Obituary: Gareth Gwenlan, TV producer, director and executive

Gareth Gwenlan, Bafta award-winning TV producer behind Only Fools and Horses& Picture: Getty Images
Gareth Gwenlan, Bafta award-winning TV producer behind Only Fools and Horses& Picture: Getty Images
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Born: 26 April, 1937, in Brecon, Brecknockshire. Died: 8 May, 2016, in Bartestree, Herefordshire, aged 79.

As a producer-director and the BBC’s head of comedy, Gareth Gwenlan worked with some of television’s biggest stars. He was on set for David Jason’s famous “falling through the bar” sequence as Peckham wheeler-dealer Derek “Del Boy” Trotter in Only Fools and Horses…, which was voted the seventh Greatest Television Moment in a Channel 4 poll.

He also took great pride in finding the famous waddling, mud-caked hippo film clip to represent the title character’s imagining of his mother-in-law in The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, David Nobbs’s creation starring Leonard Rossiter as the sales executive tiring of his daily commute, experiencing a mid-life crisis and descending into madness.

Although Gwenlan’s string of sitcom hits was impressive, his judgment was not always perfect – but he was open to persuasion. He took over as producer of Only Fools and Horses… for the 1988 Christmas special – seven years after the series began – and shortly afterwards was approached by David Jason with the idea of extending episodes from 30 to 50 minutes because writer John Sullivan’s scripts were having to be cut back to fit the time slot.

He was initially reluctant, saying: “A situation comedy is only 30 minutes. It won’t sustain more than that, really.” He did a U-turn when Jason persuasively cited a programme from the previous year when a speech the actor regarded as a comic masterpiece was carved up to bring it within the running time.

Similarly, in his role as head of comedy (1983-90), Gwenlan voiced doubts about casting Richard Wilson as grumpy, anger-ridden Victor Meldrew in One Foot in the Grave (1990-2001) but gave in to the producer’s wishes.

Among other hit sitcoms that Gwenlan commissioned was Red Dwarf (1988-2012) – but only after rejecting it three times. Creators Rob Grant and Doug Naylor confronted him in his office and, they said, he told them: “You can’t have a sitcom in space. There’s no settee.” Eventually, he capitulated, but the writers got their own back by using “Gwenlan” as a swear word throughout the series and creating Kylie Gwenlyn as the fictional producer of a terrible Australian soap opera featured in it.

Gareth Gwenlan was born in Brecon, Brecknockshire (now Powys), to Charles and Mary (née Francis). After his father died of undiagnosed diabetes when Gwenlan was two, he was brought up by his mother, a teacher, and grandparents in Cefn Coed, where he attended Vaynor and Penderyn High School. He then did national service in the RAF in Cyprus.

After gaining an English and music degree, he trained at the Rose Bruford College of Speech and Drama, in Kent. He made his professional début in 1960 at the Theatre Royal, York, where he shared digs with actor John Alderton, and he acted in and directed productions at the Derby Playhouse (1961-4). Then came a one-year tenure (1964-5) as artistic director at Altrincham’s Garrick Theatre, when he lived on a canal barge and was also principal lecturer in opera and drama at the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester.

In 1965, Gwenlan moved into television, joining the BBC’s drama department as an assistant floor manager. Some of his earliest work was on Doctor Who in that role (1966-7) and as production assistant (1968).

During a two-year attachment to the Foreign Office (1970-72), he helped to launch Pakistan’s state television service. On his return, he became a programme director at the BBC, working on light entertainment programmes such as the chat show Parkinson (1974). He also directed the sitcom Oh, Father!, starring Derek Nimmo in the 1973 sequel to the clerical comedy Oh, Brother!

Gwenlan’s big break came when he was made producer, as well as director, of The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (1976-9). His other successes as a producer included the first two series (1978-9) of Butterflies and To the Manor Born (1979-81), which had audiences of up to 24 million.

During his time as head of comedy, BBC programmes won Bafta’s Comedy Series award every year, as well as three Emmy Awards. He commissioned Blackadder (1983-9) – saving it from the axe after poor ratings for the first series – Yes, Prime Minister (1986-7), Bread (1986-91), Birds of a Feather (1989-98) and Keeping up Appearances (1990-95).

In 1990, Gwenlan left the BBC to turn freelance. He produced Only Fools and Horses… until the series ended in 1991 and returned to it for seven Christmas specials (1991-2003). The 1996 three-part festive story attracted 24.3 million viewers, the highest for a British sitcom. Gwenlan himself, a keen horse rider who competed in dressage competitions, briefly returned to acting to make a cameo appearance as a mounted police officer in a riot for the 1993 seasonal saga.

He also produced and directed the sitcoms Waiting for God (1990-94) and On the Up (1990-92), as well as the comedy sequel The Legacy of Reginald Perrin (1996) and a modern-day remake of Yes, Prime Minister (2013). However, the 2007 Christmas special of another sequel, To the Manor Born, failed to lead to a series.

More successful were two Only Fools and Horses… spin-offs. The Green Green Grass (2005-9) transposed Boycie and Marlene (John Challis and Sue Holderness) from south London to a rambling Shropshire farmhouse while the prequel Rock & Chips (2010-11) starred James Buckley as the teenage Del Boy and Nicholas Lyndhurst as a local criminal, Rodney’s biological father, in 1960s Peckham.

In 1999, Gwenlan produced and directed High Hopes, a sitcom pilot for BBC Wales featuring four petty criminals living together in the fictitious valleys town of Cwm Pen-Ôl (Welsh for “Backside Valley”). He returned to his homeland to make seven series (2002-8) and a 2015 special.

Gwenlan won two Bafta awards for Only Fools and Horses…, received a Royal Television Society Fellowship in 1997 and a Bafta Cymru Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011, and was made an OBE in 2013.

His first two marriages, to Valerie Bonner in 1962 and Sarah Fanghanel in 1986, ended in divorce. He is survived by his third wife, Gail Evans, a television drama producer whom he married in 2000, a son, Simon, from his first marriage, and a daughter, Claire, from another relationship.