William the Conqueror 

14 September 2023 tbs.pm/80104

William G Stewart

Winning hand: William G Stewart hosts ‘Fifteen-to-One’.


TVTimes cover

From the TVTimes for week commencing 16 January 1988

Quite what Cecil B De Mille must have thought of the young soldier who would write to him from a mud hut in Kenya asking to be made into a movie star, William G Stewart can only shudder to imagine.

Stewart, after all, was that hopeful soldier. Now a successful and versatile TV producer, and the man who brought both Family Fortunes and The Price is Right to British screens, this week he will ‘come on down’ himself — as the presenter of C4’s weekday quiz show Fifteen-to-One.

It’s the latest twist in a long and varied career which has seen Stewart producing or directing, among others, comedy classics such as Bless This House and Father Dear Father, television dramas and 54 editions of The Frost Programme.

Despite his youthful attempts to become a screen idol, however, Hollywood never did beckon. ‘I did get letters from there, though,’ he says. ‘I’ve got loads of them at home; I’ve kept them all I wrote to De Mille, to Universal Studios — and they all replied politely and terribly encouragingly. I’m not talking about the odd letter, either — we had a correspondence going.

‘I wanted to be a movie star, you see — one of those people who rode horses and was in cowboy films and war films. I look back on it now as though it was someone else — I can’t really believe it was actually me who wrote those letters. When I think about it, it’s almost surreal’

Bent on becoming a film star, Lancashire-born Stewart went so far as to enrol in acting classes — but his thespian aspirations finally floundered after just two public performances.

‘I’dd written off to the Rank Organisation by now,’ he remembers, ‘and they suggested a drama school to me. They put me in this play — The Dry Thorn — which I must say I found very embarrassing. I was terrible. I played Lot, whose wife was turned to a pillar of salt. Luckily for me, I was still on reserve with the Army — and I got a letter from them saying I was on standby and should return to base. So I said, “Sorry, I can’t be in the play any more.” I told them I was off to Suez…’

A former Butlin’s Red Coat — ‘That job was nearly the death of me’ — Stewart then turned his attentions towards breaking into TV. A chance meeting with producer Leslie T Jackson did the trick. ‘He told me I could use his name, told me about a man to ring at the BBC — and three weeks later I had a job there in the props department.’

Over the years, Stewart has tackled most forms of television, and relishes the variety. ‘I’m enjoying presenting Fifteen-to-One,’ he admits. ‘I was pleasantly surprised and flattered when Channel 4 asked me to do it. Nervous I may be, because it’s a different kettle of fish, but frightened I am not.’

Stewart directing ballet dancers

Stewart in the Sixties, as floor manager for a BBC show with Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev

Stewart will be happy if some of the cool and calm style he witnessed while directing David Frost has rubbed off on him. ‘The Frost Programme was a live show, and sometimes I’d be in the control room saying “Right — are we ready everybody?” I’d start the countdown —3 0 seconds — and Frostie still wouldn’t be in the studio.

‘I’d pick up the phone to his dressing room and he’d just say, ‘I’m on my way” and put the phone down. The music would be rolling — and suddenly he’d just be there, introducing the show right on time. I think he just had natural nerves.’

Apart from producing The Price is Right, it’s also Stewart’s job to select the contestants and to warm them up before each programme begins. To get them in the mood, he emerges as a larger-than-life rabble-rouser — with a dress sense often bordering on the offensive. ‘Yes, I wear gold jackets and other outrageous clobber,’ he says, ‘but you wouldn’t see me out in those clothes.’

The glamour of it all perhaps reminds him of one inescapable truth; a certain dream that never was. ‘I love working in television,’ explains William G Stewart, ‘but I’d still rather be a cowboy…’


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