Mike Hill: 'Hands-off' BBC executive
Saturday 26 July 2008
'Ah – m'dear feller! Good ter see you!" These were the almost inevitable opening words from Mike Hill, the tall, debonair BBC executive-without-portfolio, on greeting a fellow colleague. A man out of his time – he would have been equally at home in a Regency coffee house picking over the stories of the day – he was in fact one of BBC Television's more unusual executives, a delightful man who employed a "hands-off" policy that allowed his staff to make their own decisions. He gave useful advice when asked, and was at all times optimistic and generous in encouragement and praise.
His great gift at the Corporation was to survive, and this he achieved through enormous charm and a sharp wit, which manifested itself through a fund of scurrilous observations and stories inspired by the human foibles of his superiors on the sixth floor of the Television Centre. He had a lifelong dislike of pomposity. "People of Importance" put a glint in his eye. Anyone ill-advised enough "To Feel Their Position" while Hill was around was an immediate target. A name would be concocted ("Oddjob" for one less-than-admired superior) and a BBC abbreviation applied ("H/Cup Tel.": "Head of Cupboards – Television").
Hill had been introduced to the BBC in the 1960s, by one of his wartime friends, Rowan Ayers, and he started out doing research work on Corelli Barnett's 26-part series The Great War, broadcast in 1964. He then moved to Tonight – a topical programme introduced by Cliff Michelmore. Here a niche was found for Hill where he chatted up politicians and other contributors to the programme to relax them before they appeared on the show.
Decades later, in 2003, Hill's observations of life in the Tonight programme were to be the basis of his cheeky "novel of the Sixties" A Little Local Difficulty – which featured thinly disguised characters based on such BBC luminaries as Grace Wyndham Goldie, Huw Wheldon and Ned Sherrin, the creator of the groundbreaking satire That Was the Week That Was. In fact, Sherrin was to become a lifelong friend – and Hill made the occasional appearance on Loose Ends on Radio 4.
Hill then became deputy to Ayers, who was now programme editor on Late Night Line-Up, BBC2's arts-orientated nightly chat show, which featured Joan Bakewell, Denis Tuohy, Tony Bilbow and Mike Dean as presenters. For the first time on television, this programme invited criticism of the BBC's own programmes from outside contributors – thereby causing a confetti of angry internal memos from deeply offended department heads when Line-Up's guests made the occasional (and inevitable) adverse remarks.
In February 1972 Hill created his own satire show, Up Sunday. Initially this featured long, rambling topical reflections from William Rushton and James Cameron. But these were later pruned, and the company enlarged to include Clive James, John Wells and Kenny Everett – plus guests, among whom were Johns Bird and Fortune, Sir John Betjeman, Ivor Cutler, Eric Idle, Roy Hudd, Adge Cutler & the Wurzels, the bird impressionist Percy Edwards, Vivian Stanshall of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and Peter Sellers. It eventually ran to 55 programmes over four series, and was described by John Wells as "aimed at dirty-minded insomniacs".
Hill was also the executive producer for the two series spawned by Up Sunday, The End of the Pier Show (1974), a satirical musical with three songs per show by John Wells and the composer and conductor Carl Davis, and In the Looking Glass (1978). That year he also executive-produced The Light Princess, which won the Royal Television Society's Most Original Programme award. He was also associated with Eric Idle's two Rutland Weekend Television series (1975/76). A common factor with all these productions was their basic irreverence and an impoverished budget – the BBC's nod towards "the fringe".
Before coming to the BBC, Hill had led a colourful life. He was born in Yorkshire in 1923, and christened Denis Michael Ryshworth-Hill – a mouthful he saw fit to shorten in the course of time. His first school was in Ripon, Yorkshire, and was followed by King's School, Canterbury. Then, in 1942, he went on the pilot-training course of the Fleet Air Arm, in Hampshire. In his book Duty Free: Fleet Air Arm days (2003), based on diaries kept at the time, he noted: "The Commanding Officer of HMS St Vincent wished me: 'Have a good war'. It was a well-meant if somewhat reckless remark for an 18-year-old with a growing taste for drink and little sense of responsibility."
He learned to fly Tiger Moths at Sealand, near Chester, and continued his training in Canada, and was then sent to Scotland where he learned to fly Hurricanes and to land and take off from ancient aircraft carriers. His flying exploits became more alarming as his confidence and alcohol intake grew. He recalls flying from Somerset to Wales "suffering sporadic after-effects of a long evening in the Half Moon". There was an air gunner behind him, and suddenly the radio communication between them failed. He flew over the coastline thinking he was above the Bristol Channel, but then became aware that the air gunner was gesticulating "in a frenzied manner", pleading for him to turn round and fly back the way they had come. A crucial observation, as they were 180 degrees off course and about to pass into occupied France.
Hill saw action in France in the summer of 1944, now flying Seafires, naval spitfires. He carried out some 25 sorties in the 1944 Normandy battles, then served on aircraft carriers on convoys to Russia, and finally with the Pacific Fleet in Australia.
After the war Hill went to St Edmund Hall, Oxford, from 1945 to 1948, and while there wrote a sports column for Isis. He was rusticated for "insufficient attention to studies", or, as a contemporary remembers "being a general drunk and layabout". During the late 1940s and early 1950s Hill continued his association with the Fleet Air Arm when he became editor of their in-house magazine Flight Deck. He was subsequently a journalist with Amalgamated Press before joining the BBC in the 1960s.
Throughout his retirement Mike Hill kept in touch with his friends at the Beeb and maintained an interest in the productions of his former colleagues, reading scripts and offering encouragement in a series of extremely witty letters. He published a third book, Right Royal Remarks (2003) which featured the gaffes of royalty from 1066 to 1996. He also wrote poetry.
Denis Michael Ryshworth-Hill (Mike Hill), television producer and writer: born Harrogate, Yorkshire 17 June 1923; married Patricia Montague-Brooks (née Ferguson, died 1984; two stepdaughters); died Dover, Kent 16 March 2008.
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