Obituaries

Archetypal Celt; king of the theatre of the mind: Jack Mullen

TRIBUTE TO JACK MULLEN BY THEMBA NHLAPO.

Nhlapo, Themba Jack Mullen Photo

A man of his word: Jack Mullen. Photograph courtesy The Star Tonight! December 1990.

CREATING VIVID PICTURES with intriguing characters and bold imagery, using language with an impeccable sense of craft and playing with the possibilities of music were part and parcel of Jack Mullen’s creative process to entertain and evoke emotion in radio, aka “the theatre of the mind.” Well known for his precision when it came to radio dramas in all aspects, whether it be in production, writing or performing, Mullen was a perfectionist. He succumbed to pneumonia on 10 October 2019. He had just turned 80.

Mullen was born into a big Irish household of five children who shared a love for theatre, which was forged by their father who had had his own theatre as a young man. Born on 5 September 1939 in Dublin, Mullen was schooled at the prestigious Belvedere College in Dublin where people of the ilk of James Joyce cut their teeth.

After his school studies, he worked as an actor for Dublin’s Gate Theatre Productions, a production company owned by Hilton Edwards and Michael MacLiammoir, while also writing revue material for the Lantern Theatre. He briefly lived in England, where he worked as a barman at a high-end golf club, before he moved to South Africa in 1962.

It was a photograph taken by one of his sisters who had moved to Cape Town, South Africa with her new husband, that got the young, adventure-ready Mullen enthused. He came to South Africa and never looked back. Upon arriving in the country, he worked as the municipality’s City Archivist and liaison officer to the Town Clerk, and wrote speeches and documentation for many well-known Capetonians, including the speech presented by famous heart surgeon Dr Christiaan Barnard after he had successfully performed the world’s first heart transplant in 1967.

Mullen started writing plays and other material for Springbok Radio and the SABC English Service in 1967. He ventured further into acting by landing roles in numerous radio dramas and comedies such A Life of Bliss and the 007 spoof My Name Is Adam Kane, to name a few.

By 1969, Mullen was clearly in his stride. He was getting recognition in his newly adopted country, and when one of his radio plays, Crate, was entered for the Prix Italia by Irish radio station, Radio Telefis Eirann, and was subsequently broadcasted in France and the former Yugoslavia, he knew he had chosen the right path. He was offered a drama producer’s post with the English Service and moved to Johannesburg in 1976.

Many local and international awards followed for his radio plays, including the SA Scriptwriters’ Association IDEM award for radio in 1982 and 1986, the SABC radio prize of the Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns in 1988, and three Artes awards: in 1988 for Best Drama Script, in 1989 for his production of The Rebellion of Larfas Verwey by Chris Barnard, and in 1993 for Best Actor in English.

His popular late-night music programme, Jacktrack, ran for over five years on the English Service. Other radio work he did for the English Service was presenting on shows such as Desert Island Discs and Sounds of the Cinema and producing Audio Mix, a late-afternoon drive show. But this was not all. Mullen worked a little on television – which was introduced to South Africa in 1976 – hosting the magazine programme Two-Way Street, presenting A Better Mouse-Trap, and copresenting a gardening programme, Dig This, with Keith Kirsten. By 1986, he had become the head of the drama department of Radio South Africa.

Many of his colleagues rooted for him to be the head of Radio South Africa, after seeing his extraordinary management and administrative skills and his determination to get the best out of many people who he guided and mentored as drama head. And this came to pass on 1 January 1991. It was a position he held for over five years, which included the transition to SAfm, before resigning, as he did not want to focus on the politics of the corporation but rather the craft of radio.

After stepping down, Mullen went back to his first love, radio drama, and wrote A Sinner Most Unlearned about Saint Patrick; a daily serial, The Phoenix Camouflage with Richard Mwamba, and documentaries, among many others. Indulging his curiosity for technology, Mullen also worked on a science programme on SAfm called Future Watch and reviewed gadgets (which he loved) on a programme called Gadgets and Gizmos.

But that was not all: Mullen filled the rest of his spare time with work for a non-governmental organisation, writing scripts for Foundation Phase learners in the classroom, and for ten years, working and writing for Talk2Us, a branding and communication company. He rounded off his working years by returning to radio drama in the form of a radio play-writing competition adjudicator.

Mullen was a gentle man of wit and talent who was generous with his time and skills. Moody occasionally, but brilliant always, Mullen enjoyed good food and good laughter, wherever he went.

His wife, Diane, describes him as “supportive in times of trouble and very good about conceding if he was wrong.” He was the archetypal Celt: sometimes irritable but kind, clever and funny. The talented dramatist also leaves his three adult daughters: Emma and twins Alice and Jo, two granddaughters, and two sisters, Brenda and Pauline, as well as many friends, mentees and colleagues in the industry, not forgetting millions of radio theatre fans.

  • Themba Nhlapo is a first year Fine Arts student at the University of Pretoria. He is part of the VIT 101 class, being taught the rudiments of arts writing by Robyn Sassen during 2020.

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