Obituary: Dennis Main Wilson

Barry Took
Thursday 23 January 1997 00:02

Dennis Main Wilson was an enthusiast; one of the breed of producers who emerged, or rather exploded, into the BBC after the Second World War.

His army career centred around his ability to speak German and by the end of the war he was deeply involved in the post-Nazi restructuring of German radio. On demobilisation he rejoined the BBC (where he had worked before call-up) in the burgeoning variety department.

Main Wilson and radio were made for each other. He had a great imagination and his insight was phenomenal. His skill as a talent-spotter was more highly tuned than any of his contemporaries and it was Main Wilson, looking for a character actor to join the cast of Hancock's Half Hour, who spotted Kenneth Williams, then playing the Dauphin in Shaw's St Joan.

Hancock's Half Hour was arguably the best comedy series of its day and Main Wilson first came in contact with that programme's writers, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, in 1951, at the beginning of their careers. He was brought in to salvage a series they were working on called Happy Go Lucky, and promoted them from "five bob a joke" men to be the show's principal writers. It started a friendship and professional relationship that was to bear fruit in 1954 with Hancock's Half Hour.

Nineteen fifty-one was a bumper year for radio and for Main Wilson too, as on 28 May The Goon Show was born. It was originally called Crazy People and, with Spike Milligan, Michael Bentine, Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers starring, it was hair-raising stuff at that time.

If Main Wilson had a flaw in his character it was that he empathised with everyone with whom he worked. With the Crazy People crowd he became as eccentric as his cast, so much so that in the third series he was replaced by the sober, disciplined producer Peter Eton.

Main Wilson's other credits at this time included Pertwee's Progress, starring Jon Pertwee, and including in its cast another of Main Wilson's discoveries, Barry Took. In those days I was a sort of second division Kenneth Williams and this was my first series. He and I became friends and came together again in television some years later when he produced the award-winning series Marty (1968), starring Marty Feldman and written by Marty and me, and a one-off which celebrated the 10th anniversary of Private Eye, called Private Eye TV.

Main Wilson is also credited with helping the careers of the Cambridge Footlights group of Tony Slattery, Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie.

Among his many successes as a producer was The Rag Trade, which starred Peter Jones, Reg Varney, Miriam Karlin and Sheila Hancock, but his most important contribution to the medium was undoubtedly Till Death Us Do Part. The combination of Main Wilson, Johnny Speight and Warren Mitchell turned out to be a world beater and a triumph of enthusiasm and daring.

Sometimes Main Wilson's enthusiasm could be a little overwhelming. I think of him as the kind of man who, if you asked him the time, would say, "Ah, it's interesting you should ask me that because I've just been talking to the man whose grandfather built Big Ben", and would then proceed to describe in detail the man, the clock, the history of parliamentary democracy, and in the process would forget what you'd asked him in the first place.

There was a time when it was thought to be a good idea to follow the Nine O'Clock News with a 10-minute fictionalised discussion of the day's events. Main Wilson booked Johnny Speight and Eric Sykes to appear on the pilot programme. Johnny sports a somewhat aggressive stammer, Eric suffers from deafness. Hearing about the show a wit in the bar at Television Centre remarked, "Dennis has done the ultimate. He's got a man who can't speak talking to a man who can't hear."

His gift for talent-spotting never deserted him. Seeing a production exercise written by Ian la Frenais and Dick Clement, Main Wilson insisted that this had tremendous potential and in spite of tough opposition got his way and so The Likely Lads emerged. Similarly, when having read some work written by a shy young scene shifter at Television Centre he came to the conclusion that here was a star in the making. The young man was John Sullivan and one of his many creations, Only Fools and Horses, became a national institution.

Dennis Main Wilson could be a nuisance, even - dare I say it - boring at times but his flair, joie de vivre, insight, and above all his energy, will be remembered and cherished by all who knew this remarkable man.

Dennis Main Wilson, television producer: born London 1 May 1924; married 1955 Sylvia Harkin (one son, one daughter); died Guildford 20 January 1997.

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