Since the very conception of this website, I have thrived upon the opportunity to chart and celebrate some of the defining stars of the British Light Entertainment industry. Along with their supremely talented peers, these figures have become part of the fabric of Britain and been responsible for the continued success of television. Yet behind these genial performers lies a whole fraternity of producers, directors and senior TV management who are integral to the evolution of the medium. For a television viewer, the structure of a television corporation is something that is rarely considered in relation to the quality of the broadcaster’s output. Yet as we are about to find out, they can have a dominant effect on the course of entertainment and remain the real masterminds behind our favourite shows.
Over the next few weeks, Beyond The Title shall be both celebrating and charting the careers of a whole host of significant figures in the TV management from the past six decades. We’ve been lucky enough to obtain interviews from executives who represent each and every era of post-war entertainment which offers a unique insight into behind the scenes of the entertainment industry from its initial conception to the multi platform landscape of today. However, as by way of an introduction and to put the interviews into some sort of context, it may help if I offer some insight into this enigmatic world and the legendary heroes behind it.
The story of television management is almost as varied and colourful as the Light Entertainment tale itself but unfortunately there’s very little record of the actions of the following figures in what became a defining generation for entertainment. Many of whom had been bred on theatre and had either dealt with big egos or been one themselves. Almost forgotten about in this age of disposable content, these figures created the formula of television which continues to be built upon by their creative contemporaries. To do this, we have to go back to a simpler time before most of us were even alive and remember the characters responsible for the development of British television in its infancy.
Television wasn’t always the centrepiece of mass entertainment and during the Second World War, Variety theatres were still thriving with diverse shows with a whole host of acts on the bill. Theatres like This Windmill gained cult status for the parade of nude women which became one of the most popular underground attractions of London’s thriving West End. To break up the art of the blatant nudity, The Windmill employed a roll call of speciality acts, jugglers, singers and comedians to fill the spaces between the raunchiness and thus modern Variety was born.
Alas, just like entertainment itself, the influx of content, channels and platforms has spawned an infinite number of opportunities to emulate the pioneers of the art and over the next few weeks we shall witness the changing face of television through the eyes of its creators.
Born Lovatz Winogradsky, in Tokmak Ukraine on the 25th December 1906, Lew Grade’s flair for Charleston dancing had made him a promising child star. Yet a diagnosis of water on the knee would put a premature end to his dancing career and the young entertainer was forced to explore alternative outlets for his talents. Joining Joe Collins’ talent agency following the family’s move to England, it wasn’t long before Collins saw promise in the former dancer and offered him a percentage of the company making it The Collins Grade Agency. By 1945 Lew was ready for a change and left Collins to form a new talent agency with younger brother Leslie, first calling it Lew and Leslie Grade Ltd before settling on the more recognisable Grade Organisation.
Forever on the lookout to remain on the cutting edge of entertainment, in 1954, together with managing director of the London Palladium; Val Parnell, Grade was victorious in his bid to win the licence for commercial television. On the 25th September 1955 ATV was launched with the first airing of Sunday Night At The London Palladium which became a significant part in the popularity of the new network for over a decade and gave birth to stars including Bruce Forsyth and Norman Wisdom. Despite the emergence of homegrown talent, Lew realised the benefits of having an internationally acclaimed talent agency when enticing the biggest stars to appear on the Palladium stage. Over the next decade, everyone from Mario Lanza to Beryl Reid graced the legendary theatre and made Sunday Night At The Palladium one of the most influential shows of all time.
This interest in international stars encouraged Lew to consider TV formats for the American market. Puppeteer Jim Henson had been rejected from the major US TV networks and was looking for an opportunity to showcase his unique talent. Lew realised the potential in this unique entertainment and offered him a much needed platform. Other US exports which fell under the ATV umbrella were: I Love Lucy, Dragnet and Highway Patrol. Not content with merely purchasing success, Grade also was eager to produce and create his own programming based on the winning formulas which had served Hollywood with so many triumphs. Recruiting the American movie phenomenon Tony Curtis and Roger Moore for the cult action series The Persuaders made the network relevant to the transatlantic audience and catapulted ATV into worldwide domination.
