Don Taffner: Producer who sold 'Benny Hill' to the Americans

 

The American Don Taffner was a master at distributing, remaking and repackaging British programmes for audiences in his homeland. His work in representing the ITV production company Thames Television for 20 years was rewarded with an honorary OBE in 2002.

He launched DL Taffner Ltd as a distributor with his wife, Eleanor, and was responsible for Thames programmes such as The World at War (1973-74) and the John Mortimer-scripted Rumpole of the Bailey (1978-92) crossing the Atlantic. When the couple added producing to their talents and established DLT Entertainment, they made American versions of some of ITV's popular sitcoms. Man About the House (1973-76), starring Richard O'Sullivan, Paula Wilcox and Sally Thomsett as flatmates, became Three's Company (1976-84).

Taffner was adamant that he did not simply want to sell the rights to US producers. He explained: "If I go to the network and say, 'Here's the rights', I end up with two per cent. If I go to the network and say, 'Here's the television show', I have ownership and don't have to give up all but 98 per cent to be in a position. So I ended up in a very good position between the producers on the West Coast and the network controlling the show – controlling the rights."

After Man About the House spawned George and Mildred (1976-79), transplanting the trio's landlords to their own series, Taffner remade it as The Ropers (1979-80). Then, he turned a second Thames sitcom spin-off, Robin's Nest (1977-81), with O'Sullivan's character running a bistro, into Three's a Crowd (1984-85). His biggest success with Thames was syndicating The Benny Hill Show to the US, starting in 1979. The one-hour shows were re-edited into half-hours and made Hill a cult star there. Though axed by ITV in 1989, branded sexist at a time when "alternative" comedy was taking over, they continued to air across the Atlantic.

Later, Taffner set up a production company in London and made sitcoms for the BBC. As Time Goes By (1992-2008), scripted by Bob Larbey, was followed by My Family (2000-11), produced in the American "table-writing" style with a team of writers, and sold to more than 20 countries.

Born in Brooklyn, where his parents owned a sweet shop – which he credited with giving him "a pronounced business attitude" – Taffner graduated from St John's College (now University), New York, to start his working life as a messenger in the mail room at the William Morris Agency in 1952. Within three years, he was promoted to sales agent for its television division.

He switched to sales in Paramount's newly created television division in 1959. A year later, he met Eleanor Bolta, an advertising agency administrative assistant. They married in 1961 and two years later formed their own company.

Early deals involved selling US programmes abroad, but foreign countries were soon producing more domestically, so Taffner looked for foreign material that could be screened in his own country. His first big contract was for the Australian children's series Skippy the Bush Kangaroo (1966-68) and he soon became the American sales agent for overseas television companies.

When the couple expanded into production, their deals for Thames Television included remaking the sitcom Keep It in the Family (1980-83) as Too Close for Comfort (1980-86).

With a DLT Entertainment office and strong presence in London, Taffner became chairman of the Theatre of Comedy Company, formed by the playwright Ray Cooney and other writers, directors and actors. In 1984, DLT bought the lease of the Shaftesbury Theatre in partnership with the company. Together, the two organisations produced the BBC sitcoms As Time Goes By and Bloomin' Marvellous (1997).

Eventually, Taffner's son, Don Jr, took over the day-to-day running of DLT and the business continues to thrive. Last January, a new American digital channel, Antenna TV, launched with an all-day Benny Hill marathon.

Taffner's wife was appointed an honorary MBE in 2005 for her services in promoting the arts in Scotland.

Donald Lawrence Taffner, television distributor and producer: born New York 29 November 1930; honorary OBE 2002; married 1961 Eleanor Bolta (died 2010; one son, one daughter); died New York 6 September 2011.

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