Obituary: Ned Sherrin

Producer, director, writer, satirist and raconteur whose work spanned television, theatre, film and radio

It would be hard to think of anyone who embodied the spirit of the modern, non-deferential show business age more thoroughly, or more vigorously, than Ned Sherrin, who has died aged 76 of throat cancer. He was a film producer, satirist, television pioneer, theatre director, raconteur, wit and public speaker of boundless brio and enthusiasm. He was also an extremely funny man, with whom you were unwise to draw competitive swords ("Back in the knife box, Miss Sharp!" was half the title of one of his anthologies): he once accused me of "getting it wrong" yet again at a theatre opening in Chichester. "I'm not paid to be right," I rashly countered, "I'm paid to be interesting." "Oh dear," flashed Ned, "a failure on two counts, then ..."

His place in the television history books is assured: as the producer and director of That Was the Week That Was. The programme, it is hard now to credit, ran for barely a year from the end of 1962 and was one of Britain's most influential media events. Particularly memorable was the programme, for once free of satire, that followed the assassination of President John Kennedy, and the way in which Bernard Levin was allowed to run riot with hapless interviewees. Have I Got News for You on BBC television and The News Quiz on Radio 4 are its obvious, much cosier, successors.

TW3, as it was generally known, was compulsive viewing, following Beyond the Fringe - the revue written and performed by Alan Bennett, Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller and Dudley Moore - in the theatre as the signal that British humour had come of age. Sherrin's original choice of chairman, John Bird, was unable to sit at the desk so cheekily occupied by the young, crew-cut David Frost. Sherrin's background in cabaret and revue enabled him to unearth and unleash the talents of Roy Kinnear, Millicent Martin, Kenneth Cope, Lance Percival and Willie Rushton.

The writers included Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall - they wrote for every single edition of TW3 - Dennis Potter, Herbert Kretzmer, Gerald Kaufman, Bernard Levin, David Nathan, Peter Tinniswood, Peter Lewis, Christopher Booker and Richard Ingrams. Ever since Peter Cook had taken the rise out of Tory prime minister Harold Macmillan in Beyond the Fringe, the gloves were off. Richard Ingrams launched the magazine Private Eye in late 1961: earlier that year, Cook opened the Establishment club in Greek Street, Soho, a few weeks after the London premiere of Beyond the Fringe.

But it was TW3 that alerted the public at large to the sea change in satire. Political sketchwriters these days are routinely rude about our elected representatives; in the early 1960s, it was iconoclastic to be savage about anyone in public life. You simply did not name names. In one programme, David Frost told viewers that Reginald Maudling, the chancellor of the exchequer, had ended a brief interview with a group of unemployed people with the words: "Well, I've got work to do, even if you haven't." And Levin, like a prosecuting barrister, hunched and coiled with sardonic vituperation, would describe Charles Forte's catering company, to Forte's face, as "lazy, inefficient, dishonest, dirty and complacent".

Despite a legal training, Sherrin was a journalist and impresario by instinct at this stage. A chance encounter in the street with an old Oxford friend the day after he was called to the bar in 1955 had diverted him from theatre and the law into television, and he was one of the first backroom boys in commercial television, working as a production assistant with Noele Gordon, later star of Crossroads, on a breakfast show at the Kensington studios of ATV.

He joined the BBC two years later and was part of Grace Wyndham Goldie's current affairs department, alongside Donald Baverstock and Alasdair Milne. He was directing the cameras for the early evening Tonight programme, which featured such luminaries as Cliff Michelmore, Geoffrey Johnson Smith, Alan Whicker, Macdonald Hastings and Fyfe Robertson, when TW3 was hatched. After a couple of pilot shows, the first edition was transmitted live on November 24 1962. "David Frost's debut was extraordinary," recalled Sherrin in his 2005 autobiography: "A triumph, not over adversity, but of diversity. His curious classless accent, sloppy charcoal suit and over-ambitious haircut concealed a man who had come into his kingdom at a bound."

Sherrin was born in Low Ham, Somerset, the second son of a gentleman farmer, Thomas Sherrin, and his wife Dorothy. He enjoyed an idyllic Somerset childhood, and was educated at Sexey's school, Bruton, and - after two years of national service with the Royal Corps of Signals in Catterick, Aldershot and Austria - at Exeter College, Oxford, where he read law. He was prominent in student revues, and indeed made his television debut (with Maggie Smith), claiming a producer credit on a 1954 BBC television programme, Oxford Accents.

During its first run, TW3 attracted viewing figures of 12 and 13 million, but the second series was taken off after just three months. The explanation was that 1964 would be an election year, and TW3 could not survive in a diluted format. But BBC executives found defending the programme a strain. So it ended, but not before the famous Kennedy memorial programme on November 23 1963. I do not exactly remember where I was when I heard about JFK's assassination, but I certainly knew where I was when the programme went out: sitting on a sofa, watching it.

In the wake of TW3, Sherrin devised and produced Not So Much a Programme, More a Way of Life (1964-65) with a nucleus of performers including John Bird, Eleanor Bron, John Fortune and Willie Rushton and a third satirical sketch and discussion show, BBC-3 (1965-66), on which Kenneth Tynan let loose, sotto voce, the "f" word in a discussion on censorship with Mary McCarthy and Robert Robinson.

One of Sherrin's closest collaborators throughout this period, and indeed in the theatre, was the novelist Caryl Brahms, a small, intimidating woman with a large nose and even larger spectacles who, with her (by then deceased) writing partner SJ Simon, had written one of Sherrin's favourite books, No Bed for Bacon, a sort of dry run for Shakespeare in Love. Sherrin persuaded her to collaborate with him on a stage version, which was first presented at the Bristol Old Vic in 1959.

