Obituary: Ned Sherrin
Writer and broadcaster of knife-edge wit who made his name with 'That Was The Week That Was'
Published 03/10/2007 | 12:27
Edward George Sherrin (Ned Sherrin), film, theatre and television producer, presenter, director and writer: born High Ham, Somerset 18 February 1931; called to the Bar, Gray's Inn 1955; CBE 1997; died London 1 October 2007.
'I am not a performer, I am a shower-off," Ned Sherrin once said. Although not a singer, actor or entertainer in the classic sense, Sherrin was none the less a consummate and extraordinary man of the theatre. Director, dramatist, anecdotist, writer and after-dinner speaker, he had an ironic, not quite self-deprecating manner, one which relied on an intense urbanity and a knife-edge wit honed on years in his chosen profession – a manner all the more remarkable for a childhood spent chasing chickens and rounding up cows in the rural West Country.
Born at High Ham in Somerset in 1931, Edward George Sherrin was the second son of a smallholding farmer, Thomas Sherrin, and his wife, Dorothy, *ée Drewitt. His father was "a country character . . . an hour-over-a-five-bar-gate conversationalist". Sherrin's childhood memories were full of Empire Days and village cricket. But he also remembered his first visits to the cinema, and listening to the wireless – although his father declared ITMA "a lot of rot".
At 11, Sherrin joined Sexey's School in Bruton as a boarder – he later confessed that after a school visit to Stratford upon Avon, he was seduced by the head prefect in the back of a car. After National Service with the Royal Signals, and a posting to Austria in 1949 he returned to read Law at Exeter College, Oxford, and was called to the Bar in September 1955.
But all this was so much preparation for the Ned Sherrin to come. "In a long career of happy accidents," he wrote, "perhaps the most useful was to have been born in 1931 and to complete National Service, Oxford and Bar exams precisely in time for the opening ofcommerical television." Rather than take up the inevitable course that the law offered, instead he joined ATV as a producer.
The new independent company was experimenting with an early version of breakfast television, which Sherrin floor-managed. The show fizzled out, but Sherrin used his experience to move on to variety television for the station, working with Noele Gordon, ATV executive and future star of Crossroads. He delivered 10-second theatre reviews on air – a discipline which would stand him in good stead for his Radio 4 Loose Ends introductions a generation later.
From there he graduated to planning and directing Tonight, a new early-evening magazine programme. Presented by Cliff Michelmore and, later, Kenneth Alsop, with cameos and interviews by Fyfe Robertson, Alan Whicker and Jonathan Miller, its live format produced the inevitable mishaps: drunken interviewees, bowel-evacuating pigs and Peter Sellers arriving in the flowing robes of an Arab sheikh. It was also good experience for the show which was to make Ned Sherrin's name.
It is difficult now, in an age in which, as Richard Eyre recently noted, "satire has become mainstream", to comprehend the effect of the show which Sherrin assembled. That Was The Week That Was – abbrievated to "TW3" – became a legend in post-war entertainment. It happened at a time when youth culture met clever satire and a new knowingness, and it anticipated much of what was to come in television, and in the wider entertainment world. As Millicent Martin, the show's resident singer, said later, "If I'd known I was going to be part of an era, I'd have taken more notice."
As Sherrin would note, TW3 took television audiences "from a conversation to conspiracy". It was the age of Look Back in Anger and the "kitchen-sink drama", of Beyond The Fringe, Private Eye, and the Establishment Club – where Sherrin found much of the talent for his show. Peter Cook, John Bird, Spike Milligan, Jonathan Miller, Willie Rushton and Christopher Booker all became part of the mix.
He wanted an unstructured, uncontrolled programme, almost deliberately offensive, "necessarily an irritant to some", as Sherrin wrote in his original memo to BBC bosses, dated 7 February 1962, "and if we are going to make people scratch, the object of the programme would be to give them something worth scratching". The audience was part of the act – as were the cameras, which Sherrin showed partly because it was difficult to keep them out of the live shots, partly because it made for more exciting TV. A screen and a live band added to the cabaret style. David Frost, Lance Percival and Millicent Martin were the staple performers.
Sex, politics, royalty and religion were all targeted: the Profumo call-girl scandal segued into Frankie Howerd's comeback, all oohs and aahs. Frost read out the Sunday papers on Saturday night – to the annoyance of Fleet Street editors – and 12 million viewers tuned in. Politicians such as Reginald Maudling and George Brown knew a good platform when they saw one and invited themselves along – just to be seen in the audience was fashionable.