Despite transatlantic success, Lew also recognised the requirement to nurture and champion homegrown talent. Defending controversial claims ATV was flashy, trashy and cheap, he wasn’t frightened to stay true to the brash commercialism which ATV represented. Commissioning the often parodied Crossroads with its wobbly sets, clumsy camera angles and occasional dubious character acting, ATV aimed to offer something different from the conservative attitudes of the BBC. Yet despite industrial scrutiny, Lew always maintained his vision to bring commercialised entertainment to the masses.
Approaching seventy, Lew realised that he was nearing the ITA’s maximum age limit for retirement. Having given his ATV boardroom seat to Robert Holmes in 1982, he became chairman of Embassy Pictures. This was followed by a collaboration with the film director John Hough in establishing The Grade Company which became one of his last ventures within the world of entertainment. Lew Grade passed away on the 14th December 1998 at the astonishing age of 92 leaving an endless legacy of stars, drama and laughter in his wake.
Son of one of the twentieth century’s greatest music hall ventriloquists Fred Russell, Valentine Charles Parnell was born on the 14th February 1892 in London. Working as a office boy for the Music Hall circuit from the age of thirteen, it wasn’t long before he was on the radar of theatrical impresarios Edward Moss and Oswald Stoll who had architected many of London’s best loved theatres. Beginning as a junior clerk for this formidable theatrical company, Val quickly ascended the ranks and following the sudden death of George Black in 1945, was promoted to managing director of the London Palladium. This coincided with a subtle change in entertainment and Parnell was able to be extremely forward thinking regarding the Palladium’s purpose in wider society.
In partnership with Lew Grade, Parnell raised the three million pound licence for commercial television with the Palladium offering much of the studio space following his decision to modernise the theatre. On 25th September 1955 ATV was launched and the climax of the opening night of the new channel resulted in the very first airing of Val Parnell’s Sunday Night At The London Palladium which became an instant hit with the public. Parnell was insistent that he didn’t just want to be the theatre provider and instead wanted the public to be in no doubt as to the identity of the Palladium’s ringleader. A formidable authority figure, anyone who ever worked either behind the scenes or on the famous stage instantly felt the power of Parnell’s leadership and irrespective of the egos of his stars, he was always in charge.
In addition to Sunday Night At The Palladium, Parnell also commissioned Val Parnell’s Saturday Spectacular produced by upcoming executive Brian Tesler who was also responsible for the Sunday equivalent. Variety was what the theatre was made for and Val was determined to make the most of it. Investment in the latest cameras and recording technology weren’t about to go to waste and in a matter of years, Parnell had transformed the London Palladium from a West End theatre to a television phenomenon.
The success of his venture through entertainment encouraged Val to explore alternative money making schemes which led him into the property market. Unfortunately as a result of his split interest, he was forced to relinquish his position on the board of Moss Empires which became the gentle catalyst of his decline in his television supremacy. He was later bought out by Lew Grade and was forced to resign from his post at ATV following suspicions of adultery had been leaked. Accepting his fate, Val Parnell fled to France only to return to London where he passed away from a heart attack aged 72.
The creation and development of commercial independent television opened up unlimited opportunities for businessmen and media moguls to view entertainment as potential for lucrative investment. Born ironically in Iford, Essex to Jewish ancestry on 30th January 1899, Sidney Lewis Bernstein had grown up in the affluent areas of Greater Manchester with his parents and younger brother Cecil. In 1925 he founded The London Film Society with lifelong friend Alfred Hitchcock which was to surge his passion for the Arts as he became responsible for importing many European productions. Together with Hitchcock, Bernstein went about celebrating his Jewish roots in a controversial political documentary entitled German Concentration Camps: Factual Survey to critical acclaim. Narrated by writer and actor Colin Wells, the documentary features rare footage caught by Second World War cameramen of life in a typical German concentration camp and the barbaric living conditions which people suffered. Remastered in 2014, this groundbreaking documentary remains the closest artefact to witnessing first hand the atrocities of Nazi Germany.
