Obituary: Jess Yates
Monday 12 April 1993
MAKING POPULAR, quality television on small budgets was Jess Yates's forte. During his years in television, he did just about everything there was to do, from designing sets and writing, to producing, directing and presenting, but never have the television authorities dumped anyone as unceremoniously as they did him.
Born in Tyldesley, Manchester, Yates subsequently moved with his family to North Wales and he became a cinema organist in Colwyn Bay at the age of 15. On leaving school, he took a job as organist at the then new Odeon cinema in Llandudno and, when Rank took over the circuit, he played across the whole country.
After serving in the Army for four years during the Second World War, based at Radcliff, in Lancashire, he went back to organ-playing on the Rank Circuit, as the last touring organist in Britain. Involved in the formation of the Children's Film Foundation as 'Uncle Jess', he also made singalong records for children's Odeon Cinema Clubs.
In 1951, Yates formed the Littlewoods and Vernon girls' choirs for both of the pools organisations, moving to television in the same year as a freelance designer for the BBC, which was keen to broadcast from the regions. He worked on the first Sooty show, in 1952, and the first three years of the long-running music-hall programme The Good Old Days - starting in 1953 at the celebrated City Varieties Theatre, Leeds - as well as Come Dancing, Top Town and the Miss World contest.
In 1955, Yates switched to producing and made Out of the Blue, presented by Tyrone Power, wrote and produced A Boy Named Will, as a celebration of Shakespeare's birthday, and presented three series of programmes about the film world, Behind the Scenes, Junior Picture Parade and Filmland.
Moving to Warwick Films in 1957, he wrote and directed documentary shorts on stars such as Kim Novak, Joan Crawford, Robert Mitchum, Jack Lemmon, Trevor Howard, Tyrone Power and Anna Neagle, for screening on television. In 1959, a year after his marriage to the former dancer and actress Heller Toren (nee Elaine Smith), he gave up show business to buy a seaside hotel in Llandudno. The couple had a daughter, Paula, now a successful television presenter herself and married to the Band Aid organiser Bob Geldof, and his wife later became a best-selling novelist.
But the marriage soon foundered and Yates sold his hotel business, first moving back to Warwick Films, then making a feature film about the Second World War, before joining Yorkshire Television, which became one of the new ITV franchise holders in 1968.
As head of children's programmes, his first success was the puppet series Diane's Magic Book, which he wrote and produced. Other series masterminded by him included the children's dramas The Flaxton Boys, starring a young Peter Firth, and Boy Dominic, featuring Richard Todd and Brian Blessed. He also created and presented How We Used to Live, the longest-running schools programme and a winner of BAFTA awards.
One of his greatest successes was Junior Showtime, a talent show for children that launched the careers of Bonnie Langford, Joe Longthorne, Keith Chegwin, Mark Curry and Rosemarie Ford.
Yates was particularly successful with his religious programmes. Choirs on Sunday (1968) was a forerunner to the hugely popular Stars on Sunday (from 1969), which Yates created, produced, directed and presented. He also played the organ for it. Its blend of international stars singing well- known hymns and giving Bible readings made it the most popular religious series ever, with regular audiences of more than 15 million. For a minimum Equity fee of pounds 49, stars such as James Mason, Norman Wisdom, Dames Anna Neagle, Janet Baker and Kiri Te Kanawa, Ken Dodd, Bing Crosby, Eartha Kitt and Johnny Mathis appeared in the programme. Lord Mountbatten, Edward Heath and the Archbishops of Canterbury and York were on the show too, giving Bible readings.
Yates also persuaded two of the greatest stars of the century to come out of retirement for two Christmas specials: Gracie Fields for A Gift of Gracie and Princess Grace of Monaco (Grace Kelly) for The Glories of Christmas. Princess Grace also appeared in Stars on Sunday many times.
However, after five years and more than a thousand programmes at Yorkshire Television, Yates's world came crashing around him with the News of the World's revelation on 7 July 1974 that he had been having a relationship with Anita Kay, an actress, more than 30 years his junior, who had appeared in the series Origami, which he directed. Although Yates was still married, he and his wife had been apart for 10 years: she was in Majorca with another man and Yates and Kay were not even living together, but this was hardly mentioned dirung the relentless press campaign waged against him.
He lost his job and never worked in television again - apart from a few appearances as a judge in the talent show New Faces - although Stars on Sunday carried on for a further five years without him.
Yates, who was divorced from his wife by mutual consent a year after the scandal, lived with Anita Kay until they parted and she later married someone else. During his troubles, Yates gained great encouragement and support from those in the North Wales village of Rowen, in the Conway Valley, where he had lived in a 20-room house since childhood, and he still hoped that his experience and ideas might enable him to work again.
To those of us who could count him as a friend, he was an unending source of stories from more than half a century in show business. However, he did not simply reminisce about 'the good old days' but watched the latest television programmes and enthused over new camera and production techniques.
In recent times, fired with a new spirit of determination and hope, he talked of taking his ideas to daytime television or satellite channels, desperate to do what he enjoyed most - making television shows for large audiences. It was not to be.
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