Britain's Most Loved and Best Comedy Double Act

We Interview: Sir Bill Cotton


Sir Bill Cotton

Alma Cogan
Sir Bill Cotton joined the BBC in 1956 and remained there until 1987. During his stay he oversaw some of the great classics of comedy and entertainment including The Two Ronnies, Monty Python and of course, Morecambe & Wise.

His time there, especially when he was Head of Light Entertainment, is seen as the golden years of the BBC. In 2008 he kindly gave us an interview.

Your father, Billy Cotton, was of course a famous band leader; did you ever spend time with him when he was performing?
Yes. He used to do it when I was very young. He used to take me to the theatre with him sometimes to see the first house. During that I would stand at the side of the stage and watch him and all the different artists on the bill. Comedians, dancers, speciality acts and the whole gambit of entertainment.

Did seeing that influence you to follow in his footsteps into entertainment?
Yes, I suppose it did.

Before you began that career, what else did you do?
I was in the army for a while, from when I left school. When I came out I spent some time in the wood industry. It was a firm called Glixtons, the owner; Stanley Glixton was a close family friend. He wanted me to work with him but I realised after six months that after following my father around I wanted to do something in the entertainment business.

I decided to try and get a job that was running parallel to my father, so I became a music publisher. We published music for people like Alma Cogan and Vera Lynn, and did quite well.

Then commercial television came along and my partner in the business, Johnny Johnson, later known as the king of the jingles became a target for the advertising executives. He had been very successful writing signature tunes for radio shows and they wanted him to write jingles that were so important to their financial furture.

So when he agreed to it I wasn’t really interested in jingles. I went to the BBC and asked them if they would put me on the directors and producers course in 1956.

Luckily they took me on for six months to see what I could do and if I was up to their standards. At the end of the six months they gave me a contract as a freelancer so I didn’t actually join the staff. From there I went on to make several shows like Juke Box Jury and became a working variety producer.

At that time were you aware of Morecambe & Wise?
I knew them quite well when I was a song-plugger. I used to go round to all of the theatres and try to get the artists to sing our songs. Morecambe & Wise were quite often on the bill with Alma Cogan. As a singer, she was interested in our type of material. Bell bottom blues and can't tell a Waltz from a Tango, both enormous hits in their day. They were there of course and so we used to meet quite a lot and I got to know them.

They were an excellent double act getting more popular in the theatre, following a disastrous series on the BBC. Lou Grade booked them for ATV before I thought of it!

What did you do in the 60’s?
During the sixties my father was, of course, getting good audiences on radio, television and in variety theatres. As far as television was concerned I had an arrangement that I would not be asked to produce any show that had my father in. His producer left for ATV, after doing one series though and my father asked if I could be the replacement. I told him that I didn’t want to do it because I didn't ever want to have arguments with him. I knew he's win anyway.

I had tremendous respect for my father and he said that he would never argue with me in public. Eventually I agreed and ended up producing his shows for about three years.

He did thirteen shows a year, and I was also doing odd shows for Harry Secombe and Perry Como when I wasn’t working with him. I was also doing Juke Box Jury and Six-Five Special as well, so I was pretty busy.

You were then promoted?
Yes. I was offered the post of assistance head of light entertainment. To be honest I didn’t really want it as I was happy just producing shows, but I always believe that if you are offered promotion – take it.

I dealt mainly with variety shows and Tom Sloan dealt mainly with comedy.

© 2008
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