Purchasing his father’s estranged theatre The Edmonton Empire in 1922, Bernstein successfully returned the theatre to the beating heart of the community by enticing the biggest stars of the day to perform. Everyone from Little Titch to Will Hay to Gracie Fields played The Empire which helped to develop Sidney’s flair for entertainment. These were the halcyon days of variety which arguably gave birth to the first generation of Britain’s homegrown stars. The Granada Theatre Company was founded in 1930 by Sidney and younger brother Cecil as they aimed to take advantage of London’s booming live entertainment scene. By 1934 the company was rebranded to Granada Ltd as the Bernsteins saw real potential for upscale. In the forgotten age before television, theatres and music halls were the staple of entertainment for the upper middle class and aristocracy. Yet the thrill of mass vaudeville had yet to reach a universal audience.
Northern England was one of the most affected areas of war torn Britain and the lack of industrial infrastructure resulted in mass unemployment and poverty. The popularity of The Empire encouraged Bernstein to think further afield about his next venture. In 1954 Bernstein won a percentage of the licence for commercial television which completed the deal between Lew Grade and Val Parnell. Granada Television was named after Bernstein’s successful theatrical company Granada Theatres which had proved popular either side of the Second World War. Moving into television, Bernstein realised the importance of staying true to his roots and thus Granada Television was born.
On the evening of Thursday 3rd May 1956, Granada Television went live for the first timeThe first programme on Granada’s opening night was Meet The People, a grand parade of all those who had helped Granada to set up shop in Manchester. The Master of Ceremonies was Quentin Reynolds, a personal friend of Bernstein’s who had helped to steer the ship during the unpredictable days of its initial airing. For the first twelve years of its existence, Granada was solely available in the north west and Yorkshire area until 1968 when it was broadcast nationwide Monday to Friday on the ITV network.
Bernstein wasn’t just a pioneer of television content. In 1956, four years prior to the opening of BBC Television Centre, Sidney and Cecil unveiled Granada Studios soon to be known simply as Granadaland. This was the UK’s first purpose built television factory equipped with the latest camera technology in order to capture this new era of entertainment. With this, Granada became a powerhouse of drama, current affairs and Light Entertainment and nurtured the careers of some of the brightest stars in the business. Up until it’s closure in 2013, Granada Studios played host to thousands of hours of televisual entertainment and remained at the beating heart of ITV for over half a century. Everything from World In Action, University Challenge and even the cobbles of Coronation Street owe a huge debt to the forward thinking approach of both Granada and the Bernsteins.
This was the first time that performers with regional accents had been fairly represented as opposed to the conservative BBC Received Pronunciation. Granada came live from Manchester and Bernstein believed that both its content and ethos should echo the values of northern working class Britain which had suffered more poverty and hardships than most of England. Hiring regional presenters who spoke similarly to its audience added a touch of legitimacy to the new network. No longer was national television restricted to London centred programming because this was Granada from the north.
In 1969 Bernstein’s services to entertainment were recognised when he was made a life peer as Baron Bernstein of Leigh in Kent. He was named a Fellow of the British Film Institute and received the International Emmy Directorate Award in 1984. He died in 1993, aged 94. From all of the great pioneers of television celebrated within this paper, Bernstein’s legacy is probably the easiest to quantify for the simple reason that over sixty years since the conception of Granada Television, one of its early incarnations still remains one of the most popular and watched shows on British television. For this reason along with his vast contributions to the evolution of television, Sidney Bernstein may be gone but never forgotten.
Frequently credited as the BBC’s first Head of Light Entertainment in 1955, Ronnie Waldman’s journey through entertainment had been a diverse one. Beginning his career as an actor and radio producer in 1935, Waldman had experienced both sides of the entertainment industry. Becoming a Light Entertainment producer in 1950 in the days when the BBC had very little in the way of a robust management structure, it wasn’t long before Waldman found himself as a senior member of the board. By 1955 he had been made Head of Light Entertainment which coincided with a severe sea change at the corporation. Commercial television had ended the BBC’s twenty three year monopoly and the corporation realised that they were required to reinvent themselves to compete with the glamourised Hollywood feel of commercial television.
Following ATV’s shock move to poach the BBC’s biggest radio stars; Billy Cotton and give him his own big budget variety show, Waldman was forced to act.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, 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 the producer of the series Brian Tesler, to ensure that all material for the television show was totally independent from Cotton’s live shows. This mutual understanding between Waldman, Tesler and the entertainers representatives proved vital to maintaining Billy Cotton’s star power during the infant stages of television.
