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Paul Burbridge (1953-2023)

Updated: Jun 15, 2023

The life and work of Paul Burbridge influenced countless people around the world. He was one of the co-founders of Riding Lights Theatre Company in 1977 and the Artistic Director until his death in April. He was also a longstanding trustee of The Wayfarer Trust

Paul will be remembered for his brilliant creative imagination, his hilarious sense of humour and outstanding gifts as a comic actor. Above all, he will be remembered for his gentle spirit, his calm character, his ability to deal with any crisis with cheerfulness and optimism and the sheer humility and servant character of his leadership. He was a true man of God, touching hearts wherever he went.

Paul Burbridge was born in Hoylake, Merseyside in 1953, in the same town as his lifelong friend and collaborator Murray Watts. Their friendship lay at the heart of the Riding Lights vision, which began with childhood sketches, dressing up games and home-made radio shows.

He was the son of Branse Burbridge, one of the greatest heroes of World War 2, and he not only loved to wear his father’s flying jacket but he also he inherited his courage and pioneering spirit. In the days before he died, he remembered playing Tensing and Hillary with Murray when they were small boys, conquering Mount Everest (an event that took place in the year that he was born) and he did in fact become an extremely good rock climber as a teenager. But the mountains he ascended were mountains of faith and art, Himalayan ridges of spirituality, theatre, social justice, passionate communication and profound love for his family, his friends, his colleagues and his audiences.

Paul’s talents were very evident at Merchant Taylor’s School in Northwood, London. He excelled in sport – Captain of Rugby – he was academically brilliant – he designed the sets and took the starring roles in school plays, he was very musical and could sing and play the guitar very well, he drew wonderfully funny cartoons. And, of course, he eventually became head boy.

His gap year was typically adventurous and his experiences in Israel later informed Riding Lights productions in Israel and Palestine.

In 1972, he studied English literature at St Peter’s College, Oxford (his father’s old college) and graduated with first class honours. Paul could have pursued a distinguished academic career, he could have gone into the City of London and made lots of money, he could have been a great headmaster or leader of any company or charity, but like his father before him his eyes were not fixed on any kind of worldly success or renown. He dreamed of forming a theatre company, based on a church, a project that would restore the spirit of the mystery plays and reach out far beyond the boundaries of normal Christian ministry.

But his achievements and dreams at Oxford would have been nothing without Bernadette Goss, a fellow student who later became his wife. Bernadette’s love, humour, fearless honesty and spirit of adventure informed his whole life. Paul loved her Cornish heritage and they spent annual holidays there, they shared a profound love for Celtic spirituality and Bernadette’s later work as a BBC producer and presenter, and as a very active member of Synod, extended Paul’s own thinking and understanding of church life and communication. They were the dynamic partnership at the heart of Riding Lights, and in the very early and indeed the later years of the Company, Bernadette’s administrative skill and presence undoubtedly held the project together and guided it forward so strongly.

Another crucial factor, perhaps the most formative of all in the creation of Riding Lights, was Paul’s friendship with the Revd David Watson, who had recently taken over St. Michael le Belfrey Church in York. David was fascinated by the theatre experiments of Paul and Murray, particularly street theatre missions. David invited Paul to come and live with him in York and pilot the idea of a new theatre company based on a church which was already becoming the centre of a renewal movement. David Watson was arguably the most powerful evangelist in Britain at the time, but his preaching was based on a very deep love and commitment to community, to dynamic church life, to exploring all possibilities of enriching the churches worldwide and having an impact on society through integrity and faith. The ‘marriage’ between Paul’s vision for a theatre company and David’s prophetic role in the church at that time was the secret of the enormous success of Riding Lights.

Paul took a year out, with Bernadette and also with Murray, to study for a Diploma in Theology at St. John’s College Nottingham – this was Bernadette’s idea to prepare the way for a different kind of ordained ministry, an intellectual and spiritual anointing for theatre. Needless to say, although Paul didn’t appear to do a lot of work, he came out with a Distinction.

The other great and wonderful influence on Riding Lights was the arrival on the scene of Nigel Forde. Nigel was an actor-director, living and working in York, who was nine years older than Paul and Murray. He had been converted at one of David Watson’s evangelistic services and David said, ‘You ought to get together with Nigel.’ The rest is history. Nigel brought his own brilliant acting, incredibly mischievous sense of humour, his polymathic skills as a writer, director, musician, poet, artist and literary expert to the formation of Riding Lights and for some years the company was run by the triumvirate of Paul, Murray and Nigel.