Inevitably, the show suffered from its success. It simply could not sustain its original intensity, and the equivocations of BBC executives. "When the rocket had run its course, it fizzled out," Sherrin said. The climax came in November 1963, the penultimate month of its run, when Sherrin had to follow the news of John F. Kennedy's assassination: famously, Millicent Martin sang "In the Summer of His Years" with tears in her eyes. The last show was transmitted on 28 December 1963, leaving a legacy of glory.
Sherrin followed up with two more satirical series for the channel. Not So Much a Programme, More a Way of Life (1964), featured Michael Crawford, Patrick Campbell (and his notorious stutter), Eleanor Bron, John Bird's impressions of Jomo Kenyatta, and Gerald Kaufman's parliamentary skits; and later that year, the Saturday night show, BBC-3, whose fame rests on being the platform for Kenneth Tynan's famous utterance of the word "fuck" for the first time on the airwaves.
But Sherrin's attention was now being drawn elsewhere. He had been offered a two-year contract by Columbia Pictures to produce a satirical film, Goldilocks – but, with his inexperience of the film business, failed to secure a suitable "package" for the company. None the less, bitten by the movie industry, he successfully produced The Virgin Soldiers (1968) based on Leslie Thomas's best-selling humorous novel set in Malaysia. The film, which featured a bit-part for the future rock star David Bowie, as well as roles for Hywel Bennett, Wayne Sleep and Nigel Patrick, was filmed on location in Singapore.
Every Home Should Have One (1969), with Marty Feldman, was another film success for Sherrin; followed by three film spin-offs from Frankie Howerd's Up Pompeii TV series, Up Pompeii, Up the Chastity Belt and Up The Front, all scripted by the "Carry On" writer Talbot Rothwell, and each costing a paltry £200,000 to make.
With an energy that was – and would remain – almost hyperactive, Sherrin was also collaborating in his "spare" time with the novelist, dramatist and ballet critic, Caryl Brahms. They'd met in 1954, when Sherrin was just 23, and Brahms 53. The result was 30 years of collaboration, three novels, two collections of short stories, 15 radio plays, five plays and six musicals.
Over snatched moments in coffee bars and restaurants, they worked on radio plays and musicals. Parasol, a Viennese effort with Malcolm Arnold as composer, made it to transmission as a 75-minute live musical in 1959, with the Canadian William Hutt in the lead role, supported by Peter Sallis. It was Sherrin's first professional cast.
Brahms analysed her writing partner succinctly, if honestly: "[his] insecurity takes the form of never admitting to being in the wrong . . . He is lucky in that he soon starts believing his own lies, and this I find half infuriating and half touching . . ."
Many of their projects were produced. The Little Beggars was a retelling of The Beggars Opera for children, and aired on both radio (with David Hemmings as its child lead) and television. No Bed for Bacon, a Shakespearean musical, made its appearance at the Bristol Old Vic in 1959; and Cindy-Ella, a black version of the fairy story with Elisabeth Welch and Cleo Laine, opened at the Garrick Theatre in 1962, and subsequently appeared on television and on record. Benbow Was His Name, based on the story of Admiral Benbow, saw the legendary Shakespearean, Donald Wolfit, cast as the lead, allowing Sherrin to gather a fund of the old-style tragedian's whims – "Lad," Wolfit said to Sherrin in a aside during his death scene, "I don't have to die with my face dirty, do I?"
Other Sherrin/Brahms productions included a musical on the life of Marie Lloyd, starring Barbara Windsor, at the new Greenwich Theatre in 1969; The Great Inimitable Mr Dickens on BBC TV, in 1970; and Nickleby and Me, which took years to get produced for the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow.
But Sherrin's first real theatrical success came in 1977 with Side by Side by Sondheim, a clever collage of Sondheim tunes performed by Millicent Martin, Julia Mackenzie and David Kernan, linked by a witty narrative read out on stage by Sherrin. Stephen Sondheim himself flew over to coach the cast, and after a hugely successful London run of 18 months, it transferred to Broadway despite American Equity complaints about the English cast. Sherrin enjoyed the fame – although disconcerted by the closeness of the public. He once watched as one member of the audience died, the body was removed, and the companion of the deceased returned to his seat. "You pay too much to waste a ticket in New York."
Other productions were not such great successes. Only in America (1980), at the Roundhouse, based on the rock songs of Leiber and Stoller, was a failure, and "a major regret". Beecham (1980, based on the life of Sir Thomas Beecham, with Timothy West, did better; Hush and Hide, a thriller written with Brahms, was an out-and-out turkey. But in 1980, Sherrin alighted on the idea of a musical based on the lives of the Mitford sisters, with each "slipping in and out of character and in and out of song". The surviving Mitfords were more than encouraging – they even created Mitfordian nicknames for Sherrin and his composer/arranger, Peter Greenwell: "Plotless" and "Perf" respectively. "Sounds like a marvellously comic caper," Jessica Mitford wrote from California.
