Benny Hill's favourite producer
Friday 24 February 2006
Dennis Kirkland, television producer and director: born North Shields, Northumberland 2 December 1942; twice married (two sons, one daughter); died London 16 February 2006.
In May 1980, as the Iranian embassy siege came to an explosive climax in London, a group of Brits watched a TV monitor in tense silence in Montreux. Marooned there for a week during the Golden Rose television competition, they had been unable to see the pictures that all their friends and colleagues had been telling them about from home.
Then an enterprising exec persuaded ITN to send out an edited tape of the end of the six-day siege and all of them - executives, producers and journalists - gathered to watch. The tension was slightly broken as one of the hostages, a BBC technician called Sim Harris, emerged safely from his hospital check-up, smiling and waving a piece of paper. "He looks happy," commented someone.
"He should be," said a voice from the back. "That's his time-sheet he's waving."
The voice belonged to the producer/ director Dennis Kirkland, who had spent most of his life producing laughter not only from those around him with such one-liners, but also from television viewers around the world with his comedy programmes. Throughout his career, from child actor in early ITV advertising magazines to award-winning producer of shows with Benny Hill, Eric Sykes, Jim Davidson and many others, Kirkland saw laughter as the key to life.
After his parents dissuaded him from becoming an actor, he found his way into television in his native North-East as a props man with Tyne-Tees Television. He then had spells at both the Royal Opera House and the Windmill Theatre in London before becoming an assistant floor manager with ATV.
He joined Thames Television as a floor manager when Thames started in 1968. His own natural ability to perform gave him an empathy with artistes and allowed them to trust him to help bring out the best in them. His audience warm-up routines were occasionally funnier than the shows that followed, but his inventive energy led to a quick promotion to producer/director status and partnerships with many of the top comedy and variety artistes of the 1970s and 1980s, as Thames shows ruled the ratings for ITV.
The reason Kirkland was in Montreux that spring was to receive the City of Montreux comedy prize with Eric Sykes for The Plank (1979), a television movie stuffed with visual gags. "Not a silent comedy," said Kirkland as he took the trophy, "just without words." Sykes went on to make two more specials with him, picking up other awards as they went. Kirkland also produced ratings-toppers including London Night Out, The Tom O'Connor Show, The Ken Dodd Show and Jim Davidson.
His ability to set up visual gags for the screen endeared him to Benny Hill, who had had a chequered relationship with directors. The Hill-Kirkland partnership gave Hill more confidence and more enjoyment than any other and they worked together happily for a decade from 1979, producing shows that Thames was able to sell throughout the world - English- and, because of the many sight gags, non-English-speaking.
Seventeen years after the last show was produced, the series still generates significant revenue, particularly in the United States. Thames Television's peremptory sacking of Hill in 1989 encompassed Kirkland as well. He never forgave either the man who wielded the axe or the company, and Hill's death in 1992 added to the anger.
Benny Hill's comedy was criticised as sexist, old-fashioned and politically incorrect, and, although Hill himself remained polite in his own defence, Kirkland was more outspoken. He believed that rude humour was part of a great British tradition, which included music-hall acts like Max Miller, the McGill postcards and even "Carry On" movies, and he was unable to accept what he saw as Thames's hypocrisy in continuing to make millions out of the show through archive sales.
His own career suffered after leaving Thames, not least perhaps because of his outspokenness, although he was still writing and producing award-winning "comedy without words" for Irish television until he was taken ill in December.
Dennis Kirkland wore trademark pink sweaters and shirts, and deployed a slicing, occasionally brutal wit. He once told a top London Weekend Television executive that LWT stood for "Let's Watch Thames".
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