Page views : 1099
Beryl's story is one where, for example, her entrance into the world of show business was completely unintentional and only happened as a favour to a friend. Once in that world, from the 1950s on, she transformed, more or less, everything that she touched. What is remarkable is, that working in a fiercely competitive and doggedly male-dominated industry, she changed it without it ever changing her. Deceptively 'ordinary' in speech and appearance, she was in fact, 'extraordinary' in the skill with which she executed her decisions and innovations, which time and again began with her saying to herself : "That sounds quite an interesting thing. I'll have a go at that". Cumulatively, these innovations helped shape the TV industry that Britain has today and as a prolific producer, for over fifty years her programmes to thrilled and entertained millions of viewers.
Beryl, who has died at the age of 90, was born in the Spring of 1931 in the town of Croydon, Surrey, the daughter of Elsie and Frank Johnson, who was an engineer and when the Second World War broke out, eight years later, was enlisted to work in the local munitions factory. Beryl recalled the aerial bombing in 1940 : "We had a shelter in the garden, went to bed every night in the shelter and then came the day when there was the doodle bugs and you used to watch them coming to see them coming making that funny noise and the minute the noise stopped that was when you had to dash to the shelter because it was going to land somewhere in a minute".
Given the intensity of the bombing, witness the fact that 1,338 high explosive bombs were dropped on Croydon between 1940 (link), Beryl and her sister were evacuated to the market town of Tring in Hertfordshire, where she said they "struck lucky" because they : "Stayed with family where the father was a butcher and one daughter going out with American colonel and I had ice cream, which I’d never had." Used to the wartime ration of one egg a week, the nine year old Beryl said she went to the larder and saw : "A whole bucket of eggs. My eyes came out on sticks". She said : "We stayed there for three months and got very homesick and asked if we could go home and the night we went home was the worst bombing of the War. I remember that night because we were quite near a big factory that made margarine and the bombs dropped on that and it sizzled. You could hear it sizzling in the air".
After taking her 11+ exam, Beryl gained a place at the local Mitcham County Grammar School for Girls in 1942 and after the War ended in 1945, the following year, she left school at 15 and started a secretarial course. Her father now ran a petrol station in Mitcham and Beryl worked the pumps in her spare time. She recalled : "I used to go and help and get a bit of pocket money doing it and I felt ever so important I must say".
The fact that she was unphased by the interview provides some insight into her character. She recalled : "Spike Milligan, who had braces on and no jacket, and I thought that was very odd, he did the interview. Alan Simpson sat on the floor throughout and I thought : 'He’s gone to pot since he’s in show business'. Spike now fired out disconnected questions in a rapid and scattershot fashion : "Where do you live?" "Can you make cups of tea?" "Do you have any brothers?" "What kind of tea do you drink yourself ?" "Do you have any sisters?" "What makes you laugh?" "How good are you at making cups of tea?" "What do you do with the tea leaves?". After Beryl had answered all of his questions, he fell silent for a moment and then, quite suddenly, jumped up and declared excitedly : "Well, I think you'll be perfect for us". Eric agreed, and so did Ray and Alan.No one asked her about typing or dictation speeds, and no one inquired about references. Beryl was shocked and needed a way out and recalled : "I thought : 'Well, I could price myself out of the job - that's the way to get out of it' and said that she would need to be earning at least £10 per week. One of the four exclaimed : "How much? Ten pounds? Ten pounds a week? We can't afford that". Then another said : "Hang on. If you divide it up between four, that would only be £2.10s a week each." They all looked at each other and then nodded : "Of course!" And thus began the career of someone was to be one of Britain's most successful television and film producers seen here, left to right, with Eric, Ray, Spike and Alan.
Beryl recalled : "It was a bit like working in a little rabbit warren. The offices didn't really have a proper reception area; it wasn't as grand as that. The 'reception area' was my office. You opened the door to my office and then you were 'in'. My job involved, well, all kinds of things : I typed the scripts, dealt with all the fan mail, answered the telephone. They had a very antiquated switchboard that I had to operate to connect my phone to all of the other rooms and I also had to deal with the greengrocer whenever he blocked up the entrance outside with his fruit and veg, which was often, and I bought the toilet rolls, did the plumbing, made the tea. I did everything really. The standard phrase was : "Oh, Beryl'll do that" ".
More would-be writers joined the commune and she recalled : "Johnny Speight, he sold insurance at the time. Terry Nation who came from Wales, who created the Daleks, he was a furniture salesman. So all these unusual people came. I had this big blackboard up and I wrote down their names and who was doing what programme and I didn't do that for very long because you suddenly realised that one or two of them had had gaps - didn't have any programmes. So it didn't seem to be very good idea at all. So I got rid of the blackboard".
