Born: 24 September, 1930, in Manchester. Died: 30 December, 2013, in Cheshire, aged 83
Geoffrey Wheeler, best known for presenting the school quiz show Top of the Form and Songs of Praise, was much respected for his generosity of spirit and the courtesy he showed to the many people he interviewed on television. Wheeler spent 21 years on Songs of Praise presenting more than 250 episodes, including many memorable visits to Scotland where he fronted the programme from kirks in Crail, Troon and Fort William, among others.
Wheeler is credited with altering the programme’s focus from a straightforward church service to one that concentrated on the community, its people and local events.
Wheeler was also known to television and radio audiences through appearances in quiz shows. He created the popular ITV game show Winner Takes All, hosted by Jimmy Tarbuck from 1975 and 1986.
Geoffrey Wheeler was the son of a hotel manager whose job took the family to various areas of the country. Wheeler won a scholarship to study law at Manchester University and to supplement his income he wrote more than 200 scripts for the BBC in Manchester.
In 1954, he became a junior producer for the BBC’s northern region making variety programmes with Benny Hill, Morecambe and Wise and Ken Dodd.
In 1955 he got his first break when he was appointed one of the quiz masters (the other was David Dimbleby) for the schools general knowledge quiz, Top of the Form. Wheeler also presented the show when it transferred to BBCTV.
The show’s format remained the same throughout. The quiz masters were originally in separate school halls setting the questions in turn – later a more practical single venue was introduced.
Many of the young contestants, who were understandably nervous, were reassured by a few understanding words with Wheeler. He encouraged them to take their time when answering and not blurt out the first thing that came into their head.
The quiz became something of a national institution. Wheeler presented the television show from 1962 to 1967 and in 2006 he presented two documentaries about the series.
Wheeler was a lay reader at his church in Hale, Greater Manchester, and introduced Songs of Praise with a fine balance between the informal and the devout.
He was always smartly dressed and his gentle speaking voice added a sense of decorum and dignity to the proceedings. He visited thousands of churches and cathedrals and joined in with the audience as they sang the well-known hymns. His own care in preserving the uniqueness of the programme was assiduously maintained through his obvious delight in being involved with Songs of Praise.
Andrew Barr, who was a director of Songs of Praise before becoming the BBC’s head of religious broadcasting in Scotland, remembers Wheeler with affection.
“To work with Geoffrey was a joy. We did a memorable programme from the Heads of Ayr in the skating rink of the former Butlins Holiday camp. We did it in the open air – a truly magnificent setting. And it didn’t rain.
“Geoffrey was the consummate professional – always modest and gently retiring. He had a wonderful sense of humour but did tell the most awful puns.”
In 2011 Songs of Praise celebrated its 50th anniversary with several special programmes. Wheeler returned to the venue of the first ever programme at the Tabernacle Welsh Baptist Church in Cardiff to give a talk about his role while Sir Cliff Richard recalled life in the 1960s when Songs of Praise was in its infancy.
Wheeler developed for Yorkshire Television the quiz Winner Takes All (1976-88) which was a multiple-choice game – devised so that players never had to confess that they didn’t know an answer.
Chirpy Jimmy Tarbuck was the front man posing general knowledge questions and the contestants then gambled virtual money on the answers. Wheeler was the voice-over question master and built up a good rapport with Tarbuck. The show’s catchphrase – Tarbuck repeating: “Point of order here, Geoffrey” – reflected the laid-back genial atmosphere of the programme. In 1987 Wheeler took over as the host.
In the 1990s, Wheeler returned to radio, firstly to present On This Day, a nostalgic look at past events through interviews and news coverage.
He also presented some excellent documentaries on the history of vaudeville and of acting. The Kipper and Me was a highly entertaining account of theatrical digs and their landladies.
Wheeler proved an ideal guest on many shows and did five episodes of Jackanory in 1970. He was one of team captains of the popular BBC2 literary quiz Call My Bluff between 1969 and 1971. The host, Robert Robinson, introduced Wheeler, affectionately, as “the boy with the cleanest desk in the school”.
While a student at Manchester Wheeler married Sheila Sinclair. She predeceased him and he is survived by their son and a daughter.