Sir Bill Cotton: Television executive who brought some of the BBC's most popular programmes to the screen

Wednesday 13 August 2008 00:00

Bill Cotton was one of the first BBC executives who did not frown on popular culture or treat it patronisingly, and under his stewardship, BBC-TV screened such extraordinarily popular programmes as The Generation Game, The Two Ronnies and The Morecambe and Wise Show. In 1979 the channel hit record viewing figures of 25 million on Saturday nights but Cotton modestly suggested that this was partly due to ITV being grounded by a strike.

Born in 1928, Cotton was the younger son of the ebullient bandleader Billy Cotton and his wife, Mabel. Billy Cotton's musicians played good-time dance music around variety halls and on BBC radio, where his signature tune was "Somebody Stole My Gal". The young Bill and his brother Ted were boarders at Ardingly College in Sussex which, Bill reflected, "made Bleak House look like a holiday camp".

Bill Cotton was conscripted in 1946 and became a transport officer in the Royal Army Service Corps. After being demobbed, he turned down a place at Clare College, Cambridge, preferring a life of variety, acting as his father's driver and general factotum.

When he moved into music publishing, promoting songs for Noel Gay's company, he shared a flat with Gerry Kunz, the son of the pianist Charlie Kunz and through his flatmate, he met Bernadine Sinclair, known as "Boo". Cotton proposed to her continuously for six months until she relented; they married in 1950.

From 1952 to 1956, Cotton and Johnny Johnston of the Keynotes were partners in Michael Reine Music. When the company supplied Vera Lynn with a potential winner in "Forget-Me-Not", the lyric was incomplete. Cotton obliged with the lines "Parting brings sorrow; hope for tomorrow" and received a songwriting credit under the pseudonym Bill Sinclair. Cotton also contributed to a light-hearted gossip column under the pseudonym "Alley Cat" for the New Musical Express.

With the growing popularity of television viewing, in 1955 Cotton encouraged his father to propose a combined radio and television deal to the BBC, with the intention of establishing Billy Cotton as a television personality. Bill knew the Cotton band well, and would take over when his father missed radio or theatre dates through ill-health. Although he had no grounding in conducting, the band was so well-rehearsed (and keen to work) that they would see him through without embarrassment.

For his part, Bill Cotton had no urge to be a professional entertainer and he asked the BBC executive Ronnie Waldman to send him on a producers' course. There he realised that he was not interested in the technical niceties of getting a programme on air, but in the content of the production itself.

At first he was allocated a series of performance-based programmes, Starlight, then produced the teenage show Six-Five Special and Jack Payne's Off the Record. Payne, a temperamental bandleader, was a producer's nightmare but Cotton was used to his father's erratic behaviour and quickly resolved the problems.

In an unexpected move, in 1957 Billy Cotton asked his son to produce The Billy Cotton Band Show. At first Bill was opposed to this but agreed when his father said, "I will never argue with you in public. Is it a deal?" One of the few awkward moments came when Max Bygraves mocked his father's use of cue cards. Another was when Bill Cotton wanted his father to be the stooge in a dangerous trick performed by Tommy Cooper. "Don't worry, dad," said Cotton. "It's only magic." "Yes," said his father, "but he's no magician."

Bill Cotton suffered a breakdown in 1960 and underwent ECT (electroconvulsive therapy), but he was helped more by his wife's faith in him than by treatment, he said. His depression did not halt his career and he became Assistant Head of Light Entertainment in 1962, holding the post for five years before becoming Head of Variety.

In December 1963 he proposed the famed edition of Juke Box Jury featuring The Beatles, then the following month challenged ITV's pop music supremacy by establishing Top of the Pops, produced by Johnnie Stewart. He brought The Likely Lads to the screen in 1964 and was behind its even more successful sequel, Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads?, in 1973. He allowed Mike Yarwood to impersonate politicians including the Prime Minister Harold Wilson in what was seen as a daring move at the time.

Cotton was a master at finding ways to showcase star talent in the best light. He encouraged Cilla Black to talk with the public on her television series, something which stood her in good stead for her later successes, and it was his idea to ask Val Doonican to sing in a rocking chair. To pep up Doonican's show, he added Dave Allen as a comic foil. Similarly, he put Rolf Harris with a troupe of dancers and singers, the Young Generation.

In 1966, Cotton produced the first Royal Variety Performance to be transmitted by the BBC. He commissioned a comedy about the Home Front, Dad's Army (1968-77), and, taking his lead from US shows, established a mixture of chat and variety with Des O'Connor.