Above the greengrocers she said : "They had little rooms - little cubby holes. They were all typing away and Eric Sykes used to bother me because there were certain deadlines and he was always off playing golf, but I realised afterwards, he was writing the script in his head while he was playing golf and he'd get back and he'd go : "Bash.Bash.Bash.Bash.Bash" and then off he'd rush to the BBC. You had to be there very promptly".
Beryl also said that Spike : "Always seemed to be doing nothing and then do a whole stream of consciousness. He had to edit it slightly, then off it would go. He used to hide away in his room for days. If you knocked on the door he'd just shout : "Go away" and then one day I knocked on the door, because you've got to do something. When I got in the room it was all pitch black with the blinds down. So I lifted the corner of the blind up and I had a bunch of primroses and I said : "It’s springtime". And he came out after that. But he had a tree which he was carving which was in the park and that used to be a bit of a godsend for us - when in doubt they'd say : "Why don't you go and do a bit of work on the tree ?" "
The comic Frankie Howerd and his manager, Stanley 'Scruffy' Dale, with their finance, now joined the company, with Stanley, briefly becoming the Managing Director. She concluded that he : "Wasn't right for the company at all. So Frankie Howerd became my responsibility really, He arrived all hot and bothered and said : "I haven't got a date in the book". Apparently he was considering giving up showbusiness and running a pub. So I said : "Well we'll find something. I said to him : "Have you done cabaret ?" No, he hadn't. I saw this nightclub called the 'Blue Angel' so we went along there to see the man and I said : "Frankie Howerd would like to do some cabaret". He said "Yes", but he wouldn't agree to stop food and serving while Frank was doing it and then Frank said : "Well I'm not doing it if you don't stop". There was a bit of an argy-bargy about that. Anyway. we managed to get the knives and forks down for a short period of time". He later said : “She was a dreadful bully. Thank goodness”.
By now the original quartet had now expanded with another dozen comedy talents and included Barry Took and Marty Feldman. On any particular day, Tony Hancock, Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers might wander in from a nearby pub for a game of darts. Irene Handl would often pop up in search of a bowl of water for her two dogs. Frankie Howerd would turn up sometimes, not only in search of free re-writes, but also to use the large Victorian bath that had been inherited from the previous owners saying, with his towel in hand : "This one's better for me bad back than the one I've got at home".
The company moved to Shepherd's Bush to High Street Kensington in 1957 and then in 1962 to even grander surroundings at 9 Orme Court in Bayswater with Beryl, maintaining continuity as secretary and by now manager and agent which came as a surprise when someone said to her : "How long have you been an agent?" She said : "Well, I know it probably sounds extraordinary now, but I hadn't realised that that was what I was. I'd just thought that I was a secretary who did a lot. So I became an agent very much by default, but turned out - I might say with some immodesty - to be a very good one. So it's funny how you can do well at something that had never even occurred to you". "I certainly had not trained for it. It is still surprising to me that I was good at it". In fact she proved good at dealing with theatrical agents, lawyers and impresarios and an often pompous and obdurate BBC bureaucracy.
Of Tony Hancock she said : "He was brilliant when he was working. He worked so hard during the week when he was rehearsing and then he would do it on the day and then when he wasn't doing that he was drinking. It was so awful - waste of a talent. I thought the 'Blood Donor' was one of the most brilliant of things"(link) . She recalled when, October 1961, he called herself, Alan and Ray to his flat to tell the three of them that he didn't need them any more she said : "We went downstairs and there's a great big swimming pool in the basement of this place and so we sat by the pool and had a pot of tea for three and we were all so sad. But it wasn't like losing a client it was like losing a friend. I don't know why he felt this need to do it all by himself".
The burgeoning success of ALS's television broadcasts was reflected in Alan and Ray supplying the scripts for radio and television comedy series 'Hancock's Half Hour' from 1954 to '61 and TV's 'Steptoe and Son' (link) from 1962 to '65 and Johnny's 'Till Death Do Us Part' (link), starting its ten year run on BBC TV in 1965. Meanwhile, as a mark of Beryl's brilliant virtuosity, she sealed a deal for Terry Nation, the 'Dr Who' writer who created the Daleks that gave him partial copyright on the Daleks when he introduced them in Doctor Who’s second story shortly after the sci-fi series began in 1963 (link). She also blazed a trail by persuading the BBC to venture into programme-related merchandise, resulting in Daleks memorabilia, a 'Hancock’s Half Hour' board game and Steptoe and Son jigsaws.
