Page last updated at 11:53 GMT, Tuesday, 12 August 2008 12:53 UK

Obituary: Sir Bill Cotton

Bill Cotton
Sir Bill had a natural grasp of what made good entertainment
Sir Bill Cotton presided over what has become known as the "golden age" of television entertainment.

A self-proclaimed populist, he had an outstanding talent for knowing exactly what people wanted, and the ability to spot the talent who could provide it.

William Frederick Cotton was born in London on 23 April 1928, with showbusiness in his blood.

His father was band leader Billy Cotton who kicked off his massively successful BBC shows in the 1950s with the cry of "wakey, wakey!"

The young Bill was educated at Ardingly College in Sussex but turned down the chance to go to Cambridge, preferring to get a job as a song plugger for a music publisher.

Eventually he borrowed 1,000 from his father and set up his own music publishing business before joining the BBC as a producer in 1956.

He worked initially with Tommy Steele and on the Saturday night pop show Six-Five Special, until he was asked to produce his father's TV programme.


Clips from the shows Sir Bill Cotton commissioned

He refused at first, worried that he might fall out with his flamboyant parent, but Cotton senior talked him round and the pair worked harmoniously together for four years.

After his father's retirement, Sir Bill continued his work as a producer and, in 1962, was promoted to assistant head of light entertainment, to the disgruntlement of several longer-serving colleagues.

Nurturing new talent

One of his first moves was to sign Ronnie Corbett and Ronnie Barker after he saw them give an impromptu performance at a Bafta award ceremony.

Bill Cotton senior & Bill Cotton junior
One of his earliest jobs was producing his famous father
The two had worked on ITV's The Frost Report, but never as a duo. Sir Bill signed them for an initial 13-week series, which eventually ran for nearly 20 years.

His skill was in discovering and nurturing new talent and he developed the careers of a host of performers who would become household names.

Russ Conway, Dave Allen, Des O'Connor and Cilla Black were among the stars who passed through Sir Bill's hands.

On the lookout for a British version of the popular American TV chat show format, he spotted a reporter named Michael Parkinson, who had been working in BBC current affairs programmes.

The new show, Parkinson, became an instant success when it was launched in 1971 and was successfully revived long after Sir Bill retired.

In 1968, he signed Morecambe and Wise from ITV after they had fallen out with their boss Lew (later Lord) Grade.

The pair were also dissatisfied with black and white TV so Sir Bill offered them a slot on BBC Two, the only channel then transmitting in colour.

He later admitted that he had paid far more for the act than they were worth but their success on the BBC more than repaid the initial investment.

Top performers such as Glenda Jackson, Andre Previn and Shirley Bassey queued up to be humiliated on the show, which regularly attracted audiences of more than 20 million.

Big audiences

Sir Bill believed his main task was to deliver big audiences for the BBC against fierce competition from ITV.

He came back from one trip to the Netherlands having paid the princely sum of 25 for the rights to a Dutch gameshow called One Out Of Eight.

He persuaded an initially reluctant Bruce Forsyth to front it and the show, renamed The Generation Game, became the traditional curtain-raiser for the corporation's Saturday night entertainment.

Sir Bill became controller of BBC One in 1977, the first executive from an entertainment background to hold that position.

He had only been in his new job for a few months when, to his great disappointment, Morecambe and Wise were persuaded to return to ITV.

Two Ronnies
He signed the Two Ronnies for a 13 week run; which became 20 years
As BBC One controller, Sir Bill found himself having to operate outside his normal field of light entertainment.

He took the decision to ban Scum, originally intended to be shown as one of the BBC's Play for Today series.

Sir Bill decided the play, which examined the brutal conditions in a borstal home, was too violent for television audiences.

The play was later turned into a film which did, eventually, get a television showing many years later.

Frustrated in management

In 1981, Sir Bill was promoted to deputy managing director of BBC TV under Alistair Milne, with the thought that he would eventually replace Milne - who was being groomed for the post of director general.

Much to Sir Bill's disappointment he was passed over for the top TV job and, instead, offered the position of head of BBC Radio, a medium in which he had never worked.

He threatened to go to ITV, so Alistair Milne gave him a position as head of satellite broadcasting before he finally achieved his goal of becoming managing director of BBC television 18 months later.

During his period in charge, the BBC entered the soap era with the twice-weekly production of EastEnders. He also oversaw the launch of daytime television.

But he found his time in management frustrating and, like many before and after, railed against the corporation's bureaucracy.

He grew tired of the endless round of meetings and complained that, to get on in the BBC, it was necessary to move away from programme making, which was what he did best.

Morcambe & Wise
Morcambe and Wise regularly delivered audiences of more than 20 million
The arrival of John Birt as director general hastened Sir Bill's departure, as his new boss began to take control of every aspect of the corporation.

Birt's famous comment that he had "joined an organisation suffering from a nervous breakdown" later drew a riposte from Sir Bill, who commented that it was nothing compared to the nightmare the place lived through under Birt's control.

Sir Bill left the BBC in 1988 but continued to work in various roles including chairman of the ITV company Meridian and, in 1992, president of the Royal Television Society.

He was the first to admit that, at the BBC, he was surrounded by people with better intellects but refused to feel disadvantaged.

"The great thing about being mediocre is that I am always at my best."

Tributes paid to BBC TV's Cotton
12 Aug 08 |  Entertainment
In pictures: Bill Cotton
12 Aug 08 |  In Pictures
Bill Cotton: Your memories
12 Aug 08 |  Special Reports

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