John Howard Davies: Child star of David Lean's 'Oliver Twist' who became head of comedy at the BBC
Thursday 25 August 2011
John Howard Davies would still have had a minor place in entertainment history through his affecting performance as the protagonist of David Lean's film of Oliver Twist (1948). But his reputation rests on having produced and directed some of the most acclaimed examples of BBC television comedy. Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, The Good Life, Steptoe and Son and The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin all prospered under the air of quiet calm that he exuded, in an often frenetic industry. His frequently stated guideline was, simply, "It's got to be funny."
Born in Paddington, his father, Jack Davies, was a prolific screenwriter for the Rank Organisation, before spending his later years in Hollywood.
The younger Davies, a blond innocent among the grime that Lean revelled in creating, cut a suitably vulnerable figure as Dickens's famous stray. On its release in the US, Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote: "In a youngster named John Howard Davies [the producers] have a frail, sensitive, spirited little fellow who is Oliver Twist to a T. All of the poignancy, courage and humour of the famous orphan are projected by him." Davies had a similar title role in Tom Brown's Schooldays (1951), after a precocious one in The Rocking Horse Winner (1949), produced by and featuring John Mills.
Following a couple of episodes of the ITV swashbuckler William Tell (1958), and a 1961 production of The Sound of Music in Melbourne, he abandoned the acting profession. Stints as a salesman and in the City preceded his joining the BBC in 1967, as a production assistant. His first fully-fledged credit as producer was A P Herbert's Misleading Cases (1967-71), a legal satire distinguished by Alastair Sim as a judge confronted by Roy Dotrice as a persistent litigant. Despite the series' obscure status in subsequent decades, it proved popular enough at the time to continue into the colour era, taking Davies with it. In its final episode, the penultimate name on the cast list was John Cleese, who appeared due to his admiration for Sim.
Davies would prove instrumental in two of Cleese's greatest successes. After assuming production duties for the first four episodes of Monty Python's Flying Circus in 1969, uncertainly billed in the Radio Times as a "New funny late-night lark", he handed overall control to Scottish former actor Ian MacNaughton, who had handled those episodes' outside filmed sequences. Subsequently, other team members alleged Cleese would have preferred Davies to have remained as producer.
A more restrained type of comedy, foreshadowing Davies's later success with series enjoyed by a well-mannered audience, came with the colour episodes of All Gas and Gaiters (1967-71). Given his connections with Python, Davies must have seemed the ideal choice to produce the first two series of The Goodies (1970-72), although as he would probably have conceded, the visuals for that series owed more to its film sequence director, Jim Franklin. Davies oversaw a remake of one episode, involving a giant kitten that terrorises London, incorporating more of Franklin's filmed shots and entered for the Golden Rose of Montreux in 1972, where it won the Silver Rose.
Davies directed most of the seventh series of Steptoe and Son (1972), which contained some of its most frequently screened episodes, particularly "The Desperate Hours", guest-starring Leonard Rossiter as an escaped convict. Frankie Howerd in Whoops Baghdad (1973), plainly derived from the star's earlier Up Pompeii!, would prove far less durable, surviving only due to residual affection for Howerd.
Davies produced and directed The Good Life (1975-78), in the process establishing his eye for casting, having seen Richard Briers and Paul Eddington on stage in a production of Alan Ayckbourn's Absurd Person Singular, then Felicity Kendal and Penelope Keith in the same playwright's The Norman Conquests.
It could have stood as Davies's most regularly repeated work if not for the first series of Fawlty Towers (1975), on which he established a fast style, employing far more cuts than the standard sitcom, adhered to by Bob Spiers on the second series. Similarly, although Davies only directed the first episode of The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (1976-79), the pattern of Reggie's progress along suburban streets named after writers, scored to Ronnie Hazlehurst's wistful strains and split-second drop-ins of a waddling hippopotamus to represent his mother in law, remained in subsequent segments.
Aged 39, Davies became the BBC's Head of Television Comedy in September 1977. As Eddington remembered, he then "set out to find a new series for each of the four of us from The Good Life", in his case Yes, Minister. However, The Other One (1977), again produced by Davies, written by John Esmonde and Bob Larbey and starring Briers, did not repeat the collaborators' success.
Davies was appointed head of the BBC Light Entertainment Group in 1982; the industry was surprised when, early in 1985, he resigned and joined the ITV company Thames Television, stating he now wanted to return to producing comedy shows. Despite his relative youth, he was following a path taken by many former BBC Heads of Comedy, of a few well-paid years of producing for the commercial network prior to retirement.
The shows produced by Davies during this period rather felt like middle-ranking BBC sitcoms that had somehow acquired a commercial break. All in Good Faith (1985-88) starred Briers as a well-intentioned vicar, while Executive Stress (1986-88) teamed Keith with Geoffrey Palmer, who had played Reggie Perrin's brother-in-law, before his unexplained replacement by her To the Manor Born co-star Peter Bowles.
At the Edinburgh Television Festival in 1984, following a claim from John Birt that the BBC was too elitist, Davies had responded that none of ITV's sitcoms had the wide appeal of Porridge or Hi-De-Hi! He tried to remedy this with an attempt to televise Andy Capp, adapted from the cartoon strip by Keith Waterhouse and with James Bolam talking to camera in the title role.
Having become controller of light entertainment at Thames in 1988, it was Davies's decision the following year to cease production of The Benny Hill Show. It was something that certain diehard fans of Hill's have never forgiven Davies for. Davies explained to Hill's biographer, Mark Lewisohn, that his motivations had simply been economic: "It's very dangerous to have a show on ITV that doesn't appeal to women, because they hold the purse strings, in a sense."
Unwittingly, Hill's perfect replacement, in terms of a popular but not critically respected comedy that has its most enthusiastic audience outside of Britain, promptly came along for Thames with Mr Bean. Davies directed the first instalment of Rowan Atkinson's Tati-esque protagonist, shown on New Year's Day, 1990: it won the Golden Rose of Montreux later that year, something Davies said he had waited 22 years for.
Law and Disorder (1994), another latter-day Keith vehicle, was notable only as Thames' first sitcom commission as an independent production company, following the loss of its franchise. Back at the BBC, his directing of the 1996 Easter special of The Vicar of Dibley was presumably intended as a recognition of his comic heritage.
He had an atypical final credit, but for the Corporation where he had done so much of his best work, as director of Armadillo (2001), a three-part adaptation by William Boyd of his own novel.
John Howard Davies, actor, producer and director: born London 9 March 1939; married three times (one son, one daughter); died Blewbury, Oxfordshire 22 August 2011.
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