Beryl said : "You don't realise you're being a pioneer. I was known as 'The pioneer of the format deal'. You don't set out to do that". It started with the first dramatist at the company, Peter Yeldham. "I was just looking for ways to help Peter. I had the idea that, if you couldn't sell certain plays and programmes and things in Britain, the writers could, if the idea and the script and everything were good, do their own productions. So I did sell a play of Peter Yeldham's to Germany. That got me thinking : 'What else can we do?' "
"I'd got this bee in my bonnet that this would work. So I decided that I would go round to all the television stations in the different countries in Europe, which was a huge adventure for me because I'd only been abroad once before, and certainly never been there before on my own, and see what I could do. Alan and Ray, in particular, got quite excited about me doing this, and they bought me some new clothes so I would look smart. I bought a hat, too, because I'd seen an advert on a bus that had said : 'To get ahead. Get a hat!' And I got all the names of where these television stations were from different embassies, because I didn't have a clue. And I wrote to them all, saying, 'Could I have a meeting, please?' Then off I went to Europe in this new red coat, with a bit of black fur on it, and a hat".
Some years later she reflected : "I don't play games. You have to decide in this business what is your way of working. My way is to be truthful. Years ago when I first went to America, I was talking to someone about a script and said that the middle part did not work but that I knew how to fix it. Afterwards this person came up to me and said : "What's all this honesty angle of yours?" I had not thought about honesty being an angle before. He thought it was shocking".
The first release of 'Associated London Films' in Britain in 1967 was the slapstick, wordless, short film 'The Plank' (link), with Eric writing, starring and directing. Beryl recalled : "Making that was one of the really happy times in my life, because it was so funny. I mean, Eric and Tommy Cooper - gosh, the lunchtimes were a riot". She asked Bernard Delfont, the theatre impressario for the £23,000 budget who said : "Oh, I don't know about that, Beryl. What are you going to do with it?" To which she said : "Well, I thought that Rank have always got this second film - you go to see the big film and they always have a little film as well". "And in the end he said : "Yes, I'll give it to you". And Rank did buy it. It did very well. Rank said how 'useful' it was because whatever their big film was, 'The Plank' always went with it".
Associated London Films closed after eight years, but she continued with the Robert Stigwood Organisation as 'Executive Vice-President' and produced programmes for American TV which included 'Beacon Hill', a version of 'Upstairs Downstairs' in 1975. She produced 'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie' in 1978, the ITV series based on Muriel Spark’s novel, a collaboration with Scottish Television for which she also handled foreign sales. (link)
In 1975, when making 'Tommy', the film directed by Ken Russell based on The Who’s rock opera, Robert dispatched Beryl to Los Angeles to try to secure the soul singer Tina Turner for the role of the 'Acid Queen'. At the time, the singer was living under the surveillance of her controlling and abusive husband, Ike. Beryl recalled : "That was a scary one. I was naïve. I’d never heard of Ike and Tina Turner. I was driven to a hut outside LA by a girl whom I later discovered was Ike’s girlfriend. She had a gun in her handbag. When we arrived, Tina Turner appeared and dragged me to the ground, because there were surveillance cameras everywhere and begged me not to make him cross. We went into his office, which was like a bordello. Maroon everywhere, and there he was, in a white suit, looking immaculate". "He got out a cigarette and meanwhile Tina was sitting in a corner right on the other side of the room and she shot from one corner of the room to the other with a lighter to light his cigarette".
"I'd decided to be very British – I was wearing white gloves that day"."So I said : "So kind of you to let Tina do this. I’m so sorry you can’t came to because as you know there isn’t a part in this otherwise it would have been lovely". But I said : "I don’t want you to worry about anything, because we’re going to take really good care of her". "Well, he didn’t quite know how to react. I never asked his permission [to hire her] but thanked him when he hadn’t quite given it”. When I got back, of course, Robert said : "How did you get on ?" I said : "Well I can see why you didn’t go, because he wouldn’t have got her. She did it and she was brilliant" and didn't return to Ike.(link)
In 1975 she was in the USA again : "I did a film called 'The Entertainer' (link) which was based on the John Osborne play and we shot it in a place called Santa Cruz which was near San Francisco and in Santa Cruz was this old village hall with a very battered piano and Marvin Hamlisch the composer came one morning, as we congregated there and said : "I’ve just written a song. Do you wanna hear it ?" And he played this song to Jack Lemmon and I and it turned out that it was 'Chorus Line'".(link) Her daughter Sue explained that when Jack was being filmed on an outside stage, the Director suggested that she walk on unannouced, while filming was going on and said : "Don't tell Jack and don't let him push you off the stage".(link) In connection to the production, she earned notoriety by persuading television networks to sanction the first use of the word “bastard” on terrestrial in the USA.
