Stewart Morris: Producer who worked in BBC light entertainment for over 30 years
Monday 09 February 2009
The credit “Produced by Stewart Morris” was the final caption on hundreds of BBC light entertainment programmes from 1958 to 1992. Although Morris would never have been recognised in the street, the British public knew his name and associated him with quality productions, usually involving plenty of song and dance. They included seamlessly professional series for Shirley Bassey, Cliff Richard, Marti Caine and Les Dawson, as well as broadcasts of the Eurovision Song Contest and the Royal Variety Performance.
But every programme with Morris was a rollercoaster ride, as artists and technicians knew he was a big, powerful man who was quick to criticise faults, although he handed out praise and was a wonderful drinking companion when it was all over.
Stewart Morris was born in 1930 and educated at Winchester College but turned down a place at Oxford University as he preferred to be working.
His father, William Southan Morris, owned the Astoria chain of cinemas and after managing one of them for a few years Stewart realised that the future – as well as his future – lay not in cinema, but in television.
In 1958, the TV producer Jack Good was producing the very exciting rock ’n’ roll show, Oh Boy! for ITV, and the BBC wanted something similar. Morris was recruited to produce their reply, Drumbeat. Morris favoured a studio production over a theatre audience, but otherwise the shows were identical. Many of the performers were the same but Morris made Adam Faith a star and established John Barry as the leader of a rhythm combo, the John Barry Seven. The visiting Americans were Paul Anka and the Poni- Tails. “Drumbeat made me a star in Scotland,” the singer Vince Eager said, “as they didn’t have ITV there and had never seen anything like it.”
Johnny Worth, the songwriter of Faith’s first hits, recalls, “Adam had an amazing face, a most endearing face, and something within me said, ‘This kid is going to be a star. It doesn’t matter that he doesn’t sing very well.’ Stewart Morris liked to present him with a stern, rocker, motorbike image and I told Adam to smile at the camera, gently, and the world would light up when he did. Stewart Morris was furious when he was stuck with a smiling Adam Faith singing ‘Love Is Strange’. He tore him off a colossal strip and told him never to do it again, but I knew he was wrong. When he smiled that wistful smile, he went zonk! into the hearts of millions.”
Drumbeat only ran for six months, but Morris had shown his capabilities and he was then entrusted with Juke Box Jury. This was hardly demanding work and hardly a TV format – four panellists listening to the latest releases and commenting on them – but it had a popular host, David Jacobs, and high viewing figures.
Morris worked on several one-off shows including specials with Sammy Davis Jnr, Allan Sherman and Beryl Reid, where he recruited Harold Pinter and N.F. Simpson to write for her.
In 1965, he recorded a highly regarded concert (in two parts) by Bob Dylan in front of an invited audience at the BBC. He was adamant that none of the audience would see Dylan before the broadcast. He ordered the concert to start and Dylan appeared, only to retreat as the videotape machine wasn’t ready. Morris was furious that the initial impact had been lost, but Dylan, wholly unaffected by Morris’s outburst, gave a superlative performance.
In 1966, he saw the potential of Kenneth Williams as a host for the BBC2 series International Cabaret, and he proved to be a fine anchorman as the public saw European acts which would not otherwise have a UK outlet.
He put together the song-and-dance group the Young Generation and used them in numerous productions, as well as realising the commercial potential of the Nolans.
In January 1967, Morris produced The Rolf Harris Show in which Harris sang, joked, painted and played ethnic Australian instruments. Harris was born on the same day as Morris and they referred to each other as twins. During the first season, Sandie Shaw sang the potential UK entries for the Eurovision Song Contest, and the public voted for “Puppet On A String”, which led to the UK’s first victory in the contest. The following year, Morris produced the live TV broadcast of the contest from the Royal Albert Hall and also produced the Royal Variety Performance from the London Palladium. In 1976, he produced the first live broadcast of a Royal Variety Performance.
In 1973, Morris was appointed Head of Variety and for two years had overall responsibility for the BBC’s variety programmes. However, he felt uncomfortable and much preferred making programmes himself. He had a flair for creating excitement and came up with the novel idea of a week of shows about the Osmond family, hosted by Noel Edmonds, when they came to the UK in 1974. In order to get them into the BBC Television Centre without being mobbed, Morris smuggled them in using a furniture van.
Shirley Bassey had resisted overtures to make her own series, but she relented in 1976 and the lavish Shirley Bassey Show did, at one stage, top 20 million viewers in the UK and was sold to 70 countries. Bassey, who could match his tough talking proved to be more game for his stunts than he imagined and they included singing in a crane from an oil rig in the North Sea.
When BBC2 started in 1964, Morris was put in charge of the Saturday afternoon alternative to sport on BBC1 and ITV. Open House was fronted by Gay Byrne and featured such American stars as Gene Pitney, the Supremes and the Beach Boys.
The show’s musical director, Tony Osborne, said: “Two hours of live television every week requires a producer with an iron nerve and iron will and the ability to get things done. Stewart had all of that, and although he could be a bully, it was for the good of the programme.”
In 1986, Morris produced his biggest spectacle: the opening ceremony for the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, which involved over 10,000 sportsmen and musicians.
Less successfully, he presided over a revival of the TV talent show Opportunity Knocks from 1987 to 1990, first with Bob Monkhouse and then with Les Dawson. The programme, which invited viewers to select the winning act by sending postcards, led the way for the interactive TV talent shows we see today. The backstage dramas, however, dwarfed what was seen on screen as Hughie Green, the original host, demanded, and received, an on-screen credit and fee as programme adviser.
Morris retired from the BBC in 1992. He then produced a Royal Gala for the 50th anniversary of VE Day for Carlton TV in 1995 and four series of Barrymore with Michael Barrymore for LWT from 1992 to 1995. He married his fourth wife, Hazel Silverman, in 1996. His son from his second marriage, Southan Morris, works in television and film production, but Morris himself could not be persuaded to write his autobiography: no one, he said, would be interested.
Stewart John Southan Morris, television producer: born Luton 30 March 1930; married four times (one son, three daughters); died Sutton 10 January 2009
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