Speeding along Lowestoft’s busy London Road South on my bicycle earlier today, a teenager in a hooded top shouted something to me as I passed. I couldn’t quite make out what he’d said, and assumed it had been something insulting. I was just about to slam on the anchors and give hoodie boy a piece of my mind about cheeking your elders when I realised that he’d merely said “Oi, your back wheel’s following you”. Perfectly innocent, not at all insulting, agreeably absurd but logical and clearly designed to make me think “What the f….oh, I see”. Judge not…
Here’s the deal. I’ll write about something other than death when my heroes stop dying. Sir Bill Cotton was, by common consent, the best head of light entertainment that BBC television ever had. He was also, in his retirement, unfailingly kind and generous to herberts like me who rang him up and asked him questions about his dad, the Generation Game and the Albanian delegation at the 1968 Eurovision Song Contest. Although he made a rather fine knight, those who worked with him longest always called him ‘young Bill’, rather like the various Mr Graces in Are You Being Served?, a hit show introduced on his watch.
He was the second person I interviewed for my forthcoming book Turned Out Nice Again. Noel Edmonds was the first, in the morning, at his office in Hammersmith, and when I said who I was seeing in the afternoon, Noel told me to pass on his very best wishes to a gent whom he regarded as “the ultimate showman”. Noel was right in his assessment of Sir Bill’s showmanship, but he was much more than that. Clever without ever being pretentious, he was the only light entertainment executive in the BBC’s history to reach the board of management, where as managing director of the television service, he oversaw the full run of programming. Jim Moir, one of his proteges and a close contender for the best head of LE title, described him as “a very shrewd man, who knew the place and the worth of entertainment in the BBC’s hierarchy. He saw the BBC not only as informer and educator, not only in terms of gravitas and journalism, but as an entertainer. He knew its power. I’m not saying the others didn’t, but Bill was certainly among the first to articulate the need for it successfully”.
Sir Bill was always diplomatically careful to avoid saying that modern TV was ghastly: “What I say can be construed as a bloke who thinks that he’s absolutely marvellous, and nobody knows how to do it now, and all that. You just get yourself kicked to death. Oh, that old fart walking around saying all these things. But the fact is, not only in television, but in so many things in modern life, where there was fun to be had in work, there’s not the same type of fun now. Things are too serious, or are made out to be too serious.”
The “hysterical” programme review board meetings were a perfect example of the old sort of fun. The earnest journalists, the power-seeking missiles from Lime Grove would be right at the front of the table, as close to the chairman – the controller of programmes – as possible (“All auditioning,” as Bill put it). The LE delegation would be as far from the seat of power as possible, making witty comments and starting paper fights. Meanwhile, head of outside broadcasts Peter Dimmock, shoes off, “used to sit behind, on a couch, doing his in-tray”. When he became controller of programmes, Huw Wheldon rearranged the seating: “I want light entertainment sitting here, and outside broadcasts sitting here, then we’ll have one meeting”.
The aforementioned Albanian delegation is another example of Sir Bill’s idea of behind-the-scenes merriment. In short, over lunch with a few young LE producers, it was decided to wind up Tom Sloan by turning up at the Royal Albert Hall claiming to be a nation who wished to enter the Eurovision Song Contest. With the full might of the BBC wardrobe and make-up departments at their disposal, the trio – Terry Henebery, Roger Ordish and Brian Whitehouse – managed to fool Sloan for a gratifyingly long time. The full, glorious story (and pictorial evidence) is in the book.
The fun had its place, but when it came to making the programmes, he was deadly serious. “Good entertainment is a highly professional business, it requires a lot of experience, a lot of care. You don’t take short cuts.” RIP Young Bill.