Bill Cotton Junior 

30 November 2008

Everyone has a personal ‘golden age of television’, often childhood memory based. There are good and bad television programmes all the time of course and perhaps it is only now in the age of multi-channel viewing that we are more exposed to the worst excesses. Comedy and light entertainment play a big role in the schedule and everyone has a view about which decade gave a personal best era.

Bill Cotton Jnr was probably the impresario who held the overall crown of leadership in British television comedy and variety. A man who later became BBC Television’s most experienced, adept and successful programme controller and finally its Managing Director. Bill Cotton passed away in a Bournemouth hospital on 11th August 2008.

William Frederick Cotton, known throughout his career as Bill Cotton Junior, was born on April 23 1928. He had showbiz in his blood from the outset. He was the younger son of the famous band leader Billy Cotton, whose popularity in the years before and after the Second World War earned him enough money to keep two homes, employ a 20-strong band and indulge his expensive hobbies of motor racing, flying and sailing.

According to Bill Jnr, the paternal musical talent was limited to ‘waving his arms about’ in front of the band, but his extrovert personality and ability to spot winning performers made him a powerhouse in the world of variety and big bands. His famous programme starting shout of ‘Wakey-Wakey!’ originated when he had to rouse his band for their live weekly Sunday morning slot on the BBC Light Programme, after a hard week on the road.

Cotton senior’s relationship with his son was complex, proud of Bill junior’s later success in the BBC but simultaneously afraid that it might threaten his own standing. Despite this he was happy to have Bill junior as producer of his TV show, while the younger Cotton freely acknowledged the debt he owed to his father’s career and influence.

Cotton Jnr and elder brother Ted were educated at Ardingly College and glowed with pride when their famous father turned up for open days in his Lagonda or flew over the school in his private plane. He turned down a place at Clare College, Cambridge in favour of a job as a song plugger for the composer and music publisher Noel Gay, pseudonym of Reginald Armitage, composer of The Lambeth Walk who was a close friend of his parents, and later he had a position with the then largest music publishing company Chappell.

With a loan from his father, Cotton Jnr set up his own music publishing business in partnership with talented song writer Johnny Johnston. In return he introduced his band leader father to the BBC’s Ronnie Waldman, who signed up the Billy Cotton Band Show for television. The show had been doing well on BBC radio’s Light Programme but not well enough to support the fairly extravagant Cotton Snr. lifestyle. The TV version ran for 12 years. Bill jnr ‘conducted’ dad’s band for a summer tour after his father had a nervous breakdown brought on by overwork.

The TV programme was at first directed by budding producer Brian Tesler, soon to be Director of Programmes at ITV’s then North and Midland weekend contactor ABC TV (UK) Limited, later in the number two post at Thames Television and eventually at the helm of London Weekend Television. Tesler had his own ideas about the format that would best suit the arrival of the veteran band leader Cotton on television. ‘Don’t worry, son,’ Cotton senior assured him, ‘I’m much too good for you to be able to bugger up!’ Tesler’s formula, involving a troupe of dancing girls and high-profile guest stars, including Bob Hope on one notable occasion, survived with only minor variations for more than a decade.

Cotton jnr joined BBC Television as a light entertainment producer in 1956. After early successes with The Six Five Special, a trail blazing Saturday music show, and his discovery of ‘cocky cockney’ Tommy Steele, he was asked to produce his father’s show but was most reluctant to take on the task for he knew how difficult his band leader father could be and dreaded the almost inevitable public rows. Father and son reached a working agreement: they might have their differences backstage but never in front of performers or crew.

Billy Cotton senior started his successful Sunday lunchtime radio show on the BBC Light Programme, the Billy Cotton Band Show, in 1949 . It ran for almost twenty years until 1968. It regularly opened with the band’s signature tune (Somebody Stole My Gal) and of course Cotton’s own special clarion call of “Wakey-Wakey!”

From 1957, it was broadcast on the then single channel BBC television and much later on BBC1.

The unusual arrangement of a son producing a father’s show lasted four years . There were just a few upsets such as Bill Jnr cancelling the long-standing contract of singer Alan Breeze who had been one of his dad’s key supporting guests on the radio version for many years. The experience of producing a major Saturday night variety show put Cotton jnr firmly on the roster of up-and-coming variety producers. Inevitable mutterings about nepotism were fuelled by Cotton’s promotion over the head of more experienced colleagues, to be assistant head of Light Entertainment. Billy Cotton senior died in 1969.

