Men in peril, enter Beryl

Last Thursday, Beryl Vertue, television producer extraordinaire, was given a fine forum at a conference in London. Rightly so. Nobody has a better tale to tell. Interview by Ann Treneman

Ann Treneman
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:37

If Beryl Vertue's career was made into a movie - and it is brilliant enough to merit one - the opening shot would be of her in bed in a TB sanitarium on the windswept Isle of Wight. It is the 1950s and she would be in her late teens.

Until then life had been going exactly as planned for the girl from South London. "I was a secretary for a shipping firm. My ambition was to be a very good secretary and I wanted to get married, get a house and have children," she says.

Well, three out of four is not bad. She got the marriage, the house and the children and it was not as if she was a bad secretary. It is just that she was a much better agent and producer. Then she began to sell formats of television sitcoms - she was the first to do so - and started to work in and for the USA. "There was a brief period there in the seventies where I knew a lot of high up people in the networks and people thought I was God. It was really quite pleasant," she said last week during a session on her life and times at the Television Show conference in London.

She relies on instinct and hates the very idea of focus groups. "How do I tell if something is funny? If I laugh. I figure I'm not that extraordinary and if I laugh then other people will too." When ITV scrapped Men Behaving Badly she knew in her gut it was a mistake. "That made me rather cross," she says briskly. Vertue saved it for this nation and then sold it to another (the US). Tot up another success for Hartswood Films and chairman Vertue.

Not bad for a girl who started off in a sickbed, but then TB is something of a theme for her. A friend from school named Alan Simpson had also suffered with the disease and she had often visited him in his sanitarium. "He met his writing partner Ray Galton in there. They wrote for the hospital radio," says Vertue. It seems an appropriate beginning for the Steptoe and Son team.

"l had visited them and so now that I had TB they came to visit me. It was extraordinary that we all got it. Then they had formed a company with Eric Sykes and Spike Milligan and they wanted a secretary," she says. Vertue, just out of the hospital, did not fancy the hour-long trolleybus ride to work but she eventually did go for an interview. "It was strange. No one once asked about my shorthand speeds or typing. Spike did all the talking and he asked what kind of tea I made and what made me laugh. So I took the job and here I am today. I could so easily not have done it."

It was the first time that Beryl broke the rules - in this case doctor's orders - and it wouldn't be the last. "It's terribly important not to know too many rules," she told Broadcast. "If you know rules and obstacles you spend a lot of time dealing with them. If you don't know there's a rule you just do it."

In addition to making cups of tea for Simpson and Milligan and Co, she began to negotiate their fees. One day someone asked her when she had become an agent and this was a question to ponder. "I didn't know what an agent was. I certainly had not trained for it. It is still surprising to me that I was good at it."

The unsettling thing about Beryl Vertue is that you know she is extraordinary but she keeps on pretending not to be. She is chairman of a film company but hates spreadsheets, a television show producer who does not know how to work her home video. "I must learn that," she muses, unbelievably. This lack of expertise does not extend to ideas or projects, however. In this she is supremely capable and her favourite words are "logical" and "practical'. She will try anything, as long as it fits the definition of one of those words.

When she decided it was "practical" to sell the concept of Steptoe and Son to Germany, for instance, she claims it was only "logical" that she would call the German embassy to get the address of every television channel and then write all of them letters.

When she "got cross" over ITV's decision to scrap Men Behaving Badly it was "only logical" to ring the man at the top at the BBC. "If you are going to do something no one has done before - move a cancelled series from one network to another - then you have to go to the top person. You cannot go further down with a big decision and expect it to be pushed up for you. Their jobs could be at risk," she says matter of factly. It was a wise call to make. "I just kept saying that I knew it would work". Alan Yentob listened and Beryl was right.

She prides herself on being a writer's producer and her CV is studded with firsts of one kind or another. She was the first to use the word "bastard" on American television and the first to get a movie star (Jack Lemmon) to star on the small screen (The Entertainer). She joined her first company with Robert Stigwood's in the late 1960s and worked on the likes of Tommy. She started producing directly for the US. Her Boston- based version of Upstairs Downstairs was cancelled with 23 million viewers. "What a failure!" she says. She founded Hartwood Films in 1982 but it took her five years to find her feet.

TV may be a nasty business but, very practically, Vertue just tries to avoid the worst offenders. "I don't play games. You have to decide in this business what is your way of working. My way is to be truthful. Years ago when I first went to America, I was talking to someone about a script and said that the middle part did not work but that I knew how to fix it. Afterwards this person came up to me and said: 'What's all this honesty angle of yours?' I had not thought about honesty being an angle before. He thought it was shocking."

She understands the US market and believes, for example, that Absolutely Fabulous could never transfer its drink 'n' drugs plot to a nation whose mantra is "Just Say No". "If you take out the drugs and the drink, you haven't really got a series," she says.

Not so with Men Behaving Badly which she sold to Carsey-Werner. "Oh men behave badly all over the world," she says. "But they are also quite vulnerable and that is why women love it too. They do not feel threatened." US humour is more "on the nose" and much slicker. They like good looking and successful people. And hold the irony, please.

Vertue is currently working on another kind of transatlantic switch: taking an American show idea and adapting it for British TV. At her age - the figure is unknown and is likely to stay that way - she is still passionate about work and is "seriously committed" to running her company as a family. Her daughter is among a handful of employees. "I take them all on holiday every year to Portugal."

Now that is not logical. Nor is the glass of champagne she is holding, nor her outburst about flying. "Oh I do love first class. I just do not like being at the back of the plane."

She used to fly first class all the time, of course, but as an independent she has been sitting in economy and hating it.

"So finally I decided to send myself Concorde and I went up with a bunch of kids to get the pilot's autograph. He asked me if it was the first time I'd flown Concorde and I said no but it was the first time I had paid for it myself. He didn't even smile, you know."

And with that, she laughed the laugh of a woman who is quietly behaving badly and loving every minute of it n

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