Lives of the fellows

Robert Charles William Luff

b.7 July 1914 d.18 February 2009
CBE(1995) OStJ(1992) CBE(1995) Hon FRCP(1992)

Robert Charles William Luff was a theatre producer and impresario, whose foundation financed medical research. He was born in Bedford, the son of Robert Hill Luff, an engineer, and his wife, Ethel Maud. At Bedford Modern School he learnt to play the drums and, for a while, formed his own dance band. A fan of big band music, he started booking bands for dances in the Bedford area and continued to do this during his first job working in the local council offices.

When he was 19, he decided to abandon thoughts of a legal career and moved to London, where he worked for a music magazine Rhythm and founded his own publicity company. He was so successful that he eventually represented several of London’s most popular bands and many famous stars such as Gracie Fields, Jon Pertwee and the dance troupe the Tiller Girls. The 1930s were the early years of commercial radio and Luff produced shows for both Radio Normandie and Radio Luxembourg.

During the Second World War he served as a major in the Gordon Highlanders, travelling to India and Burma. Towards the end of hostilities he was staff major in the 4 Corps Fourteenth Army. His business partner, Beryl Evetts, kept the agency going throughout the war years.

Luff’s greatest success was as producer of the stage version of a popular television programme The Black and White Minstrel Show. The series was launched on television in 1958 and featured white dancers and blacked up white singers. In spite of the Notting Hill riots and the rise of the civil rights movement in the USA, it became the longest running show in the West End and toured the UK, Australia and New Zealand. The BBC eventually ended the series in 1978, but the stage show continued until 1987. He insisted there were no racist aspects to either production and that it was ‘good, old fashioned entertainment’.

Apart from show business, golf and cricket, his main interest was philanthropy. He set up the Robert Luff Foundation to provide money for medical research. The foundation supported units at the Royal Brompton Hospital, the Middlesex Hospital (where he had been a patient) and funded a chair in medicine at London University. Various cancer research projects also benefited, as did the St John Ambulance and the British Lung Foundation. He became an honorary fellow of the RCP in 1992 and in 1995 he was appointed CBE for his services to medical research. Bedford Modern, his old school, also benefited hugely from his generosity and the Robert Luff Centre now houses the new school library, which he opened in 1996 with the comedian Lenny Henry, one of his protégées.

RCP editor

[ Daily Telegraph 24 February 2009; The Guardian www.theguardian.com/culture/2009/apr/20/robert-luff-obituary-minstrel-show/ – accessed on 20 November 2014]

(Volume XII, page web)

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