As Head of Light Entertainment, Waldman launched the careers of many of Britain’s most enduring stars. Following her memorable performance at the 1948 Royal Variety Performance, Ronnie offered the young Julie Andrews her first television show which became the springboard to her long and successful career in showbusiness. Unfortunately the other act which got an opportunity from Waldman wasn’t so lucky when he commissioned a comedy series entitled Running Wild starring the unknown comedy double act Morecambe and Wise. Slammed by the critics, Running Wild spawned the now infamous review “The definition of a television: The box they buried Morecambe and Wise in”.
Waldman remained as Head of Light Entertainment until 1958 when he was promoted to Business Manager of BBC Television before taking up the post as General Manager of BBC Enterprises. Yet his unrivalled contributions to BBC Light Entertainment were never forgotten and was what he’s mostly remembered for. Ronnie Waldman passed away on the 10th March 1978 aged 64. Throughout his career he didn’t architect theatres or financially invest in the Arts compared to some of his contemporaries. Yet in bringing the first generation of homegrown entertainment to the masses, Waldman arguably created the footprint for mass televisual entertainment which we know today. What an accomplishment!
Arguably the most significant figure in the history of BBC Television, Sir Bill Cotton was born into the world of entertainment with his father being one of the twentieth century’s greatest ever bandleaders. Having been discovered in Southport in 1925, Billy Cotton became one of Britain’s first national stars performing to big audiences throughout the isles. Idolising his larger than life father, the young Bill Cotton was bred on variety and music hall and spent most of his childhood in theatres and music halls watching the legendary bandleader do what he did best. Born William Fredrick Cotton on the 23rd April 1928, the young Bill enrolled at Ardingly College in Sussex where he spent the majority of his childhood.
Joining Michael René music publishing services in the early fifties, Bill was on the cutting edge of the new phenomenon of Rock n Roll. This was the era when the early shoots of creativity were slowly emerging in prominent areas of Tin Pan Alley and Carnaby Street and Bill was in the perfect place to chart such a cultural change. In 1956 Cotton swapped Tin Pan Alley for Light Entertainment when he secured the post as a junior producer under the watchful eye of the Head of Light Entertainment Ronnie Waldman. The creation of independent television just a year previously had scrapped the BBC’S twenty year monopoly and for the first time in their history the corporation were under threat and for the next thirty years, Cotton made it his mission to regain their supremacy.
As producer of The Billy Cotton Band Show, Bill unarguably had an advantage over his contemporaries, having grown up with the concept and seeing it successfully transform from stage to radio and then later television. Yet he wasn’t afraid to put allegiances aside for the good of entertainment and when the Variety show was starting to look dated and tired, it was Bill who ultimately would make the big call. Such vision attracted the attention of senior BBC management and he was promptly put in line to ascend the ranks. In 1967 he became the BBC’s Head of Variety, overseeing the biggest shows of the day including David Frost’s That Was The Week That Was and Cilla which he created the formula for all pop shows of the following decade.
Never afraid to compromise the status quo in the name of entertainment, Cotton also acted as an arbiter of taste and when the doyen of 1960’s pop culture Simon Dee was building TV’s first huge ego, Cotton realised that he had to act. Identifying that Dee’s edgy presenting style wasn’t right for the conservative ethos of the BBC, his contract was promptly cancelled and he never worked for the corporation again. This cut throat authoritative attitude made Bill Cotton one of the most prolific executives of his generation and a formidable figure among showbusiness circles.
When Morecambe and Wise’s ATV contract was up for renewal in 1968, Cotton realised the significance in returning them to the bedrock of the BBC. It had been over a decade since the disaster of Running Wild and Bill had the ambition to build upon the comedic patter which writer’s Hills and Green had forged during their ATV tenure. Having a close association with talent agent Michael Grade who was then looking after Eric and Ernie’s professional affairs at the entertainment division of the Grade Organisation, Cotton took him out for lunch where they did the deal which meant Morecambe and Wise were BBC bound.
