Obituary: Ray Butt, television producer

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Born: 25 June, 1935, in London. Died: 12 July, 2013, in Suffolk, aged 78

Ray Butt was the original producer of Only Fools and Horses which was regularly voted the most popular sitcom by viewers. With its concentration on the eccentric goings-on of a Cockney family, the series delved into the world of streetwise dealers and slightly dodgy (but loveable) merchants. Over three decades Butt was also involved in some of the BBC’s most endearing comedy shows. He had a deep knowledge of the television industry which ensured he was held in high regard by the stars, the writers and the technical staff.

Raymond William Butt was the son of an east London street trader who sold sweets from a stall in Bow. Butt attended various local schools then worked for Tommy Cooper, the future comedian, and had an ice-cream stall close to his father’s.

But he was a determined boy and worked as a laboratory assistant and studied for a City & Guilds qualification in chemistry and history.

After two years doing national service in the RAF as an electrician – being demobbed as a sergeant – he saw an advertisement for an electrician at the BBC. Butt applied and got the job.

He joined the corporation in 1955 as a studio technician and mended cameras and fixed technical problems in the studio. He worked his way up the ladder firstly as a cameraman in programmes like Hancock’s Half Hour and then for four years as production manager on Dixon of Dock Green.

In 1969 Butt was offered his own series and directed the popular show, The Liver Birds.

He went on to direct other BBC shows including hits such as Are You Being Served? (1972); Last Of The Summer Wine (1973); It Ain’t Half Hot Mum (1974) and Citizen Smith (1977).

Butt enjoyed a considerable personal success in his direction of Citizen Smith in which Robert Lindsay played the wayward but charismatic leader of the Tooting Popular Front.

During his time on Only Fools and Horses Butt directed the on/off relationship between Paul Nicholas and Jan Francis in Just Good Friends.

It is as director of Only Fools and Horses, however, for which he will undoubtedly be best remembered. It was a show of straight-forward good humour but with a rough social edge that gave it a definite reality.

For a decade from 1981 (and several Christmas specials) the show delighted viewers for its zany – often madcap – comedy. The situations in which the lead characters found themselves made for classic comedy and the dialogue – written with much insight by John Sullivan – was lively, bright and sparky.

Butt and Sullivan had long wondered how they could bring to television a sitcom about their working-class roots in the East End.

They wanted to capture the colour and personalities of their youth and bring them to life in a sympathetic, but honest, fashion. When Butt read Sullivan’s draft script he fell about laughing. “It was marvellous, simple as that,” Butt later recalled.

Butt displayed a canny foresight in his casting of the show. He spotted David Jason as the ham-fisted lad in Open All Hours in which Jason played Granville to Ronnie Barker’s stuttering grocer.

He auditioned Jason for Del Trotter with Nicholas Lyndhurst already cast as Del’s gauche younger brother, Rodney. The fact they were totally unalike physically added, according to Butt “to the fun”.

The show was set in Peckham, South London. Del Trotter drove around in his Robin Reliant and had dreams of pulling off big deals and becoming a financial whizz-kid. That never quite happened but, helped by an exceptionally strong cast, the show gradually gained audiences.

This was not the case initially, though. The first two series made little impact but when the second series was repeated, it shot straight into the Top 10 ratings with a regular audience of 15 million.

It ended in 1991 and there was a final three-parter in 1996 in which Del and Rodney discovered a watch worth £6 million. That gained more than 24 million viewers, the highest ever audience for a British sitcom episode.

After 32 years with the BBC, Butt took early retirement and became head of comedy at the independent company, Central Television. It did not prove a wise move and after only 18 months he resigned.

“It was so different to the method I was used to at the BBC,” he once admitted. “I wasn’t comfortable.”

Although he did return to do some freelance work at the BBC Butt decided to spend his retirement between his homes in France and Suffolk.

Actors recall his exemplary style and ability to ensure comic situations were shot to best advantage. Audiences revelled in a host of classic programmes that are now part of television history.

Butt is survived by his partner, Jo Blyth, and a daughter from a previous marriage.