Richard Drewett: Producer who launched 'Parkinson'

Sunday 23 October 2011 08:28

Richard Drewett made his mark as the original producer of Michael Parkinson's Saturday-night BBC chat-show, starting in 1971, before switching to the ITV company LWT and providing the commercial channel's first real challenge at weekends to the corporation's dominance in the ratings.

He faltered with Bruce Forsyth's Big Night (1978), a marathon, two-hour extravaganza featuring games and mini-sitcoms, after Michael Grade, then LWT's director of programmes, lured Forsyth over from the BBC. Larry Grayson replaced Forsyth as the host of The Generation Game and ITV was given a further trouncing on Saturday evenings.

However, almost everything else that Drewett subsequently touched turned to gold. His first ITV success was An Audience with Dame Edna Everage (1980), with Barry Humphries as the"housewife superstar" fielding questions from a studio audience. Some of the producer's subsequent "Audiences" featured Dudley Moore, Mel Brooks, Kenneth Williams and Billy Connolly, and the format has survived to this day.

Promoted to executive producer and heading LWT's special programmes unit, Drewett also launched the ITV chat-show, Aspel & Company, in 1984, with Michael Aspel filling the breach left on Saturday evenings after Michael Parkinson abdicated his BBC spot.

By then, Drewett had begun a long-running partnership with Clive James, the television critic-turned-presenter. It started with one-offs – The Clive James Paris Fashion Show (1981), Clive James at the Movies (1981) and Clive James in Las Vegas (1982) – before they teamed up for Clive James on Television (1982-88), in which the star presented weird and wonderful clips from around the world and subjected them to his acerbic wit. (Again, this was a format that lasted beyond Drewett's time at ITV.) At the same time, Drewett and James were making a chat-show for Channel Four, The Late Clive James (1983-87).

James discovered Drewett's talent for assessing what made a good television programme. "It was he who taught me to ask two basic questions of any project I cook up," wrote James in his book The Dreaming Swimmer (1993).

The first question is, "Will anyone be interested in this?", meaning that if it does not entertain it is a dead duck. And the second question is, "What are we trying to say?", meaning the words count.

Drewett was born in Crowborough, East Sussex, in 1935, the son of an engineer, and later moved with his family to Wimborne, Dorset. He followed National Service in the Army by joining the Poole and Dorset Herald as a reporter. To get a foot in the door with a London publisher, he became a management trainee at George Newnes (the founder of publications such as The Strand and Tit-Bits, which later became part of IPC), then left to freelance as a writer, contributing comedy scripts to the BBC Home Service's revue programme Monday Night at Home.

This led Drewett, in 1964, to go on a production course at the BBC, just as it was opening its second channel. He was soon producing the BBC2 arts magazine Late Night Line-Up and he gained his first chat-show experience with If It's Saturday, It Must Be Nimmo (1970), hosted Derek Nimmo.

On a subsequent trip to the United States, Drewett saw The Dick Cavett Show and lobbied to get a new chat-programme launched, with the BBC eventually signing up Michael Parkinson to present it. Drewett produced Parkinson from 1971 until 1977, leaving the following year to join LWT, where his other successes included the first two series of The Dame Edna Experience.

During another seven-year stint at the BBC Drewett and Clive James collaborated on a string of successful series, including The Clive James Interview (1991) and Clive James – Fame in the 20th Century (1993). Then, in 1995, the pair left to set up their own production company, Watchmaker, with Elaine Bedell as managing director. Drewett and James worked together on The Clive James Show (1995-98), Clive James on TV (1997-98) and other programmes for ITV, while Watchmaker was also responsible for successes across the channels, including Mondo Rosso (Jonathan Ross's take on B-movies, 1995), An Audience with Freddie Starr (1996), the film review programme Collins and Maconie's Movie Club (1997) and a Jeremy Clarkson chat-show (1998-99).

Watchmaker was bought in 2001 by the Chrysalis Group and became part of the newly formed Chrysalis Entertainment.

Anthony Hayward

Richard Searle Drewett, television producer: born Crowborough, East Sussex 22 October 1935; married 1963 Jill Cuthbert (one son, one daughter); died London 19 January 2008.

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