Bryan Cowgill came to prominence as the BBC’s first head of sport, but subsequently became BBC1’s most successful controller. From 1974 he developed and oversaw such BBC series as The Good Life, Porridge and The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, as well as the drama series When the Boat Comes In, All Creatures Great and Small and Poldark.
Later, he joined Thames Television as managing director, where he was responsible for top-rating shows starring Mike Yarwood, Morecambe and Wise, Dave Allen, Tommy Cooper and Des O’Connor. The Benny Hill Show became the jewel in Thames TV’s crown and was subsequently sold world wide. Cowgill also led Euston Films, the film-making subsidiary of Thames, whose credits included Minder, The Flame Trees of Thika and Paradise Postponed.
George Bryan Cowgill (known to his friends as ‘Ginger’) was born in Clitheroe, Lancashire on May 27, 1927. He was educated at Clitheroe Royal Grammar School. He left at 15 to join the Lancashire Evening Post – where his father was a printer – as a copy boy.
During the war, he served in the Royal Marines in Hong Kong and on being demobbed, returned to his job on the Lancashire Evening Post as a reporter and then as editor.
He joined the BBC as a production assistant in 1955 and by 1962 had risen to the position of head of sport. He was responsible for launching Sportsnight as well as Sunday Cricket on BBC2. He won three Bafta awards for coverage of the Olympics and during the BBC’s coverage of the World Cup finals in 1966, he coined the term ‘action replay’.
After being appointed controller of BBC1, he did much to import top American TV series including Kojak and Starsky and Hutch, both of which topped the ratings. He also introduced BBC’s first woman newsreader Angela Rippon.
Moving to ITV, he poached many stars from the BBC including Morecambe and Wise, Kenny Everett and Mike Yarwood. Cowgill’s time at Thames was also marked by the high-profile drama series Rumpole of the Bailey and The Bill.
His career at Thames came to an abrupt end in 1985, when he went to America and tried to poach the hugely successful soap Dallas from the BBC. BBC chiefs were outraged, but Cowgill was prepared to pay far more for the series than the BBC. The IBA did not agree with his behaviour and subsequently ITV were forced to hand the series back to the BBC. Cowgill resigned and lost the prospect of becoming the next Thames TV chairman. His pay-off was said to be £400,000.
He went on to become deputy chairman of Mirror Group Newspapers under Robert Maxwell. He wrote a candid autobiography Mr Action Replay, in 2006.
He died on July 14, aged 81, in Stratford-upon-Avon. He married Jennifer Baker in 1966. They had two sons.
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