Michael Ferguson obituary

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The producer Michael Ferguson, who has died aged 84, transformed the fortunes of EastEnders after it had fallen into a lull four years after exploding on to British television screens. One of his secret ingredients proved to be introducing two of the soap’s most popular characters, the Mitchell brothers – Phil and Grant.

In 1989, BBC bosses, aware of criticisms about the programme’s perennial doom and gloom, tried to introduce some lighter stories and comedy elements alongside dramas such as the canal-side shooting of “Dirty” Den Watts.

When viewers seemed confused by the change of identity and ratings continued to fall, the BBC turned to Ferguson, who as producer of ITV’s police drama The Bill since the previous year had overseen its transition from series of hour-long episodes to twice-weekly half-hours broadcast all year round, soap-style, but each with a self-contained story.

He also introduced to The Bill memorable characters such as Frank Burnside (Christopher Ellison), Tosh Lines (Kevin Lloyd) and Derek Conway (Ben Roberts) and, crucially, the programme was depicting gritty action on the streets of London in a way that EastEnders aspired to.

Michael Ferguson’s introduction of Phil and Grant Mitchell, played by Steve McFadden and Ross Kemp, into EastEnders in 1990 saw the BBC soap rise up the ratings.
Michael Ferguson’s introduction of Phil and Grant Mitchell, played by Steve McFadden and Ross Kemp, into EastEnders in 1990 saw the BBC soap rise up the ratings. Photograph: Boldizsar/Shutterstock

Ferguson arrived to take over as executive producer of the then twice-weekly BBC serial in the autumn of 1989 and the results of his overhaul were first seen the following year. Logistical changes included more location filming away from the Albert Square setting, the appointment of two producers to take charge of alternate weeks’ episodes and the writing of complete storylines.

More obviously to viewers, there was a freshness about those stories. Ferguson introduced Steve McFadden and Ross Kemp as Phil and Grant Mitchell in 1990 to bring an air of danger, adding Danniella Westbrook as their younger sister, Sam, later in the year. Another strong character to arrive was Eddie Royle (Michael Melia), an ex-police officer taking over the Old Vic pub.

Storylines that gripped viewers once more included Diane Butcher (Sophie Lawrence) becoming a runaway living with homeless people, the return of Nick Cotton (John Altman) to try poisoning his mother, Dot (June Brown), the descent into Alzheimer’s disease of Mo Butcher (Edna Doré) and a climax to the love triangle involving Wicksy (Nick Berry), Cindy (Michelle Collins) and Ian (Adam Woodyatt).

“Drama is sometimes described as life with the boring bits taken out,” said Ferguson at the time. “The challenge is to create the interesting bits that are left in.” By the time he himself left in 1991, EastEnders was again vying with Coronation Street for the top spot in the weekly TV ratings.

Earlier in his television career, which began with the BBC, Ferguson secured himself a place in Doctor Who history with his behind-the-scenes role in The Dead Planet, the first episode to feature the Daleks, shortly after the series began in 1963.

William Hartnell as the original incarnation of Doctor Who with the first Daleks seen on the BBC series, in 1963. Michael Ferguson, then an assistant floor manager, waved the first Dalek ‘sucker’ arm on the show, and later went on to direct Hartnell as well as the next two Doctors, Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee.
William Hartnell as the original incarnation of Doctor Who with the first Daleks seen on the BBC series, in 1963. Michael Ferguson, then an assistant floor manager, waved the first Dalek ‘sucker’ arm on the show, and later went on to direct Hartnell as well as the next two Doctors, Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee. Photograph: Ronald Grant

Working on his first programme as an assistant floor manager – while also holding an actors’ union Equity card – he waved the first Dalek “sucker” arm, resembling a sink plunger, to be seen as it threatened the Time Lord’s companion Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill). The Daleks’ “bodies” were not revealed until the next part of the story.

Then, he became one of the few directors to work with all of the Time Lord’s first three incarnations: William Hartnell, battling a self-thinking computer in The War Machines (1966); Patrick Troughton, taking on the Ice Warriors in The Seeds of Death (1969); and Jon Pertwee, in both The Ambassadors of Death (1970) and The Claws of Axos (1971).

Ferguson gained a reputation for being adventurous and inventive, with angled, “point of view” and silhouetted shots, “jump” ones that ramped up the tension, and characters filmed from below to show them looking down.

Frazer Hines, who played the Doctor’s companion Jamie in the second of Ferguson’s serials, recalled that he would challenge actors in rehearsal to perform a “speed run”, delivering their lines as fast as possible to ensure they knew them thoroughly. “It’s very good for the old brain cells,” added Hines.

Similarly, Ferguson made an impression on actors and crew with his quiet, controlled demeanour and willingness to listen to ideas. He could be self-critical, too, later saying he found The Seeds of Death adventure too slow on re-watching it.

Michael Ferguson.
Michael Ferguson initially trained as an actor so as to understand the performing process. Photograph: Paula Hammond/Alamy

Michael was born in New Malden, Surrey, to Mona (nee Armatage) and Thomas Ferguson, a stockbroker who served in the auxiliary fire service during the second world war, and attended King’s college school in Wimbledon.

He acted in plays at school and with local amateur dramatics companies, then during national service with the army in Cyprus and north Africa, before training as an actor at Lamda (1957-58), simply because he wanted to understand the performing process in order to become a director.

Ferguson acted and directed with Theatre Centre, a touring company visiting schools, from 1959 until 1963, when he worked as a stage director at Hampstead Theatre Club and went ton to secure a job with BBC television as an assistant floor manager. The following year, he graduated from the corporation’s directors’ course and had stints directing the soaps Compact (in 1964 and 1965), The Flying Swan and 199 Park Lane (both 1965), and The Newcomers (from 1965 to 1966).

He moved on to episodes of the police series Z Cars (in 1967 and 1968) and Softly Softly (in 1967), then progressed to dramas such as Paul Temple (from 1970 to 1971) and 1972-73 episodes of Colditz.

Switching to ITV, he directed Hadleigh (in 1973) and Dickens of London (1976) before both producing and directing The Sandbaggers (1978-80) and Airline (1982). Back at the BBC, he produced the 1993-94 series of Casualty.

In retirement, he taught screen acting both to Arts Educational Schools students and professionals at the Actors Centre in London.

In 1964, Ferguson married Susan Harris, with whom he had two daughters, Tracy and Nikki. Following his divorce, he married the actor Jana Shelden in 1986. She and Tracy survive him; Nikki died in 1997.

• Michael Ferguson, producer and director, born 14 June 1937; died 4 October 2021

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