This wasn’t the only double act which fell under Cotton’s radar. Following the tragic death of Tom Sloan in May 1970, Bill Cotton was promoted to the BBC’s Head of Light Entertainment which heralded a new era for television entertainment. Attending the 1970 Bafta Awards with BBC1 controller Paul Fox, he was delighted to sit and watch David Frost preside over an evening celebrating the best moments in cinema and television. Yet disaster struck when in the middle of proceedings, the London Palladium suffered a power cut. Ever prepared, David Frost organised some impromptu entertainment performed by Frost On Sunday regulars Ronnie Corbett and Ronnie Barker. The pair stormed the show which gave Bill an idea as he turned to Paul Fox and said “How would you like these on your channel?” To which Fox replied “But they’re signed to ITV!” Cotton then told him not to worry about that and arranged a meeting with David Frost where he made him a handsome offer which meant that Corbett and Barker were returning to the BBC and became Light Entertainment giants.
In cultivating the perfect Saturday night lineup, there were many different elements that were required to entice the audience to remain throughout the evening. Cotton realised that in order to do this, he had to devise a schedule which would have universal appeal and offer something for everyone. He wanted to create a showcase of BBC entertainment which would embrace and celebrate the very best that the corporation could offer. As inspiration, he observed Light Entertainment from around the world to establish if he could adapt transatlantic concepts to the British audience. While in Holland, he was invited to a recording of a two hour game show entitled One Out Of Eight in which teams of two would compete in a series of everyday tasks to claim victory. As he sat in the audience avidly watching the action unfold, Bill saw great scope in members of the public undertaking such activities and despite being unable to understand the interactions which were taking place, he still recognised the magic of the show.
On his return to BBC TV Centre, Cotton showed a tape of One Out Of Eight to an unsuspecting Bruce Forsyth who was under the assumption that the corporation wanted him to front a new chat show. It was Bill’s vision to transform this two hour extravaganza into a forty-five minute early evening game show with Forsyth at the helm together with star guests, colourful sets and chaotic contestants. As soon as Bruce realised Bill’s vision for this show, a pilot was commissioned where Bruce fell in love with the show and would go on to dominate the rest of his career. Bruce Forsyth’s Generation Game was first broadcast on Saturday 2nd October 1971 and set the benchmark for early evening Saturday night entertainment for the next half a century.
Having perfected the early part of the Saturday night line-up, Bill set to work on the climax of the schedule. The ever popular Match of the Day had already carved out the now infamous late night slot which was a guaranteed ratings winner but now Cotton had the impossible task to find the perfect accompaniment to the heavyweight football highlights show. The BBC hadn’t had a popular long-standing chat show since the controversial Dee-Time which Cotton decided to bring to a premature end in light of Dee’s maverick behaviour. Therefore the corporation was on the lookout for a new talk show which would embrace the breadth of worldwide entertainment. As a huge fan of the great Hollywood era, Bill wanted to make an interview based Light Entertainment show featuring some of the biggest names on the planet with a presenter who wasn’t an entertainer, but a journalist.
For this he looked to rival network Granada who had featured a former Fleet Street journalist who was now a reporter on the early evening arts show Scene At 6:30. Michael Parkinson had turned down cricket trials for Yorkshire to be one of the most prolific journalists of his generation and was responsible for the first television interview with Mick Jagger. Cotton and Parkinson shared the same passion for the great Hollywood era of the forties and fifties and were both excited about the potential to meet some of their heroes. Parkinson immediately accepted and producer Richard Drewitt was brought in to finalise the concept.
Cotton had strong views on the production of the show and had the desire to play strongly on the glamour of the Hollywood elite. Yet Parkinson and Drewitt realised the scope to see the interactions between actors, comedians, sportsmen and statesmen and women. Thus began a friendly battle between the three men over the calibre of guests, yet ultimately Cotton left all creative decisions to Parkinson and Drewitt only to pull the occasional disgruntled looks when walking passed their office on the fourth floor of TV centre. Eventually, following the huge success of Parkinson, Cotton admitted that the mix of personalities was what made the show unique and more importantly popular. Unbeknown to all three men, in honing this much debated concept, they had created the footprint for what became one of the most prolific and enduring Light Entertainment formats in television history which would survive for the next half century.
