunbridge Wells, often singing as a treble on the radio for the BBC. After National Service, he went up to RADA, a contemporary of actors such as John Thaw and Tom Courtenay. He was never out of work as an actor, appearing in repertory. His heart, though, was set on a career as a director.

In 1968, he founded the drama department of the Arts Educational Schools, which, up until that time, had majored solely on dance. Under his influence as director, within four years, the schools had been recognised by the Department of Education, enabling students to claim grants. He was also instrumental in founding the Conference of Drama Schools.

In the field of puppeteering, a childhood hobby became an adult skill. In England, in contrast with the Continent, puppeteering was not a mainstream activity. In his championing of the Puppet Centre in Battersea, he was in at the start of the movement that now has puppeteering as a central part of the world of drama.

RADIUS, the Religious Drama Society of Great Britain, owes much to Brian’s enthusiasm and gifts. He was a regular teacher at its summer schools and latterly served as chairman of the society’s Council.

Brian married the actress Yvette Byrne; at least three friends claimed that they had brought them together. Working as a Samaritan in London, often taking night shifts, he soon moved to training volunteers. The call to ordination came softly and steadily. After selection, Brian moved to Salisbury, where he trained for ordination.

In 1980, the diocese of Southwark provided Brian with his title at Welling, under the watchful eye of his training incumbent Martin Clark. The rest of his parochial ministry was in the diocese of Portsmouth, first as Priest-in-Charge of Sheet, moving to be Rector of Liss in 1986. He was twice Rural Dean of Petersfield, being made an Hon. Canon of Portsmouth Cathedral in 1996. In retirement, Brian had an active ministry at St Nicholas’s, Arundel.

A Liss parishioner described Brian’s priestly ministry as one of “energy, imagination, and purpose”. Above all, to be close to him was to be close to laughter and a life lived to the full. Visitors to the rectory had to be ready for the appearance of the rector’s donkey in the sitting room. Like Brian himself, the donkey was deeply interested in people. The more hidden side of his priesthood saw him sought out as a confessor and spiritual director; he was also a gifted training incumbent.

When he was near to death, Brian said to Yvette that they had lived “a life of adventures”. Brian died on 3 August, aged 84, in St Wilfrid’s Hospice, Bosham, having just heard Morning Prayer read to him by a former curate, who had earlier anointed him. His requiem in Arundel was attended by the regulation 30 souls, but Brian’s ministry was wonderfully recognised by the applauding crowds lining the High Street down the hill from the church as his body was driven away to be cremated.

The Gospel reading at the requiem was from St John. It ended: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Brian grasped the life given him and lived it abundantly.

May he rest in peace and rise in glory.

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