Beryl Vertue – A Life In Comedy

Photos courtesy of Graham McCann and Wikimedia commons

This week Britain woke to yet another reminder of the fading light of the pioneering generation of British comedy when it was revealed that legendary executive Beryl Vertue had sadly passed away aged 90. A trailblazer in the world of television and pioneer of literary representation, in an unprecedented career spanning an astonishing seven decades, Beryl Vertue forever remained on the cutting edge of the Arts and was beloved by her industry. Yet her formidable contribution to British comedy remains somewhat unrecognised amongst the general consensus of the public eye which is a travesty. Still her death in February 2022 possibly marks the end of an era for the original generation of post-war entertainment.


Answering a job advert in the local newspaper in 1953 would, unbeknown to her, welcome Vertue into a unique world which she would come to dominate for the next six decades. Associated London Scripts based above a greengrocers on Uxbridge Road in Shepherd’s Bush was originally established merely as a basic way for Spike Milligan to submit Goon Show scripts to the BBC in his frequent spells of manic depression. Landlord of The Grafton Arms turned BBC announcer Jimmy Grafton had previously acted as Milligan’s representative when negotiating deals but even the unconventional brain of Spike Milligan realised the need for theatrical representation. Therefore she may only have been on the wages of a tea lady though under Vertue’s pioneering leadership, Associated London Scripts went from merely an access point to one of the most creative, influential and successful talent agencies in Britain.


Whilst at ALS, Vertue realised the increasing value of the output which was occurring out of this creative hotbed. By such time she was single-handedly representing influential creative figures including; Spike Milligan, Eric Sykes together with Ray Galton and Alan Simpson and a young Johnny Speight. Such a task was proving increasingly harder as each writers’ workload grew and the agency expanded to incorporate representation for entertainers. For this, Beryl recruited a handful of junior secretaries and in turn helped to cultivate and nurture the next generation of literary and theatrical agents, something which seemed revolutionary for its time. Everyone from Tessa Le Bars to Norma Farnes benefited from Vertue’s groundbreaking foresight and remained with their charges throughout their careers.


This coincided with the emergence of the American television market which now became interested in exportation of British comedy vehicles for the very first time. Again, Beryl saw the value in such a concept and treated it as a business agreement rather than merely an international exchange. Having overseen the successful transition of Hancock’s Half Hour from radio to television in 1956, she quickly realised the benefits of selling such formats across the pond. Yet while ALS was a creative hotbed, all members were content merely writing for British audiences and playing around with their own brand of off the wall humour. This was all about to change as the conservative fifties gave way to the swinging sixties and Britain’s public conscience was born.


In 1962 Head of Light Entertainment Tom Sloan offered Vertue’s clients Ray Galton and Alan Simpson the opportunity to pen six different sitcom pilots following the departure of their sole performer; Tony Hancock. Comedy Playhouse took the form of six self contained sitcoms starring some of the biggest names in comedy and theatre in a bid to land a reoccurring series. As an agent, it fell to Vertue to act as the middle man between the corporation and the comedy writing stalwarts and developed an excellence for negotiating a deal. This resulted in the long running bittersweet sitcom Steptoe and Son starring theatre actors Wilfred Bramble and Harry H. Corbett. While at this stage of her career, Vertue was merely concerned with securing the right deals for her various charges, her knowledge and insight of the TV fraternity was rapidly growing. This slowly gained her recognition amongst elite showbiz circles and it wasn’t long before Beryl Vertue would become one of the most important figures in Light Entertainment.


Associated London Scripts disbanded in 1966 as the major campaigners each agreed to go their separate ways merely as a natural progression for their respective careers: Spike Milligan and Eric Sykes set up home at Orme Court in Kensington. While Galton and Simpson joined Frankie Howerd as part of Tessa Le Bars Management who remained loyal to them until their respective deaths. Meanwhile Beryl Vertue had already been headhunted by theatrical impresario Robert Stigwood who was looking to expand his growing empire to incorporate the newly financially lucrative world of British comedy.


With Vertue’s unrivalled insight and experience of the British comedy landscape, she became a vital tool in the media expansion of the Robert Stigwood Organisation. Bringing with her the rights to major TV comedy formats, Beryl continued to sell British comedy vehicles to the American market including Johnny Speight’s Till Death Us Do Part which she became an ardent supporter of despite accusations of blatant racism and xenophobia. Vertue was quick to understand the satirical tone in which Till Death Us Do Part was intended and as an associate of Speight, felt compelled to defend it. On 12th January 1971 CBS premiered the first episode of All In The Family based on Johnny Speight’s controversial sitcom classic which paved the way for a succeeding comedy formats to cross the Atlantic in the search of international success. Yet it was Beryl Vertue’s vision which was the catalyst for transatlantic exchange.


Beyond comedy, The Robert Stigwood Organisation was one of the most reputable names in theatre and music. The management team behind music heavyweights; The Bee Gees and Cream, Robert Stigwood spearheaded a multi functional entertainment factory which was a first of its kind. Stigwood’s theatrical domination would offer Beryl the opportunity to widen her entertainment expertise as the theatrical impresario tasted success with the West End adaptation of Hair before collaborating with Andrew Lloyd-Webber for the award winning Saturday Night Fever. Yet Stigwood’s flair for entertainment made him realise that in Vertue he had probably the best comedy scout in the business and he was certain to make the most of it. 

