Former BBC head of light entertainment and controller of BBC1, Sir Bill Cotton oversaw some of the Corporation’s most enduring shows of the seventies, including Dad’s Army, Morecambe and Wise, The Two Ronnies and Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
He later became the BBC’s managing director of television, before retiring in 1988.
David Croft, writer of Dad’s Army, described Cotton as the “master jeweller” in the “golden age” of television.
The son of the wartime bandleader Billy Cotton, William Frederick Cotton was born in London on April 23, 1928. He was educated at Ardingley College in Sussex and did his National Service in the Army, where he was commissioned in the Royal Army Service Corps. He went on to work as a song plugger for Noel Gay and then became joint managing director of the Michael Reine Music Company.
He joined the BBC in 1956 as an in-house producer of light entertainment programmes, working on shows such as the Billy Cotton Band Show and the cult pop series Six Five Special. He was the BBC’s head of light entertainment between 1970-7 and introduced new programmes including The Generation Game, hosted by Bruce Forsyth. He was also instrumental in pairing Ronnie Barker with Ronnie Corbett and in launching Michael Parkinson as a talk show host.
Speaking in 2000, Cotton said light entertainment on television had formed part of the nation’s culture: “Basically, fundamentally, television was a performer’s medium and news and current affairs were the sideshow,” he said. “One of the reasons I honestly believe that the care taken on light entertainment had to be the same care as was taken for ballet, opera or serious drama, is because you are contributing to the culture of the country. I think it’s sad if it isn’t.”
Cotton stepped down from the BBC in 1988 on reaching 60. After his retirment he became chairman of Noel Gay Television and of the ITV company Meridian. For ten years he acted as an agent for the broadcaster Sue Lawley.
He had a long association with BBC Enterprises and was chairman of the Royal Television Society. He was awarded the Academy Fellowship by Bafta in 1998. He was appointed OBE in 1976, CBE in 1989 and was knighted in 2001.
Mark Thompson, director-general of the BBC, paid tribute: “Sir Bill was one of the giants of BBC television. He brought countless programmes to the screen which themselves became legends. He was both a great impresario and also a passionate believer in public service broadcasting.”
Bruce Forsyth said: “Bill knew how to treat performers. He knew how to talk to them, how to get them to do things, even if they didn’t want to. He talked them into it because he knew it would be good for them.”
Bill Cotton died on August 11, aged 80, in a hospital in Bournemouth. He had three daughters by his first marriage to Bernadine Sinclair, who died in 1964. He second marriage to Ann Henderson was dissolved and he married Kathryn Burgess in 1990.