Bryan Cowgill 

25 April 2009

On July 14th 2008 executive Bryan “Ginger” Cowgill, an executive with over 40 years experience in television, at the BBC and Thames Television passed away at 81.

Bryan Cowgill

Cowgill was at various times a innovative sports producer, controller of BBC1, managing director of Thames Television and a pioneer at the start of satellite TV. A buccaneer born out of his time, he was an unsettling reminder that occupying media executive hot seats can be both short and brutish. Born in Clitheroe, Lancashire on 27th May 1927 educated at Clitheroe Royal Grammar School, he was no academic and on leaving school became a “copy boy” on the Lancashire Evening Post where his father worked as a printer. The Cowgill family was respected locally, owning the weekly Advertiser and Times, on which Grandpa Cowgill was editor.

In 1942 Cowgill embarked on war service in the Royal Marines and as a Lieutenant in 1945 shipped to Lantau with 40 Royal Marine Commando, spending 17 months on the island some 50 kilometres to the west of Hong Kong. Demobbed in 1947, Cowgill rejoined the Lancashire Evening Post as a reporter and feature writer, later spending five years editing the Posts’ weekly paper for Clitheroe, the Advertiser and Times. He was referred to by colleagues as ‘The Clitheroe Kid’ or sometimes ‘Ginger’ because of his hair colour.

He joined the BBC in 1955 as a production assistant in television outside broadcasting, in spite of being late for his BBC appointments board. When Peter Dimmock, BBC Sports executive barked at him: “Why are you late?” the 28-year-old ex-Marine said: “I’ve never been to London before.” He never lost his way again and within two years was producer/director and running the BBC’s first regular sports show, Sportsview. Broadcast, like many BBC sports programmes in that period from the Lime Grove studios in Shepherd’s Bush. By 1958 Cowgill set up and was running Grandstand with Paul Fox.

Most of the great commentators were hired by Bryan Cowgill: Richie Benaud, Kenneth Wolstenholme, Keith Miller, Brian Johnston, Henry Longhurst, Cliff Morgan, Bill MacClaren, Eddie Waring, Dan Maskell, Frank Bough, and David Coleman, the latter his personal favourite. Cowgill believed that his lack of a university education would prejudice his progress at the BBC but by 1963 he was head of sport, had created Grandstand and went on to launch Match of the Day in 1964, Sportsnight in 1968 and the Sunday cricket coverage for the new 625-line channel BBC2. He coined the phrase “action replay” when it was introduced during coverage of the 1966 World Cup.

In 1972, all BBC outside broadcasts were brought within his remit. It was a very large department. The biggest portion of BBC Television Outside Broadcasts came from its’ Sports section, which in spite of some competition from ITV, covered all major sports including soccer, cricket, boxing, swimming, gymnastics, show-jumping, horse racing, Derby Day, Ascot and tennis from Wimbledon. Many of these broadcasts screened in peak evening slots covered exclusively by BBC crews before the days of outsourcing special event coverage.

Cowgill also ran non sporting ‘Events and Entertainments’ which filmed large public spectacles, staged outside the BBC. The OB Events team produced live coverage of The Lord Mayors’ Banquet from London’s’ Guildhall, and the Lord Mayors’ Show. About the same time each year in November, they produced live coverage of the Royal British Legion Festival of Remembrance from the Royal Albert Hall, followed by the live service and march past at The Cenotaph on the Sunday closest to the anniversary of the end of World War I on 11th November. While the BBC did not organise these events, their skilled production staff were played a key role in the visual presentation to the population; the BBC as National Broadcaster, at the historical zenith of its’ public service role. In days before multichannel, the BBC was the eyes and ears of the whole population.

OB Entertainments provided live coverage of the Miss World competition again from the Albert Hall. Beauty contests went out of fashion in the late 70’s, though it will be recalled that ITV also ran beauty contests regionally like the annual Miss Anglia, Miss Tyne-Tees, and Miss TV Times. Entertainments filmed the popular Easter and Christmas Billy Smart circus shows at Winkfield, Berks, a highlight of BBC1 at bank holiday times. The performing of acts using live animals fell out of favour and are generally frowned upon these days.

A popular OB series started in Cowgill’s era was One Man And His Dog; sheep dog trials for BBC2, with Phil Drabble. The BBC covered the annual Tom Arnold Ice Pantomime from Wembley. After the Arnolds retired ‘Holiday on Ice’ replaced it). Crufts dog show was a BBC perennial for many years but the organisers have latterly fallen out with the BBC.

In 1964 Cowgill introduced the football highlights programme Match of the Day, a legendary new television sport format that is still running today. This programme revolutionised the game in ways that he could scarcely have imagined at the time. He negotiated with the Football League who had been resistant to the televising of football because of the effect that they believed it would have upon attendances. Cowgill persuaded them to allow the BBC to record one of their matches on a weekly basis. The first edition of this new programme was shown in 1964, featuring a First Division match between Liverpool and Arsenal. The programme was shown on the new channel BBC2 and was watched by an audience of 20,000.

