August 14, 2008

A Wonderful Showman Who Had Great Faith in People and Had a Nose for a Hit

By Eva [email protected]

Without him, enduring comedy classics such as Dad's Army and The Two Ronnies may never have made it on to our TV screens.

And yesterday the showbiz world paid tribute to Sir Bill Cotton, the BBC's former head of light entertainment, who died in hospital at the age of 80 in Bournemouth. Sir Bill retired as managing director of television at the BBC in 1987.

He was the BBC's inspiring head of light entertainment between 1970 and 1977, overseeing classic shows such as The Two Ronnies, Morecambe and Wise and Monty Python's Flying Circus.

Dad's Army writer David Croft said Sir Bill helped to overcome opposition to the idea of a comedy about the Home Guard while entertainer Bruce Forsyth described how he was persuaded to present a new show called The Generation Game after visiting Sir Bill to discuss a talk show.

In 1998, Sir Bill was awarded the Academy Fellowship by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (Bafta), the highest accolade that can be awarded by the academy.

Forsyth, who received the same honour this year, said it was Sir Bill's idea for him to host The Generation Game.

"He wanted me to do it very badly and it changed my life," he said.

Forsyth said he arranged a meeting with Sir Bill to ask if he could have a chatshow but was shown a tape of a show featuring games and variety and asked if a similar show with just games would work on British TV.

He said Sir Bill "knew how to treat performers, how to talk to them, to get them to do things even if they didn't want to."

He added: "The more he spoke to me about it, the more I realised he had a wonderful idea for a light entertainment show."

Forsyth said Sir Bill became a very dear friend and added: "It's a very sad day."

Croft, one of the writers of Dad's Army, described Sir Bill as a wonderful showman.

He said he had been a wonderful boss because he had shown great faith in his producers and trusted their instincts.

Croft said there had been opposition to creating the classic comedy about the Home Guard because of fears it would cause offence.

"Without him I don't think the show would have gone on," he said.

"He undoubtedly had a nose for a hit. He was a showman and there's not many of his type about. I loved him."

Sir Bill, the son of big band leader Billy Cotton, joined the BBC in 1956 as an in-house producer of light entertainment programmes, working on shows including The Billy Cotton Band Show and popular music programme Six-Five Special.

He spent seven years as head of light entertainment before he was promoted to controller of BBC1, a position he held for four years. In 1981 he became managing director of television, a title he held until his retirement.

Mark Thompson, director general of the BBC, said: "Bill Cotton was one of the giants of BBC television for nearly three decades and brought countless programmes to the screen which themselves became legends.

"He was both a great impresario and also a passionate believer in public service broadcasting."

Alan Yentob, creative director of the BBC, said: "Bill Cotton was a wonderful man and an inspirational broadcaster. Under his leadership in the Seventies the BBC commissioned and produced a raft of entertainment and comedy which set a benchmark for these genres which has rarely been surpassed.

"From Monty Python to Morecambe and Wise, from The Generation Game to Dad's Army, these shows and others like them have helped to define not just a genre but a generation.

"Bill Cotton was always there to remind us that the BBC mission to entertain could be just as ambitious and aspirational as our commitment to inform and educate."

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