Obituary: Ian Cotterell

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The Independent Online
Ian Cotterell's career as a producer of radio drama was an example of how determination, enthusiasm and tenacity can overcome apparent obstacles. At a time when either a formal drama training or a university degree were almost a sine qua non for a BBC drama producer he succeeded in making a passionate hobby into a paid job and for 20 years, from 1972 to his retirement, he was an acknowledged and popular professional in his chosen metier.

Less excited by novelty of content than by skill of performance, within which field his sensibility was acute, he was most at home with the popular classics of the theatre and dramatisations of the classics of literature. Notable amongst these were his radio productions of Alice in Wonderland (1977), and Alice Through the Looking Glass (1985) in association with the composer Carl Davis. Here his passion for music (he was both an opera and a ballet buff as well as a theatre buff), his child-like sense of fun, his knowledge of technology and his enthusiasm for performance all allied to create prize-winning works of sheer delight.

Cotterell joined the BBC as a filing clerk in 1951, having left school with few qualifications at the age of 16, and having spent five years working in a humble capacity for the publicity section of Metro-Goldwyn- Mayer.

Hard study and application resulted in his becoming a studio manager at the BBC and then, in 1960, a Programme Assistant with the BBC's Overseas Transcription Service. Here he was responsible for the selection and preparation of drama and features radio programmes to be made available for transmission by foreign broadcasting organisations free of charge. The 12 years he spent doing this developed his knowledge, judgement and technical authority. More importantly he applied himself to drama direction in the amateur world. He worked assiduously with the BBC's amateur theatrical group and with SADG (Studio Managers Amateur Dramatic Group). For this, under the guidance of the doyen director Raymond Raikes, he experimented with stereophony in its early phases and with quadraphony and surround-sound, experiments which were to continue long after he had "turned professional". He also directed for the Croydon Histrionic Society and was responsible for a number of ambitious Shakespeare productions at the Ashcroft Theatre in Croydon. His extramural association with these amateur groups continued throughout his life.

He was, indeed, an amateur in the most proper sense in that he loved what he did and one sensed that he would happily have worked for no reward could he have afforded to do so or even been permitted to do so. This love of drama and his enthusiasm for it communicated itself to all the actors, writers and technicians with whom he worked.

Ian Cotterell was not an interventionist director but one who provided the right ingredients and created the right atmosphere for it all to happen. He enjoyed working with stars and recognised that these had achieved their status through talent rather than by accident. Perhaps his early days with MGM also made him aware that there were certain publicity advantages to be derived from star casting. One reviewer wrote of him: "Mr Cotterell's casting is worthy of the more glamorous days of H.M. Tennent."

Nowhere was this more in evidence that in the three series of 21 original short radio plays by Peter Barnes entitled Barnes People which were broadcast in the early Eighties, where the cast lists read like something out of the pages of Who's Who in the Theatre, including such names as Laurence Olivier, Paul Scofield, Peggy Ashcroft, Sean Connery, John Hurt, Robert Stephens, Judi Dench, Donald Pleasance, Peter Ustinov, Irene Worth and John Gielgud.

Despite the restrictions of Parkinson's disease which beset him over the past five years, this easy, popular and likeable man retained his sense of fun, his enthusiasm and his passionate private interests. It has been to radio listeners' benefit that he chose to put these personal qualities to public advantage.

John Tydeman

Ian Cotterell, radio producer: born 5 March 1930; MGM publicity department 1946-51; clerk/ studio manager, BBC Radio 1951-60, programme assistant, Transcription Service 1960-72, Producer, BBC Radio Drama 1972-92; died London 11 December 1995.