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“THE MASTER JEWELLER IN THE GOLDEN AGE OF TELEVISION”
- A TRIBUTE TO SIR BILL COTTON

 

David Croft probably puts it better than us, with that quote up above, but we're still going to have a bash at summing up why Bill Cotton was one of the absolute greats. He was a shameless showman, a true populist, a scheduling wizard, a variety stalwart, an inspiration and mentor to thousands, and damn near responsible for every show TV Cream holds dear.

He seemed to have been around forever, a precious link with all those traditions and assumptions upon which the best of British telly was built, but still holding forth and dispensing pearls of wry and witty wisdom long after retirement. It's horrible to think of the world without him.

Joining the BBC in 1956, he stayed for 32 years becoming one of the corporation's most gregarious and recognisable public faces. Like his protege Michael Grade, Cotton believed in, for want of a better phrase, putting himself about. He was just as much at ease on the studio floor as the management corridor. He was forever turning up on screen explaining this or promoting that. Being the spitting image of his band-leading, TV-darling dad can't have hurt.

All the same he was quick to move out of his father's shadows, choosing - as his mission - to fashion a veritable army of light entertainment personalities at the Beeb through the 1960s and 70s. And what an army. The personal touch undoubtedly helped, though two of his best mates, Morecambe and Wise, famously defected to ITV while Cotton was suffering a bout of Asian flu. "Show business is a tough world," he later rued. "If you don't look after yourself, no one else will."

Still, if it wasn't for him, we wouldn't have all those very particular, childhood-capping, eternally-jewelled memories of Tommy Cooper, Messrs Barker and Corbett, Val Doonican, Brucie, Wogan, Frostie, Cilla, Rolf, Parky, Cliff, Pete and Dud, Monty Python, Dave Allen, Max Bygraves and Sir Jim'll to treasure forever.

He wooed Grade to the BBC in 1984 with "an offer I knew he couldn't refuse". The press howled in derision at the arrival of the supposed Mr LWT Showbiz Red Braces Stardust Cigar Filth Merchant, but Grade and Cotton proceeded to save the BBC television service by making it what so many of their predecessors hadn't: popular.

Cotton forever argued that there was no point the Beeb churning out night after night of highbrow documentaries, investigations and discussion. People would only ever come to the BBC first and foremost for entertainment; if they stayed for the other two bits of John Reith's hallowed trio, information and education, then so much the good. It was a belief that informed his actions throughout his career, during his stint in light entertainment in the 1960s and early 70s, as controller of BBC1 at the end of the 1970s, then his tenure in management culminating as Managing Director of the Beeb up to 1988.

He revelled shamelessly in his reputation as an old school variety man with a travelling case of anecdotes, but was the prime mover in getting things like Childwatch and Comic Relief up and running, and saw in the generation of 1980s comedians the same spark of brilliance he'd detected in those he'd nursed onto screen two decades before.

Cotton could be bang on the mark at times, once railing at the recently arrived John Birt: "You think you know how to run something? Going round telling everyone how awful your staff are? What you should remember is that those people have wives, husbands, families, and you're trying to destroy them."

But he also had a wonderfully salty turn of phrase, regularly instructing colleagues to inform bothersome programme-makers, "tell them it's time to shit or get off the pot". He developed a wonderfully bucolic shorthand to refer to other people within the corporation:

A woman he respected: "Madam"
A woman he didn't respect: "Old Mrs Clutterbritches"
A man who worked for you: "Your man of affairs"
A nuisance: "Old Bugalugs"
A man he didn't like but had to take note of: "Jolly Jack The Sailor"

- while still maintaining a cool line in verbal vitriol when needed. The day the Governors sacked Alasdair Milne as DG, Cotton was summoned to hear the news. "It won't come as a surprise to you," insisted the deputy Chairman. "Well," retorted Bill, "let's say that when I woke up this morning Alasdair was the Director-General, and I had no reason to believe he would not be when I went to bed."

On his last day at the BBC, Cotton was asked to stand on a podium outside Television Centre, the entire staff in attendance. Suddenly the band of the Royal Marines marched into forecourt and sounded the Last Post, as the BBC flag was ceremonially lowered and handed to Cotton. Can you imagine anyone being judged suitable for such a send-off today?

Forget all latterday pretenders to the throne, all latecomers to the crystal bucket, all modern day broadcasting suits and nabobs and bean-counters. Bill Cotton was and always will be your real, textbook, genuine TV hero.

SIR BILL COTTON: 1928 - 2008, RIP