Bill Cotton would remain as the BBC’s Head of Light Entertainment until 1977 when he was promoted to Controller of BBC1 when he spearheaded the BBC charity fundraising television extravaganza Children In Need and launched the UK’s first breakfast television show with Frank Bough. He also poached Noel Edmonds from the safe confines of Multicoloured Swap Shop on Saturday mornings and united him with fellow DJ Mike Smith for The Late Late Breakfast Show which later became Noel’s House Party. Working his way up to Managing Director of the BBC, Cotton retired from the corporation in 1988 when he became chairman of Meridian Television before assisting his friend Jan Kennedy with the talent agency Billy Marsh Associates.
Accepting the BAFTA Fellowship for his services to Light Entertainment in 1998 before being knighted in 2001, Sir Bill Cotton spent his golden years celebrating and regaling his remarkable career in public service broadcasting. Writing his autobiography Double Bill in 2000 to rave reviews, Bill’s significant contribution to Light Entertainment was slowly being acknowledged by a wider audience. Bill Cotton passed away from cancer on the 11th August 2008 which triggered an outpouring of tributes from some of the legendary figures of television whom he helped to nurture. By how fondly he’s remembered by those who knew him together with the vast contributions to televisual Light Entertainment from its early conception to the heady days of 1970’s variety, it’s clear that Cotton’s legacy shall forever be felt across the whole television community. In short, Bill Cotton put the colour into Light Entertainment and for that the art shall forever be in his debt.
Like most industries during the fifties and sixties, television management was extremely male dominated with severe bias towards heritage and elite social status. In an era before social equality, women were often scandalously overlooked when it came to positions of television management. Born on the 26th March 1900, Grace Wyndham-Goldie remains a significant trailblazer within the history of television management in what was an extremely difficult industry to break into. Beginning her career in 1935 as a columnist for the media magazine The Listener, Wyndham-Goldie spent six years reprinting and providing analysis for significant BBC texts. This offered huge insight into what would become her world for the rest of her career.
Joining the BBC as a radio producer in June 1944 in the midst of the Second World War when radio was arguably more important and popular than ever before. Yet it wasn’t just radio that Grace would have a dominant influence over at such a pivotal time for Britain. When Prime Minister Clement Atlee called the election, the BBC decided that full and uninterrupted coverage of the results together with political analysis was required to guide the public through the action. With her unrivalled background in political analysis, Wyndham-Goldie was put forward to produce such a defining moment in television. Anchored by BBC wartime stalwart Richard Dimbleby, the coverage was a success and set the benchmark for all future special broadcasts, thus making Grace Wyndham-Goldie into one of the most prolific executives of her generation.
Using both studies at Alexandra Palace, Wyndham-Goldie ordered the use of twelve feet maps of Great Britain, a library ladder on wheels for Dimbleby to reach all areas on the map and a long snooker shaped pointer for him to point to the selected constituents in question. She realised that despite being a serious evening of current affairs, analysts and debate, it also was required to entertain and captivate the audience in order to maintain their interest for the remainder of the evening. This was considered groundbreaking for the time when wrap around programming seemed totally incomprehensible and yet under Wyndham-Goldie’s pioneering leadership, television was finally being tested to its fullest potential.
Her association with Richard Dimbleby resulted in the relaunch of the current affairs programme Panorama which had failed to strike a chord with the public. Yet with the straight talking approach of Dimbleby, the programme earned much needed weight which made Panorama one of the corporation’s most enduring and successful programmes of all time. This paved the way for an influx of political analysis shows which offered unbiased insight into the biggest stories of the day. As a journalist herself, Grace realised the significance in selecting the most appropriate broadcaster to hold such a programme together and promptly poached ITV’s news anchor Robin Day to the safe confines of the BBC. For the next twenty years, Robin Day became synonymous with election night coverage and other high profile live events across the corporation, bringing television closer to the defining moments which would shape the nation.
Despite her soaring passion for politics, Wyndham-Goldie also recognised the significance of the BBC’s role to both entertain and offer alternative views on the day’s events. In 1963 she became instrumental to the booming underground satire movement when she contributed to the commissioning of the seminal satirical sketch show That Was The Week That Was which fused current affairs with Light Entertainment under the presiding tone of David Frost. Still in the conservative era when the corporation was heavily influenced by the reigning government of the day, Wyndham-Goldie wasn’t afraid to rock the establishment and move television into a new era. Although merely surviving for just one series That Was The Week That Was set the benchmark for all comedy satire hereafter and Wyndham-Goldie had the vision and foresight to make it happen.
