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Jeremy Beadle: Loved and loathed TV prankster

For two decades, Jeremy Beadle was television's arch prankster, rising to fame in the early 1980s as the chief purveyor of Game for a Laugh's jolly japes and hoaxes, before taking that element to his own programme, Beadle's About. Playing tricks on unsuspecting members of the public revived the format of Candid Camera, a huge hit on television in Britain and the United States during the medium's golden age of the 1950s and 1960s.

In Game for a Laugh (1981-85), Beadle and his original fellow presenters – Henry Kelly, Matthew Kelly and Sarah Kennedy – memorably started the programme by running down the steps from the back of the studio, past the audience, and on to the stage, where they lined up alongside one another on tall stools. Beadle will be best remembered, though, for his antics outside the studio, where he cultivated a reputation as the bearded clown.

One of his earliest stunts was giving a celebrity welcome to a salesman on his arrival on holiday in Palma, complete with flamenco dancers. Another was shocking the fifth-floor office worker who thought her husband was on the other side of town, only to see him peering in at her from the outside of the building, hoisted up on a window cleaner's cradle. As each stunt reached its climax, a smiling Beadle would appear with microphone to record the victim's reaction.

Beadle was to have been only a writer on this "people show", with the public at the centre of the action, but, when big names – reportedly including Terry Wogan and Cilla Black – turned down a presenting role, he was put in front of the cameras. He was the only one of the quartet of hosts to survive the five-year run.

After Game for a Laugh ended, Beadle landed his own shows, the most successful being Beadle's About (1986-96), which ran for 10 series. Introduced with a theme song featuring the lyric "Watch Out, Beadle's About", the programme had none of its forerunner's games-type jokes played on a studio audience. Instead, Beadle's location stunts took centre stage – and became increasingly more daring and cruel. Perhaps it is surprising that only once did a prank backfire badly, when a man who was led to believe that the front of his house had been turned into a lorry park thumped Beadle in the back.

The star found a safer haven back in the studio when he launched another hit series, You've Been Framed! (1990-97), featuring viewers' own humorous moments caught on their camcorders – supposedly unplanned and often involving people falling over or sustaining injury.

However, throughout all this success with ratings-topping programmes that were clearly loved by viewers, Beadle found himself a frequent target of abuse. For years, he was referred to by journalists as "the most hated man on television" and, in 2001, a survey placed him second only to Saddam Hussein as the Most Hated Man in Britain. "The fact that people don't like me has nothing at all to do with me," Beadle once said.

It's because they feel guilty about laughing at the practical jokes I play. So they transfer their guilt on to me. They laugh, they don't like themselves for it and so they blame me . . . What people say about me does hurt. It's a form of bullying. I've never minded criticism, but I hate it when it's personal and abusive.

Jeremy Beadle was born illegitimately in Hackney, east London, in 1948, the son of a national newspaper sports reporter who left Beadle's mother on discovering that she was pregnant. He learned who his father was and later located him but never felt the need to meet. "I honestly felt that it was my mother's business and what right have I got to go prying into that or to disrupt or possibly destroy another person's life," he explained.

Born with Poland's syndrome, which caused him to have a withered right hand, Beadle was brought up on a council estate in Kent by his mother, grandmother and aunt. At school, he was a constant prankster and, at the age of 10, was given three years' probation for stealing a pound note from a teacher's handbag. After being expelled from Orpington Secondary Modern School, he went through a succession of jobs, on a bakery production line and as a hospital porter, messenger for a magazine publisher, lavatory attendant in Germany and fruit picker in Spain. Throughout these, he took every opportunity to play practical jokes.

Returning to Britain, he found a focus for his skills, becoming a street photographer in Brighton, and founding the listings magazine What's On in Brighton. He then worked for a time at Time Out in London. In 1972, he was invited by the North West Arts Association to organise a rock festival in Bickershaw, near Wigan, featuring artists such as the Grateful Dead and Captain Beefheart, and he followed this festival with others.

Spurred on by his childhood fascination for facts, which had developed after his mother gave him The Guinness Book of Records, Beadle contacted the producer of the television game show Celebrity Squares, then presented by Bob Monkhouse, and was hired to write material for the programme. He also supplied the Daily Express's "On This Day" anniversaries column. In the late 1970s, he was given his own phone-in and chat programme, The Beadlebum Show, on the London radio station LBC. After being sacked for being too outrageous, he switched to Capital Radio for Beadle's Odditarium.

Work soon came from all directions. For the BBC, he wrote April Fool (1980), a history of practical jokes hosted by Dave Lee Travis, and wrote and presented The Deceivers (1981), a series about tricksters and cheats in history. He was also hired as a writer on You Must Be Joking (1981), in which Terry Wogan presented comedy games based on hoaxes, spoofs and tall stories.

For ITV, he presented the Saturday-morning children's show Fun Factory (1980), before joining Game for a Laugh in 1981. During that programme's run, he also presented "Today's the Day" (1984), a television version of his Express column, for TV-am's Good Morning Britain breakfast show.

His first solo show was People Do The Funniest Things (1986-87), in which he presented archive material of out-takes, hidden-camera stunts and stars in their earliest screen roles. This overlapped with Beadle's About, which in turn overlapped with Chain Letters (1987-88), a morning quiz show. It seemed that Beadle was hardly off the screen.

Beadle's Hot Shots (1996-97) was a spin-off from You've Been Framed!, and involved viewers' camcorder spoofs of popular films and commercials, but by now the star's popularity was waning. He made a brief comeback in 1999 with the game show Win Beadle's Money, in which contestants battled for a £1,000 prize by beating him over three rounds of general-knowledge questions. But, as work dried up on screen, the star returned to his fascination for obscure facts and, from 2003, wrote the "Beadle's Miscellany" trivia quiz for The Independent Magazine. He was also European editor of The Book of Lists and London editor of The People's Almanac.

He made the headlines in 1998 after helping a friend with motor neurone disease to obtain the details he needed to commit suicide. Six years later, Beadle himself successfully underwent an operation to remove a cancerous kidney, but in 2005 he was diagnosed with leukaemia, ironically having been a fundraiser for the Foundation for Children with Leukaemia. Beadle's biography, Watch Out!, was published in 1998. He married his partner, Sue, in 2004, after 21 years together.

Anthony Hayward

Jeremy James Anthony Gibson Beadle, television presenter and writer: born London 12 April 1948; MBE 2001; married (two daughters, one stepson and one stepdaughter); died London 30 January 2008.