To viewers, William G Stewart, who has died aged 84, was the host of the long-running Channel 4 quiz show Fifteen to One, which had a reputation as one of the toughest on television. He was admired for his no-nonsense manner in the programme, which ran from 1988 to 2003, and where contestants tried to avoid elimination by answering general knowledge questions correctly or passing them on for others to answer. “They always thought I was like a severe teacher,” he said. “I was described as a geography master standing in front of pupils.”
However, Stewart’s background was as a producer-director of sitcoms, most successfully ITV’s Bless This House (1971-76). It was devised by the writers Vince Powell and Harry Driver as a starring vehicle for Sid James, who played the family man married to Jean (played by Diana Coupland) and facing generation gap problems with their children, Mike (Robin Stewart) and Sally (Sally Geeson, who became Stewart’s second wife).
As well as making all 65 episodes, Stewart warmed up the live studio audience with his own gags. He had previously worked behind the scenes on the BBC sitcom Hancock’s Half Hour, so knew James, Tony Hancock’s foil. However, he was concerned about the star’s apparently lacklustre performance in rehearsals. “That’s not the way I work,” James told him. “I don’t want to leave my best fight in the gym.” Stewart then discovered that he gave his all in the recording studio – and Bless This House became a phenomenal hit, attracting 20 million viewers for most of its run. Among the scriptwriters commissioned by Stewart for it was Carla Lane, who went on to create Butterflies and Bread.
Stewart was born in Lancaster, orphaned at the age of two after the deaths of his parents, and brought up in a children’s home in Sidcup, Kent. He said his only ambition as a child was to star in cowboy films. His letters to Hollywood studios were met with advice to get experience, but his early employment in “boring” office jobs after leaving Shooter’s Hill grammar school was a long way from the glitz and glamour of Tinseltown. He did his national service with the army in Kenya.
In 1958, Stewart headed for Southampton to join the merchant navy but was unable to do so because of an industrial dispute, so he applied for a job at Butlin’s. “I thought I’d have a great time and perhaps work in the kitchens,” he said. “But, while I was having an interview, a chap asked if I wanted to be a redcoat. He must have seen something in me.”
During a season at the Pwllheli holiday camp in north Wales, Stewart organised a talent contest won by a teenage Jimmy Tarbuck, which led the Liverpudlian to become a redcoat himself before a successful career as a stand-up comedian.
In 1959, after hearing a talk about careers in television by the producer T Leslie Jackson at the YMCA in Brixton, where he was staying at the time, Stewart successfully applied for a job at the BBC as a driver’s assistant, moving scenery from stores to studio. He worked his way up the ladder to become a director of sitcoms such as Call It What You Like and Sykes and A …, starring Eric Sykes (both 1965).
He then moved to ITV and directed The Frost Programme (1967) before both producing and directing light-entertainment series featuring Max Bygraves and Frankie Howerd, and a string of hit sitcoms. Thiey included Father Dear Father (1968-73) and The Many Wives of Patrick (1976-78), both with Patrick Cargill, and My Name Is Harry Worth (1974), starring the standup comedian. He also produced a revival of The Rag Trade (1977-78) and was producer-director of the last two series of Love Thy Neighbour (1975-76), which was as popular as Bless This House despite its controversial content. In between, he directed the 1973 film version of Father Dear Father. Stewart then remade some of these sitcoms for audiences in Australia.
Later, with his own Regent Productions company, he produced Lady Is a Tramp (1983-84) and The Bright Side (1985) for Channel 4 before returning to ITV to make The Nineteenth Hole (1989), a golfing sitcom written by Johnny Speight and starring Sykes.
Game shows and quizzes came into Stewart’s orbit when he was sent by ITV to the US to secure the formats to Family Feud, which he himself produced as Family Fortunes from 1980 to 1983, with Bob Monkhouse presenting, and The Price Is Right (1984-88), hosted by Leslie Crowther.
While working on these, he received a letter from a former BT sales manager, John M Lewis, with the idea for a TV quiz titled Twenty to One. Stewart paid £200 for a 12-month option to develop the idea. “That £200 was the best money I’ve spent in my life,” Stewart later said. With Regent Productions, Stewart took it to Channel 4 as 15 to 1, reworking it to have 15 contestants being whittled down to three finalists. He considered John Stapleton and Jonathan Ross for the presenter’s role, but the channel wanted him and he hosted 2,265 episodes over 35 series, with almost 34,000 contestants and 350,000 questions.
In 1998, Stewart and Regent Productions successfully sued one contestant, Trevor Montague, for appearing more than once on the show, having lied on his application form. When, in an episode two years later, Stewart gave a lengthy talk advocating the return of the Elgin marbles to Greece, Channel 4 was censured by the Independent Television Commission, the television regulator. The show was axed in 2003 but revived 10 years later, initially as a celebrity special with Adam Hills, and a year later with Sandi Toksvig replacing Stewart, who had sold the format to Fremantle Media.
He also helped to turn around the Chris Evans-presented Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush (1994-95), broadcast on Channel 4 after two failed pilots, and hosted Countdown’s 1997 Christmas special, when the hosts Richard Whiteley and Carol Vorderman turned contestants. In 2010, he claimed to have been rejected as a Strictly Come Dancing contestant for being too old to insure.
At one point in the 1960s, Stewart was secretary to the Labour MP Tom Driberg. In 2009, he made a documentary investigating allegations that Driberg, whose homosexual liaisons were known at a time when such acts were illegal, was a KGB spy.
Stewart’s first two marriages, to Audrey Harrison (1960-76) and Geeson (1976-86), ended in divorce. He is survived by his third wife, the 15 to 1 voiceover artist Laura Calland, whom he married in 1997, as well as his children, Nick, from the first marriage, Barnaby and Hayley from the second, and Isobel and Hannah from his third.
• William Gladstone Stewart, TV presenter, producer and director, born 15 July 1933; died 21 September 2017