Ned Sherrin’s career as a broadcaster, writer, director and satirist spanned 50 years. His name became synonymous with light entertainment, whether it was a top West End show, witty television or radio programme or an award ceremony.
Born in Low Ham, Somerset on February 13, 1931, he was educated at Sexey’s School, Bruton and Exeter College, Oxford. He originally trained to be a barrister but got side-tracked at university, becoming involved with revues, and by 1955 was working for ATV as a producer. In 1962, he joined the BBC and devised, directed and produced That Was the Week That Was, the late-night satire show that changed the face of British and later American viewing.
Reflecting on the then new permissive image of the BBC, it took the form of a rough-edged revue targeting the week’s events. It lampooned politicians such as the home secretary and spoofed the then prime minister Harold MacMillan. At the peak of its success, it attracted more than ten million viewers.
It was the precursor of shows like Spitting Image and The News Huddlines and made stars of performers such as David Kernan, Willie Rushton and Millicent Martin.
“TWTWTW was heady wine, I suppose,” said Sherrin. “We didn’t think of it as daring at the time, but there was pressure from outside the BBC. We were preached against by bishops and in the House of Commons by politicians. But we were lucky that it was live and nobody ever saw it before it actually went out.”
As a writer, Sherrin collaborated with Caryl Brahms for many years, producing a large body of plays, novels and musicals, the most famous of which were I Gotta Shoe (1962), with Elisabeth Welch, Beecham with Timothy West and the stage production of No Bed For Bacon, which many cited as the inspiration for the film Shakespeare in Love. It was a remarkable partnership and their work reeked of class.
When he left the BBC in 1966, he became a film producer and was responsible for nine comedies including The Virgin Soldiers (1968), Up the Chastity Belt (1971), Girl Stroke Boy (1971), Rentadick (1971), Up the Front (1072) and The National Health (1972).
His body of work as a stage director was exemplary. Side By Side By Sondheim became a worldwide success, while Mr and Mrs Nobody with Judi Dench, A Passionate Woman with Stephanie Cole and Bookends with Michael Hordern were all critically acclaimed. His most famous hit was Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell (1989), which starred Peter O’Toole.
He claimed he had no secret for directing, saying: “I’m just happy with wonderful actors and not too many of them – and then you can leave it to them.” Other directorial credits included Come Spy With Me (1967) starring Danny La Rue, The Ratepayers’ Iolanthe (Olivier Award 1984), The Metropolitan Mikado (1985), Good Grief (1998), Bing Bong (1999) and A Saint She Ain’t (1999).
In 1980, he became a governor of the BFI and two years later wrote his autobiography. In 1996, he wrote a novel, Scratch an Actor and a diary, Sherrin’s Year. In recent years, he toured the UK with his one-man show, An Evening of Theatrical Anecdotes, and since 1986 hosted Radio 4′s offbeat yet erudite Loose Ends.
In 2007 he was diagnosed with throat cancer and underwent chemotherapy.
Clive James once remarked that “Ned Sherrin is a genuinely sharp character” and in an age of imitators and cover versions, Sherrin was the genuine article – often referred to as ‘The Godfather of Satire’.
Asked by The Stage what he would like his epitaph to be, he replied: “I was at Joe Allen’s one night years ago and Kenneth Williams was there with his mother and he was table-hopping like a mad thing. And the poor old girl Louie was at the table all by herself and so I went over and sat with her for a bit until he had finally finished table-hopping.
“He records in his diaries that I had sat with Louie and wrote, ‘What a kind and considerate person he is’. I think that ‘What a kind and considerate person he is – Kenneth Williams’ on my gravestone would come as a big surprise to a lot of people.”
He died on October 1, aged 76.