Bruce Gowers, director who blazed a trail with music videos from Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody to Peter Kay – obituary

Bruce Gowers at the 61st Primetime Emmy Awards in Los Angeles - Capital Pictures
Bruce Gowers at the 61st Primetime Emmy Awards in Los Angeles - Capital Pictures

Bruce Gowers, who has died aged 82, is credited with turning music videos into an art form after directing Queen’s 1975 magnum opus Bohemian Rhapsody.

The band were preparing for a UK tour and unable to appear on Top of the Pops to promote the song – innovative for its mixing of musical styles, as well as its six-minute length. So they hired Gowers, who had directed a half-hour film of their 1974 concert at the Rainbow Theatre in London that had been screened in cinemas.

With a budget of £3,500 – including Gowers’s £500 fee – the video was shot at Elstree Studios in just four hours – because the group wanted to get to the pub before last orders. Gowers completed editing within two days and the Freddie Mercury-written song from the album A Night at the Opera topped the British singles chart for nine weeks.

From operatic-style four-part harmonies, the visuals progress to Mercury’s theatrical playing of arpeggios on the piano for the ballad section and Brian May’s driving guitar and solo. The opening sequence of the “pop promo”, as it was then called, echoes Mick Rock’s group portrait of the band members’ faces from the cover of the earlier Queen II album – itself inspired by a picture of Marlene Dietrich.

Queen – Bohemian Rhapsody (Official Video Remastered): screengrab
Queen – Bohemian Rhapsody (Official Video Remastered): screengrab

With the assistant director-floor manager Jim McCutcheon and the camera operator Barry Dodd, Gowers showed enterprise with special effects, using methods such as holding a multi-faceted lens in front of the camera to create multiple images of the faces.

Promotional films had previously been used on Top of the Pops, but Bohemian Rhapsody created the mould for what would become the foundation of MTV, a channel of wall-to-wall music videos, six years later.

“I always say it was six minutes that changed my whole life,” said Gowers. In recent years, the director said he felt “ripped off” by not getting royalties, having no contract beyond its Top of the Pops screening.

“It is used every time they perform on stage and I get nothing,” he said in 2018. The video has also been viewed more than 600 million times on YouTube.

While the single helped to make Queen worldwide stars, it launched Gowers on a career directing hundreds of videos for acts such as the Rolling Stones, Elton John, Michael Jackson, Genesis, ELO, Rod Stewart, Prince and Whitney Houston.

When, in 1978, Gowers was too busy making a promotional film for the Bee Gees to shoot another Queen video, Mercury confronted him in a Covent Garden restaurant. “We had a shouting match in the middle of this restaurant, with us both swearing at one another,” he recalled.

Another early Gowers video was for Hot Legs (1978), shot around a California truck stop with Rod Stewart at times framed between the fishnet-stockinged legs of a woman whose face is unseen. Later, he was responsible for the inspired 2005 video of (Is This the Way To) Amarillo, a chart-topping re-release for Comic Relief of Tony Christie’s song featuring Peter Kay miming to it – with pop and TV stars joining Kay on a power-walk.

Gowers moved to the US in the 1980s and, while continuing to make videos, directed scores of TV music specials and award programmes, as well as 10 series of the reality talent show American Idol (2002-11).

Bruce Gowers was born in West Kilbride, Ayrshire, on December 21 1940 to Violet (née Grint) and Robert Gowers, a teacher, after his mother had been evacuated from Middlesex to Scotland during the Second World War. The Harry Potter actor Rupert Grint is related to her.

Gowers grew up in Enfield after the war, and on leaving the Latymer School, Edmonton, became a cable puller at the BBC. He then worked as a camera operator and production manager before moving to the London-based ITV company Rediffusion.

After a franchise reshuffle in commercial television, he joined LWT (1968-77) and directed studio-based entertainment shows starring Leslie Crowther, Joe Brown, Rolf Harris, Larry Grayson and Stanley Baxter, as well as Russell Harty’s chat series and David Frost’s interview programmes.

He was given a chance to display his creativity by shooting on film for the arts programme Aquarius, including a 1971 edition on Kenny Everett’s favourite – and not so favourite – London landmarks, and a profile of Paul McCartney for the first episode of The South Bank Show (1978), which was screened after he had left LWT.

After he moved to the US in the 1980s, his many projects included The Kidsongs Television Show (1987-98), featuring children’s music videos, which he created with his third wife, the writer-producer Carol Rosenstein.

Away from music, he directed episodes of the US version of the improvisational comedy show Whose Line Is It Anyway? throughout its entire original run (1998-2007). He won a Grammy and three Emmy Awards.

Bruce Gowers’s first two marriages, to Jacqueline Brighton in 1965 and Charlene Newberry in 1983, ended in divorce. He is survived by Carol, whom he married in 2008, and by a son from his second marriage and a stepdaughter.

Bruce Gowers, born December 21 1940, died January 15 2023