Cowgill was the right man in the right place at the right time. The World Cup coming to England in 1966 and developments in satellite technology enabled matches to be shown live in some parts of the world. The BBC were well aware of the need to innovate before a brand new semi-global audience. The World Cup saw Cowgill introduce instant replay technology. The equipment was expensive and had to be used sparingly. Cowgirl’s name for the innovation, “action replay”, became part of the English language itself. Clips started being shown in slow motion in 1971, an innovation at the time, and prompted discussion as to whether officials should use them within matches, demonstrating how football and television have become intertwined.

During this period Cowgill won three BAFTA awards for coverage of Olympics from Rome in 1960, the World Cup in 1966 and the Mexico Olympics in 1968. Sport was the pioneer area – a workshop for the development of television equipment and techniques and he presided over the introduction of new technology that was to revolutionise live television.

BBC Sport was the first mass user of Eurovision links, satellites, colour and videotape. In another inspired move Bryan also acted as the conduit through which amateur and professional tennis came together, so that the Wimbledon Championships could become the world’s premier professional tennis event – screened to the world. He had played a major role in the introduction of Sunday cricket to the schedule of the new BBC2 and was leader in persuading sports promoters that television coverage would enhance and not diminish their attendances.

Cowgill was appointed Controller of BBC-1 in 1974 and for the next four years he developed many new and popular formats in drama, light entertainment and documentary. He was the most successful of all BBC-1 Controllers, averaging an audience share of 45 percent during his term of office through scheduling programmes that confounded his rivals on the ITV channel. Despite coming from a sports background, he was able to oversee a successful era of programming across all types and genres, with the introduction of popular new sitcoms such like The Good Life and highly successful dramas like When the Boat Comes In and All Creatures Great and Small. He worked closely with Bill Cotton Junior, then the leading light entertainment executive at the BBC.

As controller of BBC1 he masterminded many successes, including Multi-Coloured Swap Shop and the prison comedy Porridge. He was a ruthless re-scheduler and populariser, pulling Omnibus from its cosy Sunday slot and demanding that it cover more ground, shifting Play For Today and rescheduling the US police series Kojak.

In 1977 Bryan’s successful career in the BBC led him to the offer of a job at the highest levels of the Corporation. He was invited to become Director of News and Current Affairs for BBC Television and Radio and this would have put him at the BBC’s top table as a Member of the Board of Management. After four extremely successful years as controller of BBC1, this promotion offered by the Director General Ian Trethowan, did not appeal. Whether he was the right choice is open to debate but the offer was pitched at a salary lower than his existing one. “I have never been so insulted in all my bloody life,” was his phrase. It was not the first or the last time he spoke those words. He would have preferred to remain a programmer and he was restless for more challenges at what he regarded as the sharp end of the industry.

At this point fate intervened. ITV bosses decided to headhunt the man who had made life so painful for them in the ratings war. There came an offer from Yorkshire TV that he refused and then the legendary Howard Thomas, Chairman of Thames Television, offered him the post of Managing Director of ITV’s largest company and programme supplier. Within a few days he had accepted Thomas’s offer.

Despite a stormy relationship with both the Independent Broadcasting Authority and the broadcast unions, Bryan Cowgill stayed at Thames for ten years and presided over an acknowledged golden era of ITV supremacy over the BBC. This leadership extended to most fields of programming and included light entertainment and variety shows, comedy series, location drama, children’s animation and feature films for television.

This was a coup for Thames but not good news for Jeremy Isaacs, then director of programmes at Thames. Isaacs writes in his autobiography, Look Me in the Eye, how he and Cowgill met: “I am responsible for the programme department, for all our programmes and for the schedule. I need you to accept that.” “Agreed,” said Cowgill. “In that case,” said Jeremy, “what will you do?” There was a long pause. “My job is to look after the welfare of 1,500 people.” It didn’t work for long. Cowgill and Isaacs were as oil and water. When Jeremy left Thames it took Cowgill 18 months to appoint a new director of programmes. He badly wanted to do the job himself, like someone else he knew at Yorkshire Television, his former BBC stable mate Paul Fox.

People were wary of him for his outbursts of anger, usually prompted by impatience – he had a low tolerance of fools and always spoke his mind. At the same time staff and freelances respected him because he consistently delivered on his promises, made things happen and turned Thames TV into a world-class company that turned huge profits. The Thames studios at Teddington in West London and Euston in Central London became the production centre for top-rating shows that featured big stars including Morecambe and Wise, Mike Yarwood, Eamonn Andrews, Benny Hill, Dave Allen, and Tommy Cooper.

‘Ginger Cowgill’ was in charge of the process enabling Thames to renew its franchise in the 1981 round and he was boss over an unprecedented period of awards to Thames programme makers. He ‘green lit’ The Bill, which survives on television to this day, developed Cosgrove Hall productions as a leading maker of children’s animated television and led Euston Films, the film making subsidiary of Thames, into a breath-taking run of success which included Minder, Paradise Postponed and Flame Trees of Thika.