As a woman in what was a hugely male dominated industry, it would have been easy for Wyndham-Goldie to be a passive subservient to the advancements in television which were taking place. Yet the ability to hold court with formidable executives including David Attenborough, Anthony Jay and Alistair Milne illustrated her drive and ambition as a professional. In an age before Women’s Lib and equal pay, here was a highly talented and experienced executive who had earned her position at the largest and influential broadcaster in Britain.
Retirement came in 1965 when she had reached the corporation’s maximum age for employment. By this time she had been promoted to the BBC’s Head of Talks and was responsible for the factual and serious side of television. Despite this, Wyndham-Goldie remained passionate and captivated by the corporation’s position within the British nation, something which never left her. She passed away on the 3rd June 1986 at the grand age of 86 yet her vast contributions to the development of British television are difficult to overlook and has truly earned her status as a broadcasting pioneer.
Described by BFI Screenonline as “Arguably the most important and influential of all comedy producers/directors in British radio and television”, Dennis Main Wilson saw British Light Entertainment from its modern conception to the money making powerhouse it is today. Joining the BBC in 1941 aged 17 as a junior production assistant in the midst of the Second World War, Main Wilson quickly understood the corporation’s purpose in serving the nation throughout such a dark time. For his first mission he was recruited by the Documentary Unit of West Germany’s de-Nazification programme to help in the creation of political propaganda films which were marked to the British audience.
Once demobbed, Main-Wilson found himself deployed to the Variety Department of the BBC as a junior producer. This coincided with a significant boom in comedy as folk who had spent the war entertaining the troops were now on the lookout for another outlet for their talent. Encountering a nineteen year old former RAF servicemen named Bob Monkhouse, Main-Wilson saw potential in the young comedian and offered him a spot on the popular radio show Variety Bandbox which became the catalyst to his remarkable career.
Monkhouse wasn’t the only comedian who Main Wilson championed during the conceptual stages of BBC comedy. Having been tipped off by fellow BBC Radio employee Jimmy Grafton, he met Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers who had been putting on comedy shows in a room above Grafton’s pub in Richmond. Originally calling themselves The Crazy People: a nod to Bud Flanagan’s wartime comedy show, the group had been performing off the wall material written by Spike Milligan. Main-Wilson liked what he saw and offered them a thirteen episode series. The Goon Show was first broadcast on the 29th May 1951 on the BBC radio Light Programme and became a landmark in the history of British comedy. However the conservative management at the corporation upheld some strong concerns over the show being able to fall in line with BBC protocol given its irreverent, surrealist tone. Main-Wilson therefore reassured the board that the BBC values would be upheld at all times which gave The Goon Show the green light to change the course of British comedy forever.
The success of The Goon Show made Dennis Main-Wilson one of the most in demand producers of his generation and writers and performers were queuing up to collaborate with the BBC’s brightest executives. Variety stalwart Derek Roy’s radio show was now looking a little tired and a dip in ratings had prompted Main-Wilson to act. For this he recruited a pair of scriptwriters who had met in a hospital when both were recovering tuberculosis. Ray Gallon and Alan Simpson were jobbing writers who were members of Spike Milligan’s talent agency Associated London Scripts who were looking to emulate their good friend and enter the world of radio comedy. Main-Wilson was impressed by the quality of Gallon and Simpson’s material and promptly placed them with the former Windmill Theatre comedian Tony Hancock which began a long standing partnership between the three men which thrived throughout the 1950’s.
Television was now gathering momentum and Main-Wilson was promptly deployed to the BBC’s television Light Entertainment department to take advantage of the new revolution. His responsibilities expanded to Variety and Light Entertainment which resulted in him producing the groundbreaking music show Six Five Special in 1957. Yet it wasn’t long before his comedy roots came to the forefront and when comedy powerhouse Charlie Chester wanted to try his hand at television, Main-Wilson was quick to oblige. Producing the domestic sitcom The Two Charleys starring Chester alongside actress Eleanor Summerfield as a touring Variety act offered the comedian his first television vehicle.