Cotton was responsible for teaming Peter Cook with Dudley Moore in Not Only. . . But Also (1965-70) and the mixture of comedy and social comment in The Frost Report (1966-67) with David Frost, which won a Golden Rose in the Montreux Festival in 1967. One success begat another: John Cleese from The Frost Report became a member of Monty Python's Flying Circus in 1969, while Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett were teamed as The Two Ronnies in 1971.

Following a recommendation from his mother, Cotton recognised the potential of Simon Dee, establishing him with the chat show Dee Time. Dee, like many BBC stars, later went to ITV for greater rewards but this proved to be his undoing. However, the traffic worked both ways: in 1968 Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise signed with the BBC, principally because they wanted to make programmes in colour for BBC2.

When the BBC executive Tom Sloan died in 1970, Cotton was made Head of Light Entertainment. Although he knew that Michael Parkinson could be dogmatic, he made him the front man for a Saturday night chat show, Parkinson (1971-82), which immediately struck gold. The Generation Game (from 1971) with Bruce Forsyth was a huge ratings success and when Forsyth moved to ITV (in another ill-judged move), Larry Grayson proved to be an excellent substitute and was the first camp entertainer to front a major TV series. Harry Secombe rejected a show based on viewers' requests, but Jimmy Savile loved the idea and it became Jim'll Fix It (1975-95).

In 1977 Cotton became Controller of BBC1 with a £300m budget at his disposal. In previous jobs, he had had to deal with controversy surrounding items such as the religious references in Till Death Do Us Part or Dave Allen's monologues. So he was ready when the comedy of the wartime sitcom 'Allo, 'Allo! (1982-92) was deemed tasteless by some, and handled the more serious issues surrounding Pennies From Heaven (1978), Dennis Potter's series about, ironically enough, a music publishing saleman. Perhaps because of the publicity, the series attracted a very respectable 10 million viewers.

When no one was sure what to do with the contentious interviewer Robin Day, in 1979 Cotton introduced Question Time, a television version of the radio show Any Questions?, for him in which his querulous run-ins with the audience became compulsive viewing. Cotton continued his comedy successes with Only Fools And Horses (from 1981) and Yes Minister (1980-82) and Yes, Prime Minister (1986-88), a programme that counted the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, among its fans.

Cotton had several disagreements with Thatcher, notably over a 1979 Panorama programme about the IRA. In his autobiography, Cotton recalled that "the Prime Minister was beside herself with fury". He pointed out that "the film had never been developed, let alone transmitted, and but for a press leak nothing more would have been heard about the incident".

In 1980, utilising the increased sophistication of telephone networks, he inaugurated a telethon with the charity Children In Need hosted by Terry Wogan. This has become an annual fixture of the BBC's calendar and led to Live Aid (1985) and the annual Comic Relief appeal from 1988.

Cotton became Deputy Managing Director of BBC Television in 1981 and co-ordinated the television coverage of the Pope's visit to the UK in 1982. Keen to beat the ITV opposition, he started the first breakfast show in the UK, acutely aware that this would stretch the BBC's resources. He became the Managing Director of BBC Television between 1984 and 1988, during which time he brought Michael Grade into the BBC (although not for long) and established Terry Wogan's talk-show Wogan, in its popular early-evening slot.

After Cotton left the BBC he became a director of the Noel Gay Organisation, where he also produced an ITV series for Dave Allen. From 1992 to 1998 he was president of the Royal Television Society. In 1998 he was awarded a Bafta fellowship and was knighted for his services to television three years later.

After the death of his wife, Boo, in 1964 Cotton married Ann Henderson, but the relationship was so fraught that she is hardly mentioned in his autobiography, Double Bill (2000). Divorced, in 1990 he married Kate Burgess.

Spencer Leigh

William Frederick Cotton, television executive: born London 23 April 1928; Joint Managing Director, Michael Reine Music 1952-56; staff, BBC 1956-88, Assistant Head of Light Entertainment 1962-67, Head of Variety 1967-70, Head of Light Entertainment 1970-77, Controller, BBC1 1977-81, Deputy Managing Director 1981-82, Director of Programmes, Television and Director of Development 1982, Chairman, BBC Enterprises 1982-86, 1987-88, Managing Director, Television 1984-88; OBE 1976, CBE 1989; chairman, Noel Gay TV 1988-97; deputy chairman, Meridian Broadcasting 1992-96, chairman 1996-2001; Kt 2001; married 1950 Boo Sinclair (died 1964; three daughters), 1965 Ann Corfield (née Bucknall; marriage dissolved 1989), 1990 Kate Burgess (née Ralphs); died Bournemouth, Dorset 11 August 2008.

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