The Mitford Girls – starring Patricia Hodge as Nancy Mitford – opened at Chichester in June 1981, and transferred successfully to the Globe in Shaftesbury Avenue – despite last-minute reservations from Jessica Mitford on the way Sherrin had supposedly "romanticised" the Fascist aspects of her sisters' stories. It was the last show Sherrin and Brahms wrote together. Brahms died the following December of a stroke, alone in her flat. Sherrin found her there.
Sherrin moved on to a new creative relationship with Keith Waterhouse, with whom he wrote and directed Mr and Mrs Nobody, a "two-hander" based on the Grossmiths' Diary of a Nobody, with Judi Dench and Michael Williams. Its run at the Garrick was entirely sold out. And in 1984, Sherrin had won an Olivier award for his stage production of The Ratepayers Iolanthe, a GLC-era Gilbert and Sullivan skit on mid-1980s politics written with Alistair Beaton, and which was paired with another on the same theme, The Metropolitan Mikado.
But it was in 1989 that he achieved his greatest success of the period, with Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell, written by Waterhouse from Jeffrey Bernard's infamous "Low Life" columns for The Spectator. Sometime boxer, barman, actor and drinker, Bernard was a permanent installation in the Coach and Horses in Soho and other establishments. Peter O'Toole played Bernard in a tour de force. One cartoon by Michael Heath depicted an exiting theatre-goer saying, "That was wonderful – a sort of two-hour suicide note." Bernard himself would take up position in the theatre bar and solicit drinks at the interval.
Sherrin moved to the United States to chair We Interrupt This Week, a characteristically subversive topical quiz show, a forerunner of Have I Got News For You, and a prelude to his most successful reinvention in 1985, as the presenter of Radio 4's Saturday morning show, Loose Ends.
At its peak, it was the must-listen show of the week; a latterday TW3, with performances by the likes of Stephen Fry (whose aged Oxbridge aesthete, Professor Trefusis, was a delight and a nod to Alan Bennett's Virginia Woolf monologue for BBC-3), Robert Elms, John Sessions, Emma Freud and Carol Thatcher, and surprisingly cutting-edge live band appearances.
I had the honour to appear on it myself one morning, promoting my biography of Noël Coward. It was a terrifying experience, not least because Sherrin knew so much more about the subject than I did, and in person he looked more than ex-Guards officer, with his six foot-plus stature and his short back and sides. But afterwards, the entire staff and guests relocated to the nearby pub where an alcove was traditionally reserved for Sherrin and his guests. There he held forth, expansively and generously – a much kinder figure than when he was "on".
As an elder statesman of the profession, Sherrin took up a new column as Memorial Services critic for The Oldie – "I like a good theatrical service," he said. "I am the only critic in the entire world who reviews memorial services." In 1996, Sinclair-Stevenson published his novel Scratch an Actor, a theatrical romp set in the 1950s, about "Sir Martyn Milman", a famous actor, and the complicated, farcical lives of his family and friends. Drawing not a little on Coward's autobiographically-tinged works such as Present Laughter and his lesser-known short stories, and with flashbacks to the 1920s and 1930s theatrical and movie worlds, it was an adept and wittily entertaining work.
In 2005, Sherrin published The Autobiography, an honest examination of an extraordinarily driven and industrious life. He was also exceedingly open about his sex life, confessing in an interview with The Independent's Deborah Ross – among others – that he had often paid for sex, and had done so up to 1997. Ross asked if that wasn't a little sordid. "No," Sherrin replied cheerily, "Some of my best friends are, or were, prostitutes." He admitted to having once been confronted with blackmail by a "trick" who threatened to talk to the press: "I simply told him it would come as no surprise to most people."
There were two "sustained" relationships in his life, he claimed, "both disasters. In both instances I was left for someone else." And whilst he claimed never to feel lonely, there was a sense that the sharpness of his wit was, like Coward's, a mask behind which to hide. Sherrin was content to live his bachelor's life in his ground-floor, mansion-block flat in his beloved Chelsea, where he liked to cook, and tend to his window boxes.
Latterly he had to cede his presenter's chair on Loose Ends when throat cancer took hold; although a repeat of his adaptation of E.F. Benson's "Mapp and Lucia" stories received a welcome re-run on BBC Radio 4 in May.
Asked by a journalist what the best thing about his job was, he replied, "I was brought up on a farm and I didn't like getting my hands dirty. Most of the time I can keep my hands clean." And the worst? "I can't think of a bad thing about it. If I wasn't being paid for it, I would be doing it as a hobby."