Geoffrey Perkins: Comedy producer and writer
Thursday 04 September 2008
Not many people watching the final series of One Foot In The Grave eight years ago would have been aware that the man playing the gay brother of Victor Meldrew's waspish neighbour Patrick was a giant of television comedy. But he was, no less than the many household names whose careers he enhanced, and in some cases made. Although he was an occasional performer, and a fine writer, it is as a singularly perceptive producer and energetic head of comedy at BBC Television for which Geoffrey Perkins will be remembered by an industry not easily shocked, yet still reeling at the news of his death, aged 55. It is thought that he fainted before falling into the path of the traffic in a London street.
Perkins was a gentle, modest man, but with a sharp wit and, more significantly, with finely tuned antennae for what would work as comedy on radio and television, and what wouldn't. On the written page the distinction is notoriously difficult to discern, but he managed it far more often than not, not least in the case of that blissfully daft parody of a panel game, Mornington Crescent, in the Radio 4 show I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue. It is said that Perkins, then a bright young Oxford graduate newly recruited by BBC Radio's light entertainment department, came up with the idea himself to bamboozle the unpopular series producer.
For that alone he is entitled to a footnote in broadcasting history, but there was so much more; the list of shows he either devised or produced adds up to a truly remarkable legacy. They included The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Spitting Image, most of Harry Enfield's output, The Fast Show, Father Ted, Have I Got News For You and The Catherine Tate Show. He did not live to see transmission of his latest project, the renewed collaboration between Enfield and Paul Whitehouse for the independent production company Tiger Aspect. Harry and Paul begins on BBC1 tomorrow evening.
As Perkins was the first to admit, however, his comedy antennae were not infallible. When Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash approached the BBC with their idea for a comedy about a northern working-class family doing little more than watching the telly, he expressed serious misgivings. But Aherne would not budge, and she was powerful enough to get her own way. When The Royle Family duly became one of the most garlanded comedies of the 1990s, Perkins was only too pleased to admit that he had been wrong.
It was a rare, and forgivable, error of judgement. Far more frequent were the occasions when writers or performers, insistent on going in one direction, were gently persuaded by Perkins to take an alternative route, and swiftly recognised that he knew what they were doing better than they did. One example was Father Ted, originally written by Arthur Matthews and Graham Linehan as a pseudo-documentary. Perkins urged them to turn it into a sitcom, and also dissuaded them from using silly theme music. Silly comedy, he argued, does not need self-mockery.
His eye and ear for comedy were honed at Harrow County Grammar School, no relation to the nearby public school, yet with, at least among Perkins' contemporaries, similarly distinguished alumni. His schoolfriends included Clive Anderson, Michael Portillo and Nigel Sheinwald (now Sir Nigel, and Britain's ambassador to Washington). From Harrow County, Perkins won an exhibition to read English at Lincoln College, Oxford, after which, on the advice of an evidently myopic university careers adviser, he and Portillo joined a commercial shipping company in Liverpool. Their shipping careers soon ran aground, and in 1976 Perkins joined the BBC.
In 1978, having shown such promise on I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue, Perkins was invited to produce The Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy, his principal task being to coax scripts out of Douglas Adams, a legendary slowcoach. This he did, with characteristically gentle persuasion, although he had personal as well as professional reasons to look back with satisfaction on Hitch-Hiker's Guide; Lisa Braun, a studio manager on the project, later became his wife.
In 1998, after collaborating successfully as both writer and performer with Angus Deayton on Radio Active and its screen incarnation, KYTV, Perkins left the BBC to become a director of Hat Trick Productions. But in 1995 he returned to the BBC as head of comedy, retaining a substantial stake in Hat Trick but laughing off suggestions that there would be any conflict of interests.
The convulsions of the John Birt regime he found harder to laugh off; Perkins loathed what Birt did to the BBC, and felt that the sitcom – a word, he once observed, that is too often articulated "with a curl of the lips" – was victimised by Birt's budget police. In 2001 he joined Tiger Aspect, where he helped propel Catherine Tate to TV stardom after seeing her doing stand-up at the Edinburgh Fringe. He could spot talent as brilliantly and percipiently as he nurtured it.
It is not a figure of speech to say that Geoffrey Perkins was "much loved" throughout the comedy business, writes Andrew Marshall. A thoughtful, apparently implacable exterior neatly curtained off a sensitive, warm character, with an invigorating delight of the ridiculous and a solid sense of judgement beautifully combining pragmatic logic and a matchless comic instinct.
Companionable and entertaining, he famously attended run-throughs, his face buried in his script, ticking lines that particularly made him laugh, and he often had to have his attention drawn to some visual gag he was in danger of missing, in his concentration.
At the end of a recent lunch, he surprised me by giving me a bear hug as he departed, as if we would never meet again. We never did. I, in company I suspect, with a large number of people, already miss him enormously, but I thinly console myself by thinking that, wherever he ends up, he like as not finds his manner of getting there one of the extraordinary absurdities of life at which we can, in the end, only shrug our shoulders and laugh.
Geoffrey Perkins, producer, writer and actor: born Bushey, Hertfordshire, 22 February 1953; Head of Comedy, BBC 1995-2001; married 1986 Lisa Braun (one son, one daughter); died London 29 August 2008.
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