Beryl’s unrivalled grounding in British comedy offered the organisation another string to an already generous sized bow. Inheriting Associated London Scripts, Stigwood quickly established Associated London Films, making Vertue executive producer. This new company became responsible for classic British comedy films including The Plank; the silent movie written by and starring Eric Sykes alongside Tommy Cooper. Indeed throughout her tenure at The Stigwood Organisation, Vertue never forgot the talents of her former clients at Associated London Scripts and was always eager to find them platforms to showcase their unique talents in the way that only she knew.


Embracing the new phenomenon of the TV movie, under Beryl’s leadership Associated London Films now had the platform to offer Britain’s biggest names in comedy the opportunity to hit the big screen. This included movie spin-offs of sitcoms Steptoe and Son and Till Death Us Do Part into feature length movie specials. Having enjoyed such a close relationship with both Johnny Speight and Galton and Simpson, Beryl had seen their success from penning early scripts to witnessing their work on screen. Therefore she had developed a nose for comedy and instantly knew which pieces had potential for upscaling to a 90 minute movie. Just like Stigwood himself had a specialism in music and theatre production, Beryl Vertue had created an unrivalled expertise which proved vital to Stigwood’s growing empire.


After the best part of fifteen years at the Robert Stigwood Organisation, Beryl made the brave decision to step out on her own and created her very own production company Hartswood Films in 1979. Their early work was mostly dominated by selling British television formats to American networks which had been the staple of Vertue’s tenure at both ALS and The Stigwood Organisation. In partnership with daughter Sue, Beryl’s knowledge and experience of the television fraternity together with her developing skills as a producer, helped Hartswood Films go from niche independent production house to one of the most prolific content providers in the world.


Forever a champion of comedy, in 1992 Hartswood Films became responsible for an early evening sitcom written by Simon Nye. Broadcast as part of ITV’s early evening line-up, Men Behaving Badly starred Martin Clunes and Harry Enfield as two young flatmates Gary and Dermot coping with the challenges of early nineties Britain. Crucified by TV critics and unable to find a loyal pre-watershed audience, Men Behaving Badly was dropped by ITV after just two series. Yet with Beryl’s foresight, she wasn’t ready to give up on the sitcom and following some vital tweaks to the format, took the adult concept to BBC Head of Light Entertainment James Moir who saw its potential.


In 1994 Men Behaving Badly premiered on post watershed BBC1 to rave reviews and provided the perfect social compliment to mid nineties lad culture. Brassy, edgey and on point with the zeitgeist of Britpop, Men Behaving Badly grew to represent the social freedom of the era and became a visual shorthand for the liberal revolution now taking place. Just like with Hancock and Till Death Us Do Part, Beryl continued to champion the sitcom irrespective of her own social preferences through simply having an innate ability to know those shows which would identify with a particular demographic. Continuing for another four award winning series on the BBC, Men Behaving Badly proved a ratings juggernaut and heralded Hartswood Films as a formidable television powerhouse.


As the new millennium dawned, TV comedy was now required to embrace the contemporary internet generation. Now into her fifth decade in comedy, Beryl Vertue produced the latest offering from the Hartswood Films production. Coupling starring Jack Davenport and Sarah Alexander centred around the dysfunctional relationships of two couples in their late twenties. Running for four series and 28 episodes written by Vertue’s celebrated son-in-law Steven Moffat, Coupling became a post millennium cult classic and helped to establish a whole new generation of acting talent and despite never reaching the same heights as Men Behaving Badly, Coupling still had all the ingredients of a modern comedy classic.


For her final project, Beryl Vertue escaped the safe realms of the TV sitcom for the enigmatic world of the TV murder mystery drama in the form of a modern twist on the tales of Sherlock Holmes. Embracing the cutting edge techniques of television drama, Sherlock brought the gripping stories of Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle bang up to date in a big budget, cinematic production and made stars of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. First broadcast on Sunday 25th July 2010, Sherlock instantly became a hit and gave Beryl that familiar taste of success in her 57th year in showbusiness. Becoming a Sunday night favourite, Sherlock became one of the BBC’s biggest exports and top ratings juggernaut. It was clear that the Vertue magic hadn’t disappeared yet.


I had the enormous pleasure to meet the legendary Beryl Vertue in 2018 on the set of BBC Radio 4 Extra’s The Comedy Controllers, recorded at the BBC Radio Theatre in Shepherds Bush. Obviously by this time, she was well into her eighties and walked with a thin, pink, glittery walking stick which lit up with every step she made. As I sat and watched her wax lyrical about radio comedy of the past, it occurred to me that I was in the presence of one of the pioneers of British comedy. She may not have directly made audiences laugh but in her time Beryl Vertue had been pivotal to hours and hours of laughter. After the show, Paul Jackson kindly introduced me to the great lady when I explained that I had spent a long time attempting to interview her. “Sorry about that!” she said jokingly as I gave her a CD copy of my radio documentary. Alas, sadly we never got to do that interview but I always wish we had and can only imagine the incredible insight and wonderful anecdotes which it would have generated. Beyond The Title is poorer for it…


Beryl Vertue’s death in February 2022 possibly marks the end of a formidable era of the symbiotic relationship between the writer and performer. From the experimental revolution of the early 1950’s to the multi platform generation of the post millennium era, Beryl Vertue encapsulated the entire story of post war entertainment. Forever astute, ever loyal and with one of the most creative minds in showbusiness, Beryl’s incredible talent took her from tea lady to one of the most influential women in British television. As for her legacy, it’s impossible to define just for the formidable repertoire which she was so integral to. Encompassing her vast contributions to entertainment, it’s evident that Beryl Vertue may be gone but never forgotten.