In 1970, Cotton Jnr. was promoted to Head of Light Entertainment following the death of Tom Sloan in May. In this position Cotton was responsible for overseeing the production of a whole series of popular and iconic comedy programmes such as Monty Python’s Flying Circus (from 1969), The Two Ronnies (from 1971) and Morecambe and Wise (at the BBC from 1968). Cotton’s era is now seen as the most popular in the history of BBC Television Light Entertainment with legendary shows like Morecambe and Wise capturing the commanding heights of British popular culture and drawing huge audiences while the more subversive Monty Python (though not fully networked at first) developing to provide a more cutting-edge, contemporary and daring ingredient.

Shows over which Cotton presided included Porridge, Dad’s Army, Till Death Do Us Part, Steptoe and Son, Fawlty Towers, Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em, Last of the Summer Wine, The Likely Lads and The Good Life – a roll call of all that was truly great about BBC Television entertainment. All are now regarded by audiences, critics and TV practitioners alike as models of their kind. Much later in more senior roles he continued his comedy successes with Only Fools And Horses, Yes Minister, and Yes Prime Minister, a programme that counted the real Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher among its fans.

Cotton brought Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett to prominent roles at the BBC, having first seen them perform as a duo when they were asked to ad-lib during a technical hitch at a BAFTA awards ceremony. They had worked together in The Frost Report but never as a double act. He turned to his boss Paul Fox, then Controller of BBC1 and said: “How would you like to have Barker and Corbett as a double act?”

Cotton signed Barker and Corbett for a 13-week series which was destined to run for nearly two decades, and turn them into stars second in popular favour only to Morecambe and Wise. Barker went on to star in the outstanding comedy series Porridge and Open All Hours, still being repeated well into the 21st century.

The Morecambe and Wise Show, the greatest comedy-variety hit ever to be screened by the BBC, first reached Cotton’s stable in 1968. Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise were already considerable stars on ITV through their black and white series Two Of A Kind for ATV London, then ITV’s weekend contractor in the capital. The comedy kings Eric and Ernie wanted to be seen in colour, which they were convinced was the key to the future of television. The pair had fallen out with ATV supremo Lew Grade over money.

Cotton, certain that he had a winner, offered them a three-year contract on BBC2 (at that time the only channel able to transmit in colour) with a guaranteed repeat on BBC1 for a sum which he admitted later was almost certainly more than they were worth in the first year but would be seen to be outstanding value by the third.

As so often was the case, Cotton’s show-business instinct proved impeccable. The Morecambe and Wise Show rapidly became a national institution and The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show, in which major performers such as Glenda Jackson, Shirley Bassey, Peter Cushing, Andre Previn and even BBC Television Newsreader Angela Rippon were happy to appear as stooges, attracted audiences of up to 28 million, still an all time record for light entertainment in the UK, with over half the nation’s population tuning in.

Cotton signed Ken Dodd’s former scriptwriter Eddie Braben to work with the performers alongside producer Johnny Ammonds. When Morecambe and Wise re-defected to ITV, many years later, Cotton – overlooking the fact at he had originally pinched them from the opposition, took their defection as a personal affront. ‘It felt’, he wrote in his memoirs ‘more like a divorce than the end of a working partnership.’

Though he was to rise to the position of BBC Television’s managing director, Cotton looked back on his decade in charge of light entertainment as the high point of his career. His success as Head of Light Entertainment led in 1977 to his promotion to Controller of BBC One, the Corporation’s premier and effectively the UK’s oldest television station. He oversaw some of the channel’s highest-ever audience figures.

In later life Cotton Jnr compared the skills he acquired as a channel controller with those inherited from his father. The difference between them, he said, was the degree of risk. ‘If I got into the habit of scheduling badly, the BBC would probably have given me a fancy title and more money and moved me out of the way. But if Dad had lost his rapport with theatre audiences he’d have been landed with huge debts and 20 out of work musicians.’

From then on his name was associated with a string of variety and comedy successes. Among the many artists who owed their promotion up the TV ladder to him were Tommy Steele, Russ Conway, Dave Allen, Bruce Forsyth, Des O’Connor and Cilla Black; a roll call of British variety stars.

Michael Parkinson, a former newspaper reporter who became a regional television news reporter for television on Granada northern local programme Scene at Six Thirty, became an overnight star when Cotton engaged him as BBC Television’s premier chat show host. Parkinson’s Saturday night show dominated the BBC1 schedules for many years and made a comeback long after Cotton’s retirement.