In 1982, Thames Television earned the Queen’s Award for Industry as a result of its successful record of programme sales all over the world most notably to the United States. The award was also a reflection of Thames enterprise in taking over a Los Angeles TV station for one week in which its evening programme schedule featured only Thames TV programmes. During a hot and stifling summer in the Californian city, the ratings on the US station leapt by 50 percent.

While Cowgill had many achievements at Thames, his approach with the strong ITV trade unions was bullish, reflecting the new attitudes in Thatcherite Britain. He took on the powerful ACTT technicians’ union at Thames Television when it called an all-out strike in 1984. Five years after national action had blacked out ITV for 10 weeks and following a long history of disputes at the London weekday franchise-holder, Cowgill and the company’s management kept programmes on the air by running the station themselves with the union eventually capitulating. While other ITV regions had blank screens, Cowgill’s action weakened the ACTT, just as the Thatcher government – which regarded television as one of the last bastions of trade-union power – was doing the same thing to the miners.

There were cynics, whispering that Cowgill’s golden boy image at the head of Thames Television simply could not last. His role at the helm of Thames, a key part of the British television industry came to an abrupt end, and it was all rather his own doing. He tried to acquire the popular 1980s soap opera Dallas that had previously been associated with the BBC. The “Battle for Southfork”, as it was referred to, is one of those television stories that improve over the years. Cowgill’s account of what happened not surprisingly always argues that he was right.

In Paul Bonners’ fifth volume of the authoritative History of Independent Television the Dallas affair takes up more than 20 pages with all the ins and outs backed up by minutes of meetings. Briefly, the BBC bought Dallas in the autumn of 1978. Thanks partly to Terry Wogan (who made fun of it on the radio) it became a phenomenal success. By 1981, there was an attempt to transfer the rights from the BBC to ITV. A concordat between the two broadcasters made it clear that once a US series had been acquired by one organisation, that organisation would be offered the first option on a second series. To avoid any misunderstanding, this agreement was registered with the Office of Fair Trading.

This ‘agreement’ between the BBC and ITV not to poach purchased programming associated with one or the other, had been kept and this did work well in the favour of viewers. Accordingly, the other large ITV companies (including Granada, Yorkshire and London Weekend) said they would all refuse to show Dallas if Thames obtained it. This fell exactly when a group of ITV managing directors had begun to lobby the IBA for a reduction in the proposed Channel 4 subscription and on the eve of the appointment of the Peacock Committee on the financing of broadcasting. Cowgill’s timing was poor and those influential larger ITV companies who then effectively dominated the ITV network did not see him as the conquering hero. Sources in the top echelons of ITV hierarchy made it abundantly clear they would not show Dallas at any price.

The IBA was still ultimately responsible for approving the ITV schedule and their senior officers suggested to Cowgill that he had been over-enthusiastic in his desire to acquire the series and he should hand it back to the BBC. He complained bitterly about “twits who did not understand the free market”. It was one hell of a slap in the face to the now-doomed Thames executive but in the end through clenched teeth, Cowgill had to do as the IBA suggested, ostensibly because his board at Thames told him to. He left, with a pay-off said to be about £400,000. He used some of it to buy a holiday home in Spain, which he called Southfork.

Twenty years on, it sounds absurd that so much time was taken up by what now seems a trivial matter but while the rules in existence at the time may make it sound like a gentlemen’s club, they were set to achieve a fairness and it was most unwise to enter into any programming agreement that was so against that co-operative spirit.

The whole Dallas saga had been a misjudgement by Cowgill and it ended his career in mainstream television, retiring aged 58 in 1985. In 1986 he appeared on the ITV networked programme from Tyne-Tees Television in Newcastle, called ‘Face The Press’.

Subsequently, Cowgill became Deputy Chairman of Mirror Group Newspapers under Robert Maxwell. He also acted as a consultant to IMG, the sports management company that was branching out into television, although its planned sports channel – aimed at the satellite service BSB – never came to fruition as a result of BSB’s merger with Sky.

Brian Cowgill made an outstanding contribution towards British television both at the BBC and Thames. Several former colleagues, saddened by the news of his passing, paid their own tributes.

‘Bryan Cowgill was a feisty, original and immensely successful top television executive. He had the great talent of taking on other peoples’ ideas, backing them and seeing them through, often to the benefit of all – most especially the viewers who were always his chief concern’, said Lord Melvyn Bragg. Sir John Mortimer said “Bryan Cowgill was a towering figure in what now seems to be a golden age of British television. He made Thames Television famous across the world for Benny Hill and Morecambe and Wise. He continued the Rumpole series and produced such popular dramas as Minder and The Bill. I owe him a great debt of gratitude. He suggested that I should write a serial about England since the Second World War, and what followed was Paradise Postponed, which traces recent political history and the rise of Thatcherism through the stories of various characters in an English village. He gave me as I believe he gave to all writers, every support and encouragement. Writers for television today can only wait and hope for another Bryan Cowgill.’

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