Beryl said : "Quite a few people said (in her business) : "It's very difficult being a woman". I hadn’t thought about it really and I did have a cameraman once and he said : "I’ve never worked for a woman before" and he’d just come off something with Sam Spiegel and I said to him : "Well let’s give it a go and see how it is ". So after two or three days I said to him : "Well what do you think ?" So he said : "Well I think I it’s the same". And I said : "No it isn’t. I bet Sam Spiegel never kissed you when you came in, in the the morning".
By this time she had clearly defined her role : "The producer is the team leader who chooses the team – hopefully wisely – including the director. You somehow run the family well and everybody knows what their job is. You’re ultimately a creative enabler". When in disagreement with someone she said : "I'm not a shouter really. You just sort of look disappointed and may be, a bit terse". With regards to her position as a woman she said : "I’m not a great feminist. Feminism annoys me, to be honest. I think some women do have a tougher time, but I personally have never been held back because I was a woman, because it never occurred to me that that was a problem".
In 1979 Robert told her : "My family has turned into an empire and I don’t want to do it anymore". She said : "He didn’t sell the business, he just stopped it. Because he was such an extraordinary person to work for, I didn’t think I could work for anyone else, so I formed my own company". "I didn’t feel I could afford to give up and it was the job I had chosen to do. If I gave it up then what would I do? I’ve always worked, my whole life since I was sixteen, I didn’t go to university so not working was not an option". She also said : "It was quite sensible because they were just changing the rules for independent producers, so it meant we had opportunities". "He said : "I’ll give you some money" and he gave me a hundred thousand dollars, which was huge. So I got an office in Shepperton Studios, because I thought it would look 'posh' on the notepaper - as though I was doing something". She named her company 'Hartswood Films' because : "We had lived in a lovely house called Hartswood Manor. In the grounds was this rare tree that became the Hartswood tree and logo".
Beryl, now in her sixties, confessed : "I did find it hard in the beginning. I have always been an independent person but I’d also always had lots of people around me at Robert’s company. My husband left me at the same time, so suddenly all my best friends in the world weren’t there". She spent much of the next decade looking for a winning formula. Only 'Codename: Kyril' in 1988, a four-part cold war spy drama starring Edward Woodward and Ian Charleson reached success.(link)
Beryl said : “I began to lose confidence”. she recalled in a 2016 interview. “I thought : 'I can’t do it'. Then I happened to see a piece of paper on a desk. God must’ve put it there or somebody – some blurb from a publisher, and there was this book ‘Men Behaving Badly.’ I thought I’ll send off for that, it’s a funny title, it might be a film I read the book and then thought : 'It’s a TV series', that’s how it began”. I asked if I could meet the writer, so Simon Nye came and I said : "I think this would make a good television series and he said : "Well I’ve never written a television series". So I said ; "Well I’ve never produced one. So we’ll do it together".
It started a series on ITV with Martin Clunes and Harry Enfield, (link) who only wanted to do one series and was replaced with Neil Morrisey.(link) Beryl was annoyed, to say the least, when ITV : "Decided that if a show got ten million it was really successful. Well, I got seven million. So they didn’t really want it. I thought : 'I know this has got potential'. So I went to the BBC’s and I spoke to Alan Yentob, who I’d never met and I said to him : "I think this has really got potential". So he said : "Well so do I, but I can’t really make that decision because we’ve got our new Head of Entertainment coming and I think that we should let him decide what he wants to do". So I met David and he said : "Well I’ve seen that. When do you want to start ?" He decided to put it on later, so we could be a bit ruder without upsetting the world and it just worked really well".
"I was off and running after 'Men Behaving Badly'. It ran from 1992-98. I don’t know why I ever thought I wasn’t competent, because I did know how to do it. If you’re going to have a business it must be something you really care about, that really interests you, otherwise it’s just a job and you might as well be an employee and not have all the worries of running a business".
Hartswood was now a family business with her daughters, Debbie and Sue, who was married to the writer Steven Moffat, now joining Hartswood Films from roles in film and TV production elsewhere. Moving into the new century The Moffat-Vertues partnership had success with two drama series transposing Victorian literary figures to the present day. 'Jekyll' (link) in 2007, starred James Nesbitt as Robert Louis Stevenson’s doctor with a split personality, while 'Sherlock' (link) from 2010-17, was an irreverent take on Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective, co-created by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, with Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes and Martin Freeman as Dr Watson with Benedict dubbing Beryl as “Sherlock’s Godmother”.