Another ultra talented performer that Cotton captured for BBC Television was Bruce Forsyth, who had won a national reputation as one of the presenters of Val Parnell’s Sunday Night At The London Palladium for ATV London. It was one of ITV’s most successful and popular variety shows. Bill wanted Bruce to host a Saturday night game show. Forsyth was extremely reluctant initially to be the front man for the BBC’s new pioneering game show The Generation Game – based on a format Cotton bought for £25 a night from its Dutch originator, who later got £1,000 a night from German TV on the strength of the BBC success. The programme was an enormous success.

Bill Cotton became a leading spokesman for the Corporation and handled deftly some contentious debates concerning sex scenes in the musical Pennies From Heaven (1978). This was Dennis Potter’s series about, ironically enough, a lotharian music publishing salesman. Perhaps because of the publicity, the series attracted a very pleasing 10 million viewers.

Cotton’s broadcasting philosophy was simple. He believed his job, both as Head of Light Entertainment and later as controller of BBC1, was to maximise the audience for the BBC channels by providing them with comedy and entertainment programmes of the highest quality. In this way the crucial business of maintaining audience parity with the ITV opposition would be secured and the future of the licence fee made safe.

‘I am and always have been an unashamed populist’, he declared, He took great delight when BBC Television overall, for the first time in its history, was in the hands of two graduates from the entertainment stable – Cotton as managing director and Michael Grade as Controller of BBC1.

Other executives, reared in the “serious” TV schools of documentary and current affairs were less enchanted by this combination but they had to acknowledge Cotton’s gift for spotting performers of talent and linking them to writers and producers who would exploit that talent to the greatest advantage

On one occasion his populist instincts proved too much for the BBC’s hierarchy. In cahoots with BBC2 controller Brian Wenham he proposed to move the evening current affairs ’24 Hours’ to BBC2 effectively then a minority channel and replace it with a nightly ration of Parkinson. The BBC governors would have none of it and Cotton, having lost 24 Hours and limited to two Parkinsons a week was left with three peak-time slots to fill. One of them spawned the still popular Question Time, a television version of the radio show Any Questions? No one was sure what to do with the contentious interviewer Robin Day, then on a BBC contract. To Bill, Day was the ideal front-man and his querulous run-ins with guests and studio audience became compulsive viewing.

As Controller of BBC1 Cotton found himself taking decisions in unfamiliar territory, getting into hot water when he banned Scum, a play about the brutality of life in a Borstal, on the grounds of sickening and implausible violence. The same script became a feature film which was eventually, after Cotton’s time, shown on television. Conversely, he thoroughly approved of Shoestring, an intelligent series about a private eye employed by a local radio station but was unable to commission a second series because someone had omitted to re-sign the show’s star, Trevor Eve.

Cotton had several disagreements with Mrs.Thatcher, notably over a 1979 Panorama programme about the IRA. In his autobiography, Cotton recalled that ‘the Prime Minister was beside herself with fury’. He pointed out that ‘the film had never been developed, let alone transmitted and but for a press leak nothing more would have been heard about the incident’. In 1980, utilising the increased sophistication of telephone networks, he inaugurated a telethon with the charity Children In Need. It was hosted by Terry Wogan. This has become an annual fixture of the BBC’s calendar and led to Live Aid (1985) and the annual Comic Relief appeal from 1988.

Keen to beat ITV opposition, in early 1983, he started the first breakfast show in the UK, aware that this would stretch the BBC’s resources but would compete well with the planned ITV breakfast service from the new TV-am contractor.

While Deputy Managing Director, Alasdair Milne was being groomed to take over as Director-General. Cotton assumed that the top television job would be his as soon as Milne moved. Instead it was offered to Aubrey Singer and Cotton was told he would be the new head of BBC Radio. After 25 years in television, Cotton was infuriated by this proposal. He had never worked in radio and at 50-plus had no wish to start. He had also received a very tempting offer to join LWT as Director of Programmes, with the promise of succeeding Brian Tesler as managing director. Either job would have doubled his BBC salary.

It was the only time he came close to leaving the BBC. Milne persuaded him to stay by making him the BBC’s first managing director of satellite broadcasting but after 18 frustrating months, Cotton got the job he really wanted. He became Managing Director of BBC Television from 1984-1988 when he retired. He brought Michael Grade into the BBC and established Terry Wogan’s talk-show in its popular early-evening slot.

