Yvonne Littlewood, pioneering television producer and director – obituary

Yvonne Littlewood in 1963
Yvonne Littlewood in 1963 - BBC

Yvonne Littlewood, who has died aged 95, was one of the BBC’s most respected television directors and producers and for many years the only woman producer in the Corporation’s Light Entertainment department where, in a career spanning 30 years, she oversaw more than 500 programmes.

During the 1960s and 1970s, when the Beatles and Rolling Stones were fluttering the dovecotes, Yvonne Littlewood beavered away producing shows featuring such reassuring personalities as Val Doonican, Petula Clark, Perry Como and Nana Mouskouri.

In a review of 1968, the year of student protests, riots in the streets of Paris, the assassination of Martin Luther King and the crushing of the Prague Spring, the Telegraph’s veteran television correspondent L Marsland Gander singled out programmes “produced by Yvonne Littlewood with Kenneth MacKellar singing in the enchanted Hebrides” [the Road to the Isles series] as having given him “maximum enjoyment”.

Yvonne Littlewood was also known as the BBC’s premier producer of large-scale all-star spectaculars, including several Royal Variety shows, Christmas galas and, in 1990, the Queen Mother’s 90th birthday gala, held at the London Palladium and featuring a huge cast of top singers, comedians and actors, from Dame Peggy Ashcroft and Rowan Atkinson to Kiri Te Kanawa and Dame Vera Lynn.

Yvonne Littlewood on the roof of studio 1  at BBC Televison Centre, with the  helicopter used to film aerial shots of  the centre for the opening sequence of the 1963 Eurovision Song Contest finals
Yvonne Littlewood on the roof of studio 1 at BBC Televison Centre, with the helicopter used to film aerial shots of the centre for the opening sequence of the 1963 Eurovision Song Contest finals - BBC

Earlier in her career, she was in the director’s chair on March 23 1963 when the BBC hosted the finals of the Eurovision Song Contest at its newly built Television Centre in White City – an event so demanding that she had to spread it across three studios, with audience, host Katie Boyle, and scoreboard in one, singers and orchestra in another, and the British jury in a third.

Viewers across the continent saw the BBC’s shining new showpiece building from a helicopter in the opening titles, while the studio location allowed Yvonne Littlewood and her team to use more varied stage props.

The production was also notable for its use of close-up shots of the performers. The studio version of Eurovision never caught on, however, perhaps because the sense of live occasion, with singers performing in front of an audience, was considered more important than the televisual aesthetic and the greater variety possible in a studio setting.

Meanwhile the event led Yvonne Littlewood to forge a life-long friendship with Nana Mouskouri, the Greek singer who had represented Luxembourg (Greece not being part of the contest at the time) finishing a disappointing eighth.

Spotting her potential, Yvonne Littlewood asked her to do a television series, Presenting Nana Mouskouri, that continued for 11 years and was sold to countries around the world. She went on to produce all the singer’s BBC television series and specials until the early 80s, helping to establish her as an international star.

Esther Rantzen once recalled that when she began her television career in the 1960s, apart from Yvonne Littlewood “no other women producers were allowed on any teams because, it was said, they would be offended by all the bad language.”

That Yvonne Littlewood was made of sterner stuff became apparent in 1961, when she was directing an episode of This Is Your Life (then broadcast by the BBC), after a technical fault led to her talkback going out live on air. Viewers heard her yelling: “Sound on film. Where’s the sound gone? Oh Christ, not again!”.

At the subsequent inquest by the BBC’s programme review board, Eric Maschwitz, then head of Television Light Entertainment, endeavoured to defend Yvonne Littlewood by explaining that she had merely been “asking for help from above”.

Yvonne Mary Pearl Littlewood was born in Maidstone, Kent on July 22 1927, the daughter of Eric Littlewood, a bank manager, and his wife Joan, née Ball. The family later moved to Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire where Yvonne’s parents became keen members of the local operatic and dramatic society, while Joan learnt the piano and became an accomplished ballet dancer.

She joined the BBC in 1944 as a typist, and by the age of 20 was working as a production secretary for Michael Mills, the Corporation’s first “Light Entertainment” producer, based at Alexandra Palace.

After working with Mills for eight years on variety and popular music programmes, in the late 1950s she was picked by Eric Maschwitz for the BBC’s television directing and production training course. She directed her first show, Soft Lights and Sweet Music, in 1960. Other early successes included the 1960 Eurovision song contest, held at the Royal Festival Hall, on which she worked as programme coordinator.

In 1962 one of her productions, Big Band Concert, featuring Ted Heath and his music, received a special award at the Montreux Golden Rose Festival, the Telegraph’s L Marsland Gander remarking: “It cost only £2,000, was made on one day and, unlike most entries, which were filmed, was shot entirely with TV cameras.” Yvonne Littlewood, he noted, was the only woman producer of a programme at the festival.

As well as directing the 1963 Eurovision final, she was instrumental, in 1964, in launching the Jazz 625 series on the newly-formed BBC 2, the channel on which she would really make her name as a producer. Her longest association was with The Val Doonican Music Show, of which she produced 85 episodes from 1976 to 1986.

As producer of the series A World of Music from 1976 to 1978, Yvonne Littlewood featured performers ranging from The Carpenters and Fairport Convention to classical stars such as James Galway, Kiri Te Kanawa, Jessye Norman and the King’s Singers. She was often involved in BBC-US co-productions, and brought US stars such as  Harry Belafonte, Tony Bennett and Nat King Cole to British television screens.

Strikingly distinguished looking, her raven hair often pulled fiercely back in a pony tail, Yvonne Littlewood officially retired from the BBC in 1986 and was appointed MBE the same year, though she continued to work for the BBC as a guest producer into the 1990s.

Yvonne Littlewood, born July 22 1927, died July 7 2023