Brian Tesler – In Conversation

You could say that the following interview is like no other on this website. Indeed, you may not be familiar with the name Brian Tesler at all: he’s not a comedian, actor, singer or presenter. Alas he has never performed on stage nor has he competed at elite sporting level. Yet you could argue that Tesler’s career has encompassed the rise and fall of British television entertainment as a whole. The gradual inevitable concept of time has sadly robbed me of so many potentially captivating interviews with who I would consider to be giants of their industry and contributed to the major revolution in our popular culture which we are still enjoying over half a century later. One of the last surviving members of the television pioneering generation, Brian Tesler helped to create the foundations of television entertainment and thankfully he’s survived to tell his tale.

Press play, below, to listen to the full interview


Or watch the raw, unedited zoom call below on YouTube


Graduating from Chiswick Grammar school, the young Brian had enormous academic potential and following graduating from Oxford University, he had written some songs which had been used by the BBC in its infancy. This proved vital in 1952 when going for the role of a trainee Light Entertainment producer and was considered relevant experience to be given a trial. Head of Light Entertainment Ronnie Waldman saw promise in him and put him in charge of panel shows. It was around this time that acclaimed bandleader Billy Cotton who had been a star since the mid 1930’s was looking to make himself relevant for the new medium of television following his huge successful Sunday lunchtime radio show.


 Having been one of the first stars to grace the new ATV network in September 1955, Cotton found that television was eating up most of his stage act which had served him well in the theatre for many years. Likewise theatre tours were still paying the band’s wages and television was merely a distraction. Ever astute and business minded, Ronnie Waldman understood this issue and negotiated with Billy’s son; Bill Cotton jnr to preserve some of his routines for his own tour. They agreed on a fortnightly show to give the band the opportunity to tour and this became a marriage made in heaven. Therefore it fell to Brian as producer of the series to ensure that all material for the television show was totally independent from Cotton’s live shows. This mutual understanding between the two men proved vital to maintaining Billy Cotton’s star power during the infant stages of television.


Indeed commercial television seemed somewhat alien to the majority of the population including the senior management of the BBC who assumed that the new network would be full of flashy American jingles and overtly baldy advertisements leading to the concept being a temporary flash in the pan. Yet as soon as it launched on the 25th September 1955, the public took the new network to their hearts and independent television never looked back. As ATV started to gather momentum, impresarios Lew Grade and Val Parnell were looking to extend their entertainment franchise but required experienced hands to aid with this revolution. In 1957 Brian switched sides to ATV as a senior producer at this relatively new television network. Before Brian knew it, he was sharing an office with these two entertainment moguls and had made the somewhat brave decision to forge his career into independent television.


As producer of what was the biggest show on British television, Brian was tasked with updating Sunday Night At The London Palladium for the modern television audience. This meant searching for the perfect candidate to replace the ageing Tommy Trinder who had proved a popular host due to his theatrical following. For this he remembered a little known song and dance man which he had auditioned a few years previously for the BBC variety show New Look. With very limited television experience, it was a big gamble for Tesler to take so he offered the new entertainer a provisional six week trial. Yet as soon as the thirty year old Bruce Forsyth graced the Palladium stage in 1958, Brian realised that he would be a huge star and sixty years later this was probably one of the most significant moments in the history of Light Entertainment.


During the 1960’s Brian Tesler became one of the most prolific television executives in Britain and when the legendary Sammy Davis Jr crossed the pond in 1960 for his first British television special, there was only one man equipped enough to produce it. Assuming that Mr Davis would have a full entourage of assistants, choreographers and production associates, Brian surmised that it would be relatively straightforward to put the show together. Yet when it was revealed that the international entertainer required ATV to supply a choreographer, Brian began to panic. But help was on the way when one of the supporting dancers Joyce Blair recommended her brother Lionel to step into the breach. This was Lionel’s first big break and not only had Brian discovered an accomplished dancer and choreographer but for the young entertainer, this was to change his life forever and put him on the path to becoming one of Britain’s most enduring stars. Broadcast live on the 11th June 1960, Sammy Meets The British  was a ratings winner and made Lionel Blair into an overnight star and this was all due to the foresight and creativity of Brian. Over sixty years on with a lifetime of achievements under his belt, for Brian this is one of his greatest.


In 1968 Brian was promoted to Director of Programmes for the newly established Thames Television as ATV disbanded and was franchised out to regional independent broadcasting companies throughout Britain. One of Thames’s first targets was Benny Hill who was already a big television star and had been one of the first comedians to use the full effects of television to his advantage during the late fifties on the BBC. As a comedian, Benny thought in a televisual way and so it was very easy for TV producers to work with him. Unbeknown to all, including Brian, Thames became Benny’s home for the next twenty years and saw some of the comedian’s greatest work which made him into an international comedy phenomenon, adored throughout the world. 


Despite huge success as a TV executive, his craft as a producer encouraged Brian to explore new horizons and in 1974 he teamed up with fellow executives Lloyd Shirley and George Taylor to create an independent production company which was considered revolutionary for its time. Euston Films became responsible for the majority of ITV’s drama output during the seventies and eighties including: Van der Valk (1977), The Sweeney (1975-1976, 1978), Minder (1979–1980, 1982-1985, 1988-1989, 1991, 1993-1994), Quatermass (1979), Danger UXB (1979), and Reilly: Ace of Spies (1983). The Sweeney had two feature film spin-offs, Sweeney! and Sweeney 2, which were also produced by Euston. Unfortunately this was another subject that we didn’t get time to cover as with such a glittering career, it would have been impossible to include them all. Yet if there’s ever another opportunity to quiz Brian again, this would make a fascinating subject.


In 1974 Brian was lured away from Thames to become deputy chief executive of London Weekend Television alongside John Freeman. Under his leadership, the broadcaster expanded and was able to attract variety stalwarts Danny La Rue and Stanley Baxter to its growing roll call of stars. By this time Brian Tesler was part of the television management elite and was considered a giant within the TV fraternity. In 1976 following the tragic and sudden death of Cyril Bennett, Brian was forced to double up as both chief executive and Director of Programmes until Bennett’s successor Michael Grade was appointed. Unfortunately we didn’t have enough time to touch upon his LWT tenure yet the roll call of successful programming which were created during this time is evidence that this period was just as fruitful as his vast achievements in an unprecedented career lasting more than seven decades.


Sadly this was one of Brian’s last entertainment posts before he was headhunted to fulfil managerial and strategic roles within the broadcasting community. In 1982 Tesler became a founding executive of Channel Four, remaining on the board of directors for three years and saw the network through its primitive years. Television was obviously changing but Brian’s talents for strategic management were still in demand. He eventually retired in 2010 following a brief spell working for London transport: a position which he honoured well into his eighties. By this time he had already penned his autobiography The Best of Times which was released in 2006 which was followed by a family memoir Before I Forget in 2012. With one of the most formidable careers in British entertainment history, Brian had rich material to put pen to paper and now has this definitive record of years gone by.


For any budding television historian, the opportunity to interview a true pioneer of the medium could be compared to winning the lottery and as a consequence of the concept of time, such opportunities are growing increasingly rare. Yet the eloquence and integrity of the legendary Brian Tesler is now here for all to see and hope this interview remains as sacred and special as the man himself. It was an absolute pleasure to interview the legendary Brian Tesler and may his legacy continue to be felt for generations to come.