Cotton’s period as MD was marked by the BBC’s entry into the twice-weekly soap era with the creation of EastEnders, and the launching of BBC1’s first daytime schedules. He was also frequently involved in the obligatory political rows between the BBC and the Thatcher government which he found a wearying distraction from the business of getting programmes on the air.

His most significant personnel contribution as head of the television service was to recruit Michael Grade to be a high-profile Controller of BBC1 and later Director of Programmes. Grade, a long-time friend of Cotton had left London Weekend to try his hand in America but found Transatlantic television a rat race from which he was glad to be rescued. Grade established a reputation for adroit scheduling and for being open to ideas from all quarters. He even, with Cotton’s agreement, contrived to reschedule and shorten Panorama without incurring the wrath of the current affairs establishment and to improve that programme’s audience figures. Though the figures improved, it was not a move that pleased the UK’s liberal intelligentsia.

Cotton’s final days at the BBC were overshadowed by the abrupt and unjust dismissal of Milne from the post of Director-General and the arrival of John Birt. Brought in to take charge of the BBC’s journalism, Birt quickly established himself as unofficial supremo. Grade left to become boss of Channel 4 and Birt told an interviewer that he had joined an organisation which was suffering from a nervous breakdown. Cotton was to comment later: ‘It was nothing compared to the nightmare the place lived through for the next decade.’

In retirement Cotton found a new role at Noel Gay Television, an offshoot of the organisation where he had started his career from where he also produced an ITV series for Dave Allen. Cotton’s career, unlike that of most BBC top brass, did not end with his departure from the corporation. As chairman of Noel Gay Television he secured presenter Sue Lawley to ITV when her BBC TV career appeared to be in the doldrums, organising a deal worth £350,000 enabling her to keep her prestigious BBC radio Desert Island Discs slot. This was typical of his calculated diplomacy.

He was later appointed chairman of ITV Meridian Broadcasting, based at the Northam Bridge studios in Southampton. Meridian secured the ITV franchise in the south of England from Television South (TVS) which itself had earlier snatched the southern IBA region from Southern Independent Television. In 1992 he succeeded his old friend Paul Fox as President of the Royal Television Society. He was a director of Alba from 1988 to 2006.

Cotton was made an OBE in 1976, CBE in 1989, knighted in 2001 and was a Vice President of the Marie Curie Cancer Care charity. He received a rare BAFTA Fellowship Award in 1998 and made a Knight Bachelor for his services to Television Broadcasting and Marie Curie Cancer Care in 2001.

Cotton was not infallible. He had a ‘run in’ with John Birt, BBC Director General, over the timing of Newsnight on BBC2. Cotton felt the rigid start time of 2230 would affect scheduling of other films or programmes and create difficulties for the policy of ‘common junctions’, those occasions two or three times a night when programmes end and start on BBC1 and 2 at the same time, for cross promotion purposes and audience convenience. Birt won the argument and was proved right. Newsnight remained at 2230.

In later years, as a member of the BBC board of management he was able to use his vast experience to take an ‘overview’ of BBC Television personnel strategy. He publicly observed that to ‘get on’ in the corporation people had to climb further and further away from ‘the coal face’ of programme making. It was not unknown for him to hand over an important meeting to a deputy and hurry away to visit the set of some new variety show in the making. This caused dismay among BBC bureaucrats but Cotton’s good humour and his ability to produce a comical story for every occasion usually won them over in the end. He was keeping his hand ‘on the tiller’ in a more effective way than the administrators understood.

Cotton was a skillful scheduler with an unerring instinct for the job. He had a canny understanding of the mechanics of television and this was reflected in his charm and his way of handling the stars needs and concerns, contractually. He avoided the smarter restaurants and when a star had problems Cotton would whisk them off to a favoured Chinese restaurant in Kensington and talk the problems through quietly and on a personal basis.

A firm belief in the role of entertainment at the BBC was reflected in an interview Cotton gave at the Edinburgh Television Festival some years ago. ‘Basically’, Sir Bill said provocatively, ‘television was a performer’s medium and news and current affairs were the sideshow’. Cotton succinctly defined the difference between the BBC and ITV. ‘They (ITV) make programmes to get money; we (BBC) get money to make programmes’.

