Beryl Vertue obituary

·6-min read
<span>Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA</span>
Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA

Writers’ agent who became a television producer with credits including Sherlock, Men Behaving Badly and Coupling

Beryl Vertue, who has died aged 90, played an important role in the history of British television comedy. She began as an agent for writers such as Spike Milligan and Eric Sykes, as well as the performers Tony Hancock and Frankie Howerd, before pioneering the sale of hit UK TV formats to American television.

When she turned to producing, her first big sitcom success was Men Behaving Badly (1992-98), which ushered in an era of laddish humour. She read the 1989 novel by Simon Nye, who was working as a translator for Credit Suisse, saw its potential and set him off on a TV career. Martin Clunes starred as Gary, sharing a flat with Dermot (Harry Enfield) – replaced by Neil Morrissey as the womanising Tony after the first series – and Caroline Quentin played Gary’s girlfriend, Dorothy, with Leslie Ash as Deborah, Gary’s neighbour, who is attracted to Tony but put off by his immaturity.

Vertue had to use her persuasive powers with ITV to keep the show going when Enfield left. Then, at the end of the second run, the channel dropped the programme because Thames Television, which commissioned it from Vertue’s independent production company, Hartswood Films, lost its broadcasting franchise. She simply phoned the BBC, which ran it for a further four series – at a later broadcast time, allowing for more rowdiness and locker-room language.

Caroline Quentin and Martin Clunes in Men Behaving Badly.
Caroline Quentin and Martin Clunes in Men Behaving Badly. Photograph: Fremantle Media/Rex/Shutterstock

Another audience-pleaser from Hartswood was Coupling (2000-04), about the sexual adventures of a group of six friends. Jack Davenport, Sarah Alexander and Ben Miles were among the stars in a sitcom written by Steven Moffat and based on the evolution of his own relationship with his wife, Sue (Vertue’s daughter), who produced the programme while her mother oversaw it as executive producer. As with Men Behaving Badly, Vertue sold the format to American television.

The Moffat-Vertues partnership had further success with two drama series transposing Victorian literary figures to the present day. Jekyll (2007) starred James Nesbitt as Robert Louis Stevenson’s doctor with a split personality, while Sherlock (2010-17) was an irreverent take on Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective, co-created by Moffat and Mark Gatiss, with Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes and Martin Freeman as Dr Watson. Cumberbatch dubbed Vertue “Sherlock’s godmother”.

She was born in Croydon, Surrey, to Elsie (nee Francis), and Frank Johnson. On leaving Mitcham county school, Beryl started her working life as a secretary in a shipping firm. When, in 1954, she was in hospital recovering from tuberculosis, a schoolfriend, Alan Simpson, and his Hancock’s Half Hour writing partner, Ray Galton, visited her and said they wanted a secretary at Associated London Scripts, the cooperative they had just formed with Sykes and Milligan. She joined them the following year.

From typing scripts for The Goon Show (1951-60) and other radio and TV sitcoms, Vertue became the company’s business manager – later managing director – and negotiated deals with broadcasters. This made her an agent for some of the most respected writers in the country, who also included Barry Took, Dick Vosburgh, Marty Feldman, John Junkin and Johnny Speight.

Outside comedy circles, Vertue sealed a deal for Terry Nation that gave him partial copyright on the Daleks when he introduced them in Doctor Who’s second story shortly after the sci-fi series began in 1963.

She also blazed a trail by persuading the BBC to venture into programme-related merchandise, resulting in Daleks memorabilia, a Hancock’s Half Hour board game and Steptoe and Son jigsaws.

When the impresario Robert Stigwood – manager of the bands Cream and the Bee Gees – bought out Sykes’s and Milligan’s controlling interest in the writers’ agency in 1967, he formed a production arm, Associated London Films, and Vertue added “executive producer” to her CV.

The first release to bear fruit was the slapstick wordless short film The Plank (1967, later remade for television), with Sykes starring, writing and directing. However, cinema versions of TV sitcoms became the production company’s forte, from Till Death Us Do Part (1968) to Up Pompeii (1971) and Steptoe & Son (1972).

Alongside film production, Vertue negotiated the sale of British sitcom remake rights to American and European channels. In the US, Till Death Us Do Part became All in the Family (1971-79) and Steptoe and Son was retitled Sanford and Son (1972-77).

Associated London Films closed after eight years, but she continued with the Robert Stigwood Organisation as executive vice-president and produced programmes for American television. These included Beacon Hill (1975), a Boston-set version of Upstairs Downstairs, and The Entertainer (1975), starring Jack Lemmon as Archie Rice in the John Osborne play.

She was also executive producer of Tommy (1975), the film of the Who’s rock opera, and – a year after becoming co-deputy chair of Stigwood’s company – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1978), an ITV series based on Muriel Spark’s novel, a collaboration with Scottish Television for which she also handled foreign sales.

As Stigwood started winding down his TV operation, Vertue set up Hartswood Films in 1979 and spent much of the next decade looking for a winning formula. Codename: Kyril (1988), a four-part cold war spy drama starring Edward Woodward and Ian Charleson, was the only one until Men Behaving Badly came along.

Vertue negotiated the sale of British sitcom remake rights to American and European channels

Although Vertue made other dramas, such as A Woman’s Guide to Adultery (1993), The English Wife (1995) and Wonderful You (1999), she continued producing sitcoms, including My Good Friend (1995-96), written by Bob Larbey and starring George Cole, and Is It Legal? (1995-98), Nye’s solicitors’ office saga.

In the new millennium, she took an executive producer role to encourage new talent at Hartswood on comedies ranging from The Savages (2001) and Carrie & Barry (2004-05), both from the pen of Nye, to Supernova (2005-06) and Me and Mrs Jones (2012), as well as the comedy-drama series Border Cafe (2000) and Lady Chatterley’s Lover (2015).

Vertue was made an OBE in 2000 and a CBE in 2016, and presented with the Royal Television Society’s lifetime achievement award in 2012.

Her 1951 marriage to Clements Vertue ended in divorce. She is survived by Sue and another daughter, Debbie, director of operations at Hartswood Films.

• Beryl Vertue (Beryl Frances Johnson), producer, born 8 April 1931; died 12 February 2022

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