As the fifties gave way to the sixties, Main-Wilson was conscious to echo the changing face of comedy. In 1960 he produced Sykes and a… which was the first time the public got a glimpse of the unrivalled chemistry between Eric Sykes and Hattie Jacques which would last for the next twenty years. It was on the set of Sykes And a…that Main-Wilson encountered an up and coming writer called Johnny Speight who he saw promise in. He remembered him in 1965 when developing the concept for the BBC’s Comedy Playhouse which offered writers the opportunity to pitch and pen pilots of potential situation comedies. For this, Speight pitched the early incarnation of Till Death Us Do Part: a sitcom surrounding a middle aged, lower class tori loving bigot who struggles to understand the modern society of the sixties. Controversial with both the audience and critics, Till Death Us Do Part forever struggled to find a perfect balance between satire and xenophobia and it was Main-Wilson’s role to defend the show which he did with great vigor.
This support of Speight proved vital for the next part of the BBC’s comedy outpost as having faith in Main-Wilson encouraged Speight to remain loyal to the corporation. Everyone from Jimmy Tarbuck to James Bowlam were queuing up to work with these two trusted masters of comedy and this was something that Main-Wilson exploited. Never scared to blaze a trail, in 1979, Main-Wilson produced the BBC One sitcom Tea Ladies set in the House of Commons with a predominantly female cast including Mollie Sugden, Dandy Nichols and Patricia Hayes. Written by sitcom stalwarts Ray Galton and Johnny Speight, Tea Ladies told the story of waitresses working for the. government which was sadly short-lived.
Other comedy productions which fell under the production of Dennis Main-Wilson during this period included: The Rag Trade (BBC, 1961-63), Lance at Large (BBC, 1964) starring Lance Percival; a one-off special with American comedian Allan Sherman, Allan in Wonderland (BBC, tx. 29/8/1964); and three BBC specials of Scott On… which originally united the talents of Terry Scott and June Whitfield prior to their sitcom success. It was clear that this period was extremely rich for creative talent and Main-Wilson had the foresight to both nurture and exploit this creativity to the benefit of the watching audience.
The other comedian to blossom under Main-Wilson’s leadership was the bug eyed enigma Marty Feldman who had previously been known for writing the 1950’s radio comedy Round The Horne in partnership with Barry Took. Having written for a whole host of comedy shows during the fifties and sixties, Feldman seeked his own comedy vehicle and Main-Wilson made this a reality when in 1968 he produced Marty followed by It’s Marty written by figures who world go on to dominate British comedy for the next two decades: John Cleese, Tim Brooke-Taylor, Graham Chapman, Michael Palin and Terry Jones. Despite the short-lived series, this team would prove successful and spawned influential shows including Monty Python’s Flying Circus and The Goodies.
Remaining loyal to the role of the comedy writer throughout his career, Main-Wilson was forever on the lookout for creative talent. Being passed a script by a scene shifter on the set of Dad’s Army, Main-Wilson honoured his request to take a look. By 1977 that scene shifter had been made into a TV comedy writer and his debut sitcom Citizen Smith aired on BBC1 on the 12th April and John Sullivan became one of the most exciting comedy writers of his generation and in a few years would create the heavyweight Only Fools and Horses. This was all down to the remarkable nouse of Dennis Main-Wilson who recognised Sullivan’s flair for TV comedy.
Approaching retirement, Main-Wilson returned to BBC radio where he collaborated on documentaries celebrating the history of BBC comedy. He passed away from lung cancer on 20th January 1997 aged 72. From championing post-war comedy to bring the driving force behind the British sitcom boom of the 1970’s, Dennis Main-Wilson was integral to just about every revolution in British comedy during the latter half of the twentieth century and his legacy is felt in almost each and every Light Entertainment show from that era. So just like our favourite comedy stars who he nurtured and championed from the great era, Main-Wilson may be gone but never forgotten.
So this has been my definitive celebration of the forgotten pioneers behind television who were integral to some of the defining moments of our popular culture. In order to fully appreciate and celebrate significant TV of yesterday, there’s potentially a requirement to assess the workings of management who were integral to some of Britain’s most defining television moments. The above names may not have the star appeal of the figures which they helped project, yet in their time they were pivotal to the evolution of Britain’s rich and diverse popular culture. That’s quite an achievement!