Rupert Dilnott-Cooper: ITV executive whose skills kept 'Spitting Image' out of trouble

 

As head of contracts and copyright at Central Independent Television, which became ITV's Midlands franchise holder in the 1980s, Rupert Dilnott-Cooper was given some of his biggest challenges by the producers of the satirical puppet series Spitting Image. His job was to protect Central from legal action, but he regarded the show as fun and always tried to find a way to ensure that its biting humour reached the screen.

The programme began in 1984, a potent time for satire, with a markedly right-wing Conservative government in power and the Labour Party providing a weak opposition. The show portrayed Tory politicians particularly viciously – Margaret Thatcher was seen as a tyrant and cross-dresser, Norman Fowler as a Jack the Ripper-style murderer, Norman Tebbit as a bovver boy and Cecil Parkinson as the Cabinet's resident Casanova.

Dilnott-Cooper, himself a staunch Conservative, would frequently receive 8.30am phone calls on a Sunday, the day of transmission, with news of topical sketches being added to that evening's programme. One such call was to ask him whether Spitting Image could show President François Mitterand and his cabinet singing "there's nothing like a bomb" to the tune of "There is Nothing Like a Dame", following news of nuclear testing by France. He judged it acceptable and there was no legal action. Indeed, as the show became increasingly popular, many public figures regarded it as an insult not to be lampooned by it. Later, Dilnott-Cooper used his skills to help tie up contracts for the worldwide distribution of Central programmes such as Inspector Morse, then worked for Carlton until its merger with Granada Television.

He was popular with colleagues, who remember him for offering advice and enthusiasm, and his quick-witted, dry sense of humour. Dilnott-Cooper's Canadian-born father, Kenneth, worked in the Rank Organisation's business department, as well as running the British ski team – the Dilnott-Cooper Cup is still contested in the National Ski Championships. Going to the cinema was the young Dilnott-Cooper's passion and he became a fervent reader of Variety, the American trade magazine.

After attending Eton, he studied law at Hertford College, Oxford from 1973-76, and sometimes found himself in tutorials with just one other undergraduate, Tony Blair, who was at St John's College. However, Dilnott-Cooper decided he wanted to enter the film industry rather than practise as a solicitor or barrister. So, in 1976, he joined Productions Associates, a London-based Warner Brothers company responsible for PR, marketing and product placement. His first job was to accompany Brooke Shields on a press tour of the United Kingdom.

In 1979, Dilnott-Cooper became assistant production administrator at ITC, Lew Grade's company that made and distributed programmes for the television mogul's ITV franchise holder, ATV – from The Saint and Thunderbirds to The Muppet Show.

He was brought in when ITC was diversifying into film production, from which Grade pulled out soon after the disaster movie Raise the Titanic (1980) left the company on the brink of its own disaster. The film cost almost $40m to make but plummeted at the box office, causing Grade to comment famously: "It would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic."

The small screen beckoned when ATV was restructured as Central Independent Television in 1982 and Dilnott-Cooper was appointed the new franchise holder's head of contracts and copyright. His work embraced everything from overseeing the hiring of more actors, writers and performers than any other ITV company to negotiating the rights for a Jean Michel Jarre concert tour of China.

In 1987, Dilnott-Cooper was promoted to become director of business affairs at the company's international sales division, which became Central Television Enterprises the following year and had phenomenal success in selling programmes abroad, twice winning the Queen's Award for Export. He continued in that role for Carlton Television when, in 1994, the London ITV weekday franchise holder took control of Central. Dilnott-Cooper was appointed managing director of Carlton International, its sales arm, two years later and chief executive officer of its content division, responsible for production matters, in 2000.

During this period, Carlton bought two other regional franchise holders, Westcountry and HTV, to make it one of the two dominant ITV companies, alongside Granada. With Carlton, Dilnott-Cooper also bought back the ITC library for ITV – described by the chairman, Michael Green, as "a jewel in the crown" – as well as the Rank film archive, which included the Carry On pictures. In 2004, Dilnott-Cooper's job disappeared when Carlton merged with Granada to create a single company in England and Wales.

However, he continued to work in TV, serving on the boards of companies such as the Stockholm-based international media group Zodiac Television AB (2006-08), the digital rights management agency Base79 (from 2008) and the Canadian Film Centre (from 2011). Dilnott-Cooper, a founding director of the British Television Distributors Association and a trustee of the Television Trust for the Environment, was diagnosed with leukaemia last August.

Anthony Hayward

Rupert Michael Walter James Dilnott-Cooper, television executive: born London 1 January 1954; married 1979 Kate Mansel (two sons); died London 20 May 2013.

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