Their subsequent theatre work included Britain's first black pantomime, Cindy-Ella, or I Gotta Shoe (1962), a lively musical biography of Marie Lloyd, Sing a Rude Song (1970), a solo show, Beecham (1980), about the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham for Timothy West and, just before Brahms died, in 1982, a musical about The Mitford Girls that opened in Chichester and transferred to the Globe in the West End. He also produced nine or 10 films in a packed period at the end of the 1960s, including The Virgin Soldiers, Every Home Should Have One, Up Pompeii with Frankie Howerd and, in 1972, Peter Nichols' The National Health, with a cast including Jim Dale and Eleanor Bron.

From 1986 until illness forced him to step down at the end of last year, Sherrin had been a peerless radio chat show host on his Radio 4 programme, Loose Ends. He often used monologues written by Neil Shand or Alistair Beaton (with whom he also wrote a couple of Gilbert and Sullivan updates and a lavish though unsuccessful 1988 musical, Ziegfeld, at the London Palladium). His finest hours in the theatre were as the co-adaptor, writer and presenter of Side By Side By Sondheim in both London and New York in the mid-1970s and as a stage director of several superior West End entertainments, two of the most notable written by Keith Waterhouse: an affectionate distillation of Pooter-land in Mr and Mrs Nobody (1986), starring Judi Dench and Michael Williams; and Peter O'Toole in the even more brilliant Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell (1989).

A tall, well-built man with an imposing physical presence, Sherrin was an inveterate first-nighter, always enjoying a couple of stiff Martinis before the show and a good supper afterwards. His knowledge of theatre folk and lore was legendary and is preserved in two wonderful collections of theatrical anecdotes, as well as in a 1996 novel, Scratch an Actor. He also edited the Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations in 1995. He was made a CBE in 1997.

It was a cruel irony that so ebullient and brilliant a speaker - he was the irreplaceable host of the Evening Standard Drama Awards for many years - should be deprived of his voice in the last months of his life. A proud member of the Garrick Club and openly gay, he lived simply, and alone, in a Chelsea mansion flat, always sure to have enough money to pay for what he regarded as life's bare necessities: food, wine and taxis.

Gerald Kaufman writes: When I was watching the first edition of TW3 on a Saturday evening in November 1962, I said, "I can do this", thought up an idea and on the following Monday morning telephoned BBC-TV and asked to speak to the show's producer, Ned Sherrin. Ned had no idea who I was, but took my call immediately, listened to my idea, commissioned me to write a script and, a couple of days later, in those pre-fax and pre-email days, sent a taxi to pick it up.

That was Ned and the secret of his extraordinary success - genial, welcoming, receptive and very, very astute. TW3 was forced off the air by pressure from the Tory government, which rightly thought it was being damaged by the show's lacerating content. Yet Ned was a committed Conservative. But he was also a committed journalist, and he went with the material. When a Tory MP complained in the Commons about my sketch The Silent Men of Westminster, Ned stood up for me and even paid me a fee for research rebutting the complaint.

I worked with Ned intermittently for years, on Not So Much a Programme More a Way of Life, on a one-off TV feature, ABC of Britain, which he commissioned from me, and occasionally as a contributor to Loose Ends. He was one of the most delightful people I have ever known, and, like David Frost, never forgetful of old friends. He held reunions of the TW3 cast and writers, and there was always a feeling of camaraderie even among participants who had not seen each other for years. He had an unfailing eye and ear for talent, and not only Frost but Keith Waterhouse, Willis Hall, Herbert Kretzmer and Michael Crawford owed him a great deal. His work went far beyond TV and radio. Ned's original Side by Side by Sondheim, staged at the Mermaid theatre in London, established Sondheim as an icon in this country. Ned was a great guy and one of the nicest, as well as one of the most talented, people I have ever had the luck to know.

Alistair Beaton writes: Not long before he died, Ned was lying in a hospital room receiving visitors with his usual cheerful aplomb. As I opened the door, he looked up, issued a cursory hello, and barked: "Champagne, please!" Obediently, I went to the fridge and pulled out one of the many bottles stashed there. "Large one for you and small one for me," he requested. I faithfully followed instructions and passed him his glass. He eyed it balefully. "Not that fucking small!" he said.

Bon viveur to the end, Ned was much more than a cheerful sybarite. We first met in 1979 when I was a guest on one of his many radio shows, and we eventually went on to write five stage shows together, some successful, some not. Ned didn't seem to mind. He got such intense pleasure from his work that success was always more a happy chance than a planned outcome.

Over the years, he became both mentor and friend. His relentless energy was simultaneously daunting and inspiring. He could on occasions be tetchy and impatient, as I picked away at some plot point or obsessed over the scansion of a lyric (about which Ned could be curiously cavalier). But he enjoyed being tested, and liked nothing better than having the opportunity to show off his encyclopaedic knowledge of the theatre. In short, working with him was always an intense experience.

Most of all, I hugely enjoyed the spirit of a man who was often incredibly rude to the rich and famous, but remained immaculately courteous and well-behaved towards ordinary people.

He was a big, generous, funny, clever, irreverent and fearless character, and I wish he'd had the good sense to live till he was at least 100.

· Edward 'Ned' George Sherrin, producer, writer, director and performer, born February 18 1931; died October 1 2007


Michael Coveney

The GuardianTramp

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