Beryl Vertue, agent, manager and producer whose ‘fun factory’ looked after comic giants such as Tony Hancock and Spike Milligan – obituary
Beryl Vertue, who has died aged 90, was house mother to a generation of British comedy greats including Spike Milligan, Tony Hancock and Eric Sykes, and became their agent and manager before harnessing her acute business acumen as a successful independent television producer.
Starting as a typist at Associated London Scripts (ALS), she became so pivotal that she ended up running the company, which merged with the Robert Stigwood Organisation in 1968. Ambitious and quick-witted, she pioneered the marketing of programme format rights, and on behalf of the writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson sold the format for Steptoe and Son to the American NBC network, which aired it as Sanford and Son in the 1970s. Representing the writer Johnny Speight, she sold the rights in Till Death Us Do Part to CBS where, after a shaky start as All in the Family, it became a huge hit.
Later, as chief executive of her own independent production company Hartswood Films, she bought the rights of Simon Nye’s 1989 debut novel of laddish excess Men Behaving Badly and was executive producer on the subsequent sitcom (ITV/BBC, 1992-98) and on Coupling (BBC, 2000-04), created by her son-in-law Steven Moffat.
A gifted organiser and charming handler of talent, she was initially a reluctant recruit to ALS, where she took charge of its day-to-day running, overseeing Spike Milligan writing The Goon Show, Eric Sykes turning out scripts for Frankie Howerd, Tony Hancock and Peter Sellers, and the prolific Johnny Speight moulding a comic star in Arthur Haynes before finding further fame as the creator of Alf Garnett.
With Galton and Simpson, she was present in Tony Hancock’s flat in 1961 when the comedian unexpectedly announced he was ditching his most successful writers and, by extension, Beryl Vertue as his agent. “Because of your involvement with Alan and Ray, it would be too embarrassing for you to look after me,” he told her. Then at the pinnacle of his success, Hancock was widely judged to have treated all three with extraordinary callousness. She would recall how the bewildered trio ordered a pot of tea downstairs to cushion the shock.
She was one of the first to realise the marketability of successful shows like Doctor Who, written in part by her client Terry Nation, who created the Daleks. The concept of merchandising had not occurred to the BBC until she persuaded them to develop Dalek memorabilia, followed by a Hancock’s Half Hour board game and Steptoe and Son jigsaw puzzles. Seizing the opportunity to sell programme formats overseas, she sold the Hancock format to Scandinavian countries including Finland and Denmark. In Holland Steptoe and Son became Stiefbeen En Zoon in 1963.
On behalf of Hartswood Films, she also struck lucrative deals to sell Men Behaving Badly and Coupling to the US.
She was born Beryl Frances Johnson on April 8 1931 in Croydon, and educated at Mitcham County School before starting work as a secretary in an insurance firm. While recovering in hospital from tuberculosis, she was persuaded by the comedy writer Alan Simpson, a former schoolfriend, to join Associated London Scripts as a typist and began working with the writers’ commune, then located above a greengrocer’s shop in Shepherd’s Bush, in 1955.
She quickly established herself as their general factotum, typing scripts, dealing with fan mail, buying lavatory rolls, fixing the plumbing and making the tea.
Spike Milligan quickly persuaded the BBC to install a dedicated telephone line at Beryl Vertue’s house so that he could contact her at weekends – “when I get a lot of ideas that I want taken down”. She kept track of what her writers were doing by chalking up their commitments on the office blackboard. Her sister Pam was recruited to provide additional secretarial help.
On behalf of clients including Milligan, Sykes, Howerd and, in his early days, Hancock, Beryl Vertue also dealt with theatrical agents, lawyers and BBC bureaucrats, to the point where she became their de facto agent. One of her earliest recollections was delivering a bunch of springtime primroses to the manic depressive Spike Milligan, closeted alone in his darkened room. She also recalled Johnny Speight having his idea about a kitchen-sink sitcom in which the father was always arguing with his son-in-law, the germ of Till Death Us Do Part.
She fell out with Milligan and Sykes when she agreed to a £2 million merger between ALS and the Robert Stigwood Organisation, although Galton and Simpson went along with the move, as did Frankie Howerd (whose career she had revived following the departure of his earlier agent Roger Hancock, Tony’s younger brother). After the merger, Beryl Vertue believed that the spirit of the ALS “fun factory” lived on in comedy classics such as Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Little Britain.
Forming Hartswood Films in 1979, Beryl Vertue worked mainly on television comedies but was also executive producer on the award-winning drama series Sherlock (BBC, 2010-17), starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, produced by her daughter Sue Vertue and written by Steven Moffat.
Beryl Vertue was appointed OBE in 2000 and advanced to CBE six years later. In 2004 she received a Bafta award for her outstanding creative contribution to television. In 2012 she won a similar award from the Broadcasting Press Guild as well as a lifetime achievement award from the Royal Television Society.
Her marriage to Clements Vertue in 1951 ended in divorce. Their two daughters survive her.
Beryl Vertue, born April 8 1931, died February 12 2022