The early years were astonishing. To name a few events, Riding Lights performed in many churches and arts festivals, took part in a service of reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants at St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast in 1977 (a performance that was picketed by followers of Ian Paisley), performed evangelistic sketches in the Crumlin Road Jail and many other prisons, toured every kind of venue from major theatres to the Wensleydale Cheese Factory (one of Paul’s favourite venues) and in 1979 Riding Lights won a Fringe First at the Edinburgh Festival for the comic revue, ‘Colour Radio’, with music by Victor Lewis Smith and Chris Norton, and material written by Murray, Paul and Nigel. No one who saw that show will forget Paul’s memorable performance as a front of house manager, forced to go on stage at the beginning of the show because the ‘curtain had stuck’ and tell the audience a joke… even though he did not know any jokes. The audience were in tears of laughter and Paul could easily have gone on from his performances in this revue to a major career as a comic writer and actor (as many people do from award-winning shows at the Edinburgh Festival). But Paul’s ambitions were different. His focus was always on other people, never on himself. He was immune to flattery, very self-deprecating. His eyes were steadily on the Kingdom of God, surely a very rare quality in the world of arts and media.

He had no interest in the award ceremonies which characterise and sometimes dominate the world of theatre and film, but there was one award which Paul received on behalf of Riding Lights in 1992. It was the Templeton UK Project award and previous winners included the Corrymeela Community in Northern Ireland and the Iona Community in Scotland. The citation for Riding Lights was ‘for enabling people to hear the Gospel gladly.’ It was a unique recognition by a world famous charity of the power of theatre in the spiritual realm.

Riding Lights productions over the years included a superb version of Shakespeare’s ‘A Winter’s Tale’ and a Number One Tour of St John’s Gospel, both directed by Paul. One of his finest artistic achievements was the co-direction of the York Mystery Plays with Damien Cruden, Artistic Director of York Theatre Royal – an incredible moment of the Riding Lights vision coming full circle, right back to the roots of early drama, with all its comedy and pathos and power and beauty.

Paul often worked very closely with the renowned West End theatre designer, Sean Cavanagh, who became very involved with Riding Lights and gave so much time and energy to the company, its strategy and vision. Paul undoubtedly had a talent for great creative friendships

As an artistic director, he was always extending new boundaries, with a very challenging production which toured Palestine, plays about homelessness, family and social issues and, most recently, a new production about Artificial Intelligence.

Yet, in the midst of all these notable and moving productions, Paul and Bernadette pioneered many years of Riding Lights Summer Schools which influenced thousands of young people from all over the UK. The inspirational Summer Schools and their impact is one of their greatest legacies. Paul and Bernadette also had a constant eye on the younger generation and their creation of ‘Riding Lights Roughshod’ saw young actors trained and sent out on tours throughout the UK and beyond.

Paul’s influence, particular from the publication of his first book with Murray Watts in 1979, ‘Time to Act’ and the many books of sketches that followed, has been enormous. Hodder and Stoughton considered Time to Act such a risk, they insisted on Riding Lights buying a thousand copies… but the book sold well into six figures and in many ways started something of a movement around the world. Countless drama companies, ranging from amateur church groups to professional companies with a Christian vision were inspired by Paul and Riding Lights Theatre Company.

It is also fair to say that Riding Lights has had a significant influence on church life, particularly the Church of England, over many decades. A succession of Archbishops of Canterbury have been Presidents of Riding Lights as well as being friends and encouragers of Paul and the company. Riding Lights has contributed to many Christian conferences, including the Lambeth Conference, over the years.

It is indeed an amazing achievement that Riding Lights is still going strong after 46 years (without Arts Council grants) and this is simply down to Paul’s selfless dedication. He made it his life’s work. He had Bernadette to support him and it is a heart-rending fact that Paul died one month before he was due to retire: for both Paul and Bernadette had made so many, many sacrifices to ensure the success and survival of the company and to preserve its remarkable gift to the world.

Paul’s contribution to The Wayfarer Trust, as a loyal, wise and warm trustee was immeasurable. In the midst of his incredibly busy life, he found time to support Murray, Monique, all the trustees and the whole visionary enterprise. It was typical of his loving and compassionate character that he gave so much, not just to Wayfarer, but to many other initiatives throughout his life. Riding Lights, of course, is his crowning achievement.

But in the days before he died, Paul was able to say that his greatest legacy was not Riding Lights, nor the productions, nor the countless different projects over the years and around the world, but his own remarkable children: Patrick, Caitlin and Erin. All three are highly creative young people of faith and witness and humour and strong character. They are the living proof of Paul and Bernadette’s nobility of spirit, their tender loving and generous parenthood. At the recent Thanksgiving Service for Paul’s life, held in St Michael le Belfrey Church in York, the reality of Paul’s wonderful kindness and love shone through – for his life was a radiant reflection of the Lord he loved.

- Murray Watts -


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