Monday, 24 September 2012

A General amongst men... Nurturing the stars and the industry

 This week has seen the death of television producer Michael Hurll. From the tributes from my fellow tweeters in particular Mike Smith, a man who worked with Hurll on Top of the Pops and The Late Late Breakfast Show who said 'RIP Michael Hurll. TOTP & Light Ent legendary producer. A mentor to me and many. He let us be us. And he led like a General.' and also broadcaster Greg Scott said 'Television producer, Michael Hurll has died... The behind the scenes equivalent of a Wogan or Forsyth passing away. What a legacy.'

Hurll was born in 1936 in Twickenham, South West London. Educated at St Paul's School in Hammersmith, where one of his earliest directing jobs, you could say was directing future 'Beyond the Fringe' performer Jonathan Miller in a school revue. But it was when joining the BBC as a "call boy" later to known as a runner on the Billy Cotton Band Show that the start of his long career in television was to begin, though he was in good company on that first job with future film director Michael Winner as a fellow "call boy" on the same series. 

His touch for variety and also music was apparent, working with the likes of Roy Hudd, Ronnie Corbett, Ronnie Barker, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, Noel Edmonds and Cilla Black. The list goes on and on, with each new series came a new set of challenges as he said himself in a 2007 interview to The Independent "I'm one of those people like the TV doctor: when the patient needs a bit of TLC I'm brought in," he says. "It's about trying to convince the performer they should be going in a different direction - or making them bloody well work. So many of them take it easy once they've made it. It's hard to get to the top but it's even harder to stay there." His guiding hand to productions from the late 1960's all the way through to the new millennium, his style of directing may seem out of place today but his style was the right one for the shows he did. For example, with the reboot of the Top of the Pops during the early 80's, the show itself seemed unchanged from the mid 70's onwards and though it had survived disco, punk and new wave, the show was looking out of place for the early 80's. With the atmosphere outside the studio in the nation less then a party, Hurll made it look like a party, so whenever viewers switched on a Thursday night, it looked like a neon wonderland.

Though one of his biggest experiences both technical and with the Radio One disc jockeys came through Seaside Special. With a weekly travelling show coming to town, the venue as such was a circus big top. The challenges of that, trying to set up a show in a venue which would test the best of producing talent, seemed like an easy task for Hurll. The stars were a part of the show, the disc jockeys were a part of the show, but it was the venue was the major star. Guaranteeing a summer season show coming to the resort, gave it prestige and the public from all around would always fill up the BBC1 Big Top. Coming from a place myself which had regular visits from Seaside Special during the 1970's and early 80's, this was entertainment coming out from London, Manchester, Birmingham and other major network centres to the coast, it was an experience and Michael Hurll always guaranteed a line-up of stars which the public was deserving of from the latest chart acts, big name comedians and the brightest new talents as well.

But his knowing as a young producer would give him one of his longest relationship with a performer, when relatively unknown Cilla Black turned up late for the Billy Cotton Band Show by his own words he gave Cilla 'A bollocking..' for doing so. Though it could be said that shake-up would make her more professional and by the end of that decade she would have her own Saturday night variety show and with only one condition with it, she wanted Hurll to produce it having seen he had dealt her in the same way as he had with Bill Cotton Snr. if guests were out of order on that show. It was this way which made the show a success for both Black and also for Bill Cotton Jnr. as well. For eight years he brought Cilla into living rooms all over the country, though at the same time he was in charge of some of the BBC's biggest one off events too.

In 1972, he produced the Two Ronnies in Christmas Night with the Stars, but such a big event meant that he had to organise other comedic efforts from other shows, such was the broad depth of the programme he recognised that the Two Ronnies being the centrepiece, was a good base to build the programme around. His dealing with the two Rons, Barker and Corbett was a good one, it was Barker who taught him the nuances of comedy, the timing and the rhythm such where Hurll had a firm grip over other shows he realised that Barker would have a firm grip on the show he was performing in and as such Hurll went along with what Barker wanted. By doing this, it allowed Barker and Corbett to perform tightly and work like clockwork with each other. Though seemingly this was good training for the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest held in Brighton, which he was charged with producing, in lesser hands the contest could have flagged at any stage, but to be chosen amongst all his peers like Stewart Morris and Yvonne Littlewood was a great honour to be bestrode upon a person. Though now it those images of that contest are the most famous one, for not only launching ABBA onto the world stage but the style of the contest which had grown over the years to something bigger then ever before.

Later on during the 1980's, Hurll went freelance as a producer but coming back to produce the Late Late Breakfast Show. At that time from humble beginnings, the show was turned around into one of the BBC's best rating winners of the early 80's. With his tight leadership, allowed it to grow and grown making bigger stars of all who were involved in it. He had taken on ITV with Game For a Laugh and managed to spear it, much like Game For a Laugh had done to the Generation Game at the end. But Hurll did have links to Game For a Laugh, he had filmed a different version of it for the BBC at which time it was rejected and one of the presenters of the pilot by the name of 'Gotcha' took it away to redevelop it after Bill Cotton Jnr. said he didn't want anything as vulgar on his channel. That man from the pilot was Jeremy Beadle, later to become one of ITV's biggest stars. When Bill Cotton Jnr. got together some of his Light Entertainment department's bright brains to come up with something to rival Game For a Laugh, Hurll reminded that they did have 'Gotcha' and Cotton Jnr. had rejected it. 

Hurll set up his own production company, Michael Hurll Television later to merge with Unique Communications. But it was the setting up of the British Comedy Awards which was his legacy and by setting it up creating some of the most remembered moments from it including Julian Clary at the 1992 awards making a joke about the then Chancellor of the Exchequer Norman Lamont, plus when receiving his lifetime achievement award, Spike Milligan calling Prince Charles 'A grovelling little bastard..' Thus moments are made when live television is made, from that Hurll made sure that the event was to become one of the biggest watched of each and every year owing to the reactions of the comics and also jokes being told not only by them by also by Jonathan Ross as well.   

Even after his passing, Michael Hurll's legacy will live on through the programmes he produced, the ones he set up and also the performers he helped nurture as well. No doubts, he will be remembered for years to come by not only those in the television industry but those who watched one of his shows, neon and balloons or not... He nurtured a whole world of entertainment and put the words into other people's mouths... Well, in the case of Bono and Paul Weller that is... But just those few seconds will be remembered by the people who watched that 1984 Top of the Pops Christmas Special. But his like were special and may he be remembered a general amongst men.

Michael Hurll (7th October 1936 - 18th September 2012)

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