Kenneth Mackintosh was a backbone member of the National Theatre, joining in 1964 as an actor in Laurence Olivier’s first company (he was Lodovico in Olivier’s Othello) and serving under successive directors – Peter Hall, Richard Eyre, Trevor Nunn and Nicholas Hytner – as a staff director and latterly, from his “retirement” in 1992, as a consultant.

A man of tall and craggy handsomeness whose war wounds led to a leg being amputated in 1981, he died aged 87 on 29 October 2006. Speaking at his funeral in St John’s, Waterloo Road today (Friday 10 November), Peter Hall said that Mackintosh was therefore one of the first, and one of the last, optimists on the South Bank: his obsession with theatre was total, private and deeply felt.

According to Sir Peter, when Mackintosh joined the NT, he discovered exactly what he could, and what he should, do. Though a leading actor in repertory theatres after the war – during which he had been imprisoned in Stalag Luft III (the scene of The Great Escape movie) after being shot down near Cologne in 1941 – Mackintosh was appointed by Olivier to take care of productions in the repertoire as a staff director, alongside two other appointees. He relished, and thrived on, the newly created backstage role.

Nicholas Hytner, at the reception in the NT stalls bar after the funeral, recalled how much he had benefited from Mackintosh’s experience and impish eagerness to push him further all the time, to not play safe. In a gathering of the great, good and merely average, from past NT generations, it was hard not to feel that Mackintosh in some really profound way embodied the whole spirit of the National.

The former NT chairman Lady Soames joined such potent NT actors as Ronald Pickup, Trevor Ray, Glyn Grain, Jeremy Northam, Ann Bell, Guy Henry and Oliver Cotton in paying tribute – Cotton told an hilariously outrageous anecdote involving Mackintosh and the golden phallus in the Peter Brook production of Seneca’s Oedipus – and major directors such as Hall himself, Bill Gaskill - who first brought Mackintosh to Olivier’s attention, having seen him in rep in Sheffield; “we need some manly actors,” said Gaskill -- Bill Bryden, Peter Gill and Nicholas Wright. Key casting directors Gillian Diamond and Ann Robinson were also on hand.

“The poor man actually assisted me on 14 productions,” said Hall. Mackintosh’s granddaughter paid a moving tribute in the church, saying he was a good, brave man who was a creative colleague to so many people but a solid friend to even more. It was, as the actress Elizabeth Bell recited in Ecclesiastes, Chapter 3, “a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.”

- by Michael Coveney