On Cotton’s death, a host of broadcasting luminaries lined up to pay tribute to a former colleague and friend. David Croft, former comedy producer and alongside Jimmy Perry the other half of the writing team behind classic hits such as of Dad’s Army, described Cotton as a ‘master jeweller in the golden age of television – he had an instinct for what (and who) would work on the small screen – he was able to see how a programme would develop and give actors, writers and directors a confidence that made them feel important’. Croft credited him with commissioning Dad’s Army despite complaints that it might cause offence. ‘He had a nose for a hit. He was a wonderful showman and a great believer in his producers and he backed us to the hilt’, he added.

Bruce Forsyth, currently enjoying a renaissance as co-host of BBC1’s popular Strictly Come Dancing said, ‘Bill knew about the business. He knew about television. He knew what the public wanted and he gave the public what they wanted. He knew how to treat performers’. It was Sir Bill’s idea for Brucie to host the phenomenally successful show The Generation Game in the 1970s. ‘He wanted me to do it very badly and it changed my life’ .

Bill Richardson a one-time former neighbour and broadcaster speaks of, ‘So many happy memories of Bill and his older brother Ted, to say nothing of their father band leader Billy Cotton. When we all lived at Sandbanks, we had occasional trips on the Cottons’ yacht “Wakey Wakey” at Yarmouth and these were a joy. Sadly Ted was to die too young. I also remember Bill’s kind words to me after my commentary for ITV on Sir Francis Chichester’s arrival in Plymouth’.

The penultimate word perhaps from Mark Thompson current Director General of the BBC. ‘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’.

It was viewers who benefited the most from Cotton’s skills in nurturing and creating great television talent. Stylish productions presented by real stars, not reality television with ‘fly-by-nights’ as TV is want to create today.

A writer on the Transdiffusion Editors’ public blog, reflecting on the loss of Bill Jnr from a viewer perspective, said: “The death of Bill Cotton perhaps signifies a form of closure for an era that represented the pinnacle of BBC light entertainment and may never ever be repeated within our lifetime, especially as the set of circumstances which gave rise to the performers of that era was more or less a one-off.

Modern requirements of target audience box-ticking may conspire against forms of serious talent development nowadays and this is all too noticeable in the forms of entertainment that are commissioned for channels with a narrow remit such as BBC Three. The very tight budget that these channels have doesn’t help matters as traditional large studio-based forms of light entertainment are very costly to produce, as opposed to cheap reality TV formats that attract nearly as many viewers if successful. There’s less to lose if they fail for whatever reason.”

Our staff blogger has real concern for the future of television light entertainment. “Television may never gain its next Morecambe and Wise until television executives break their obsession with giving talentless wanabees their five minutes of fame. Unfortunately the only way that this cycle will be broken is if more emphasis is placed on other forms of talent spotting and promotion”.

After the death of his first wife Bernadette “Boo” Sinclaire, in 1964 Cotton married Ann Henderson but the relationship was so fraught that she is hardly mentioned in his autobiography Double Bill (2000). He was a golfer and a magistrate. It was while sitting on the Richmond Bench that he met a fellow magistrate 25 years his junior Kate Burgess. He shared life with her after separating from his second wife and married Burgess in 1990. He is survived by Kate and the three daughters of his first marriage.

BBC television and our national culture is historically so much stronger for the lifetime contribution of our greatest television comedy and variety impresario.

William Frederick Cotton, television executive: born London 23 April 1928; Joint Managing Director, Michael Reine Music 1952-56; staff, BBC 1956-88, Assistant Head of Light Entertainment 1962-67, Head of Variety 1967-70, Head of Light Entertainment 1970-77, Controller, BBC1 1977-81, Deputy Managing Director 1981-82, Director of Programmes, Television and Director of Development 1982, Chairman, BBC Enterprises 1982-86, 1987-88, Managing Director, Television 1984-88; OBE 1976, CBE 1989; chairman, Noel Gay TV 1988-97; deputy chairman, Meridian Broadcasting 1992-96, chairman 1996-2001; Kt 2001; married 1950 Boo Sinclair (died 1964; three daughters), 1965 Ann Corfield (née Bucknall; marriage dissolved 1989), 1990 Kate Burgess (née Ralphs); died Bournemouth, Dorset 11 August 2008.

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2 responses to this article

Reg Witton 23 September 2015 at 12:05 pm

I would like to know if Billy Cotton was related to Sam Cotton who was a
music hall comedian back in the early nineteen hundreds. Who was my late fathers uncle

your truly Reg

hannah ryan 9 December 2015 at 8:59 pm

Hi I know an old friend, I would like to know what happened to Billy Cotton jr daughter Jane Cotton ? ( Not in a weird way just know an old friend wants to get in touch)

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