Ebullient BBC Radio head of light entertainment who presided over a golden era of comedy
Thursday 24 November 2005
Jonathan Guy James-Moore, radio producer and theatre administrator: born 22 March 1946; founder director, Oxford and Cambridge Shakespeare Co 1968-71; general manager, Sir Nicholas Sekers Theatre at Rosehill 1971-72; administrator, Mermaid Theatre 1972-74; administrator, St George's Theatre 1975-76; staff, BBC Radio Light Entertainment 1978-99, Head of Light Entertainment 1991-99; managing director, Commedia 1999-2005; married 1975 Jenny Baynes (one daughter); died London 20 November 2005.
An exceptionally entrancing instance of a funny man who had also the gift of inspiring comedy in other people, Jonathan James-Moore had a career aptly stamped by a pleasing, somewhat eccentric, diversity. After an early spell in theatre administration, his finest hour undoubtedly was his period as the BBC's head of radio comedy, 1991-99, when he gave the corporation's output, mostly signally on Radio 4, a consistently wide-ranging excellence, astutely blending established talent with emergent voices, many of whom would go on to glittering careers.
Jonathan James-Moore was born in 1946 and educated at Bromsgrove School, his happy childhood shattered in his teens when his parents were killed in a car crash. Although he rarely mentioned this, the tragedy undoubtedly contributed to the vein of melancholia in his nature, later to surface more testingly. It perhaps also goes some way to explaining his comedic sense; a triumphantly hilarious performance from Alastair Sim in Pinero's The Magistrate reduced James-Moore to helpless laughter, illustrating for him the truth of Edith Evans's theory, "You have to have been desperately unhappy before you can really play comedy, so that nothing can frighten you any more."
At Cambridge, where he read Engineering at Emmanuel College, the somewhat Falstaffian flannelled figure of James-Moore, with his shock of russet hair and usually bristlingly unkempt beard stood markedly apart from late 1960s crushed-velvet and denim undergraduate fashion, yet he became a Footlights star even amongst a fiercely competitive generation including Clive James, Germaine Greer and Miriam Margolyes, regularly performing in revue on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
Along with a few other bright undergraduates, James-Moore created the Oxford and Cambridge Shakespeare Company (OCSC), assembling an annual Shakespeare production using talent from both universities under a professional director, with the production touring the American eastern seaboard campus circuit during the Christmas vacation after their local runs.
The administration, together with the financial and sponsorship aspects of the company, was time-consuming and demanding, but the OCSC was run with formidable flair. James-Moore also regularly appeared in the company's earliest productions - a dodderingly pedantic Quince in A Midsummer Night's Dream (Diana Quick was Helena) in 1968 and, under Jonathan Miller, Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night (1969), and an offbeat, crypto-Fascist Claudius with a black-gloved hand in a mono-chrome Hamlet which subsequently played a West End season (Fortune, 1971).
Many encouraged James-Moore to turn professional and undoubtedly he could have had a profitable character-actor career. Instead he chose to capitalise on his administrative skills. Always drawn to large-scale personalities, he became general manager for the eupeptic fabrics tycoon Sir Miki Sekers of his jewel-box private theatre at Rosehill, where he had a splendid time luring personalities such as Joyce Grenfell and Donald Swann, all of them delighted by Rosehill's hospitality and James-Moore's buoyant energy.
In London, he then worked as general manager for the gloriously eccentric one-off that was Bernard Miles at the old Mermaid Theatre in Puddle Dock, rapidly acquiring a potent fusion of guile and tact with which to cope with Miles's volatile personality and becoming greatly loved by the Mermaid staff (even Miles's resident parrot, a vile-tempered and malodorous creature with an indiscriminately nasty peck, took to James-Moore).
The Mermaid's finances were so often precarious that nobody noticed that they were progressively exercising James-Moore, who disguised his concerns with characteristic blitheness. Despite the 1972 success of Cowardy Custard, a musical revue at the first night of which James-Moore helped stage-manage not one but three standing ovations for Noël Coward (he also created an unplanned diversion by laughing so much during John Moffatt's rendition of "Nina" that he fell off and noisily broke the usher's wall-seat on which he had perched - "Mice!", Moffatt crisply responded before resuming unperturbed), by the time of the Cole Porter show Cole (1974) the theatre was in a parlous financial state. On the opening night it became clear that James-Moore's nerves had snapped; the next morning's notices would guarantee Cole a lengthy run but by then he was in a Hackney hospital for the first of several stays during his battle with manic depression.
The BBC - together with his own resilient spirit and his profoundly happy marriage to Jenny Baynes - became Jonathan James-Moore's salvation. When he joined in 1978, the Corporation was still home to a huge variety of talent, still essentially producer-led and often anarchic, a more congenial home than the hothouse world of the theatre for this ebullient personality, always defying sartorial elegance and certainly a stranger to Armani suiting.
As a producer, prior to his elevation to Head of Light Entertainment, James-Moore's output covered literally hundreds of assorted programmes and he continued occasionally to produce even as a department head. He was especially enthused by his many collaborations with Russell Davies, by the series Choice Grenfell for Radio 3, with Maureen Lipman exploring less familiar Joycean material, and by several landmark series (also for Radio 3) in collaboration with the critic Robert Cushman, covering musical theatre and - one of James-Moore's passions - the special but endangered art of the cabaret performer.
As Head of Light Entertainment, he was canny enough to maintain radio traditions including News Huddlines (he greatly admired the versatility of performers such as Roy Hudd and June Whitfield) and staples such as Just a Minute but he also championed Radio 4 sitcom, sometimes adapting from television (To the Manor Born included) or, as in the case of After Henry with Prunella Scales, launching series later taken up by television.
Most vitally, James-Moore ceaselessly encouraged fresh writing and performing talent, notably a whole new wave led by such gifted newcomers as Armando Iannucci, Chris Morris and Steve Coogan, with programmes including The Now Show, Week Ending and, most innovatively, The Day Today. Under James-Moore, radio comedy enjoyed a genuinely golden era.
It was his misfortune to coincide later in the 1990s with the chill wind of change sweeping through Broadcasting House when drama and comedy most suffered under the pervasive brutalism of Birtish bureaucracy. Pen-pushers, the men in suits, favour order and categories, while James-Moore's priceless strength was the sheer uncategorisable range of what he saw as his comedic remit.
Early retirement in 1999 enabled him to spend more time in a small retreat in Umbria where he and his wife and daughter enjoyed some of their happiest times. James-Moore continued, as an independent, to produce for radio; his most recent project, a dramatisation of James Hamilton-Paterson's Tuscan-set novel Cooking with Fernet Branca (2004) which had James-Moore literally weeping with laughter on reading it, will not now proceed under him as planned.
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