Obituary: Billy Marsh

Click to follow
The Independent Online
William Marsh, show-business agent: born Whitfield, Kent 1917; died London 19 December 1995.

Billy Marsh was a Kent farmer's son who rose to become a British show- business legend and the most respected agent in Europe.

He was far from the cliche figure of the large, fast-talking, cigar-smoking and wheeler-dealing agent. He was slim, thin-haired, bespectacled, soberly dressed and quietly spoken. But he had an outstanding talent for spotting future stars and judging public taste. He looked more like a benign bishop - yet he presented almost 100 royal charity shows.

For 35 years he was the first lieutenant to Bernard, later Lord, Delfont, and as managing director of the light entertainment division of London Management was responsible for top-of-the-bill performers including Morecambe and Wise, Frankie Vaughan, Tony Hancock, Harry Worth, Norman Wisdom and Bruce Forsyth.

He lived for show business, and among his credits were a leading backstage role in booking and preparing the annual Royal Variety Performance, booking London's then no 1 nightspot, The Talk of the Town, taking a Palladium variety show to Canada annually, presenting the British tours of Bette Davis and Laurel and Hardy, as well as mounting his own shows.

Five years ago his busy life came to a sudden end when he suffered a stroke, which eventually left him in a wheelchair. He virtually retired.

On leaving London Management in 1987 he had formed a new agency, Billy Marsh Associates, which today is run by Jan Kennedy and looks after Forsyth, the Morecambe and Wise estate, Rolf Harris, Marti Webb and David Jacobs. His story was told on This is Your Life in 1990 (he was noted in the business for his cigarette smoking and ash on his coat lapels).

Reviewing his 47 years' association with stage, television, radio, films and cabaret he told me: "I hope my name stands for integrity and I claim to be the equal of any competitor. The public are the masters and I am allowed to continue because I have been right more often than wrong.

"My family had no connection with entertainment but it hypnotised me and I would cycle 18 miles as a boy to visit the live theatre. I was stage- struck and can recall every act on the bills. My connection began at pounds 1 a week, as secretary for a touring show. Eventually I succeeded the late Richard Afton as manager of another show. He had earned pounds 12 a week, two more than me, and I asked why. They told me it was because his title had been 'general manager'."

Billy Marsh made his name when he joined the newly started Bernard Delfont in 1942 and looked after his agency. The pianist Charlie Kunz was his introduction to star management. It was later, in 1960, that Morecambe and Wise walked into his office looking for work. Marsh told them to concentrate on television and fixed for them to have their own series. As a young man he had himself appeared on stage. He was a "straight man" who also did impressions.

He had seen music hall and the clubs vanish, and television and the recording industry take over the job of producing the new stars. In his view, "Nothing can stop real talent from emerging, even if it takes longer. Too much mediocre talent thinks it should be at the top. You can count the real top stars quickly, and you won't need two hands. Some of the finest I've seen are Max Miller, America's Harry Richman, Sid Field, Eric and Ern, Forsyth, Gracie Fields and Frankie Vaughan.

"I wouldn't trade my work for any other," he said. "It is also a matter of pride that I'm told I have been associated with more royal shows than any agent or manager in the history of light entertainment."