Obituary: Jimmy Gilbert, television producer and director

Born: 5 May, 1923 in Edinburgh. Died: 7 July, 2016 in London, aged 93.

Producer and director of a string of hit TV comedy shows. Picture: Getty
Producer and director of a string of hit TV comedy shows. Picture: Getty

Jimmy Gilbert had the knack as a producer and director in bringing together comedy talents that simply blossomed on-screen. He invariably chose the right script, with the right director and the right actors: literally discovering talent and fostering numerous careers. Successes included Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?; Fawlty Towers; The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin; Yes Minister; The Good Life; and Last of the Summer Wine. It is a remarkable list of high quality sitcoms which 40 years later are still regularly repeated and admired by a new generation.

The Frost Report in 1966 began Gilbert’s career in the media. David Frost was already well known as the acerbic host of That Was The Week That Was (1962-3). Gilbert recommended Ronnie Barker to Frost who was casting his next venture: The Frost Report, a barn-storming satirical show. Frost suggested Ronnie Corbett who he had seen in a late-night cabaret starring Danny La Rue. John Cleese was soon cast and so was born those magnificent satirical sketches, including The Class Sketch, which lined up Cleese, Barker and Corbett by height, each describing his place in the world – Cleese looks down on the other two; Barker looks up to Cleese but down to Corbett, and Corbett says simply “I know my place”.

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In 1971, Gilbert directed the first Two Ronnies (it was to run until 1986) and was to prove a Christmas stalwart for 20 years, regularly getting audiences of 15 million. Corbett has written: “When the Two Ronnies started, it was Jimmy Gilbert who was so important in helping us to establish the pattern and traditions of the show.”

Cecil James Gilbert (always Jimmy) was brought up in Edinburgh and then read English at Edinburgh University. He was a bomber pilot in the last years of the Second World War and then studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. He returned north and often appeared at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow. He became great friends with two other future stars at the Citz, Stanley Baxter and Rikki Fulton.

Gilbert appeared in and wrote many of the witty lyrics for the Citz’s pantomimes. He appeared with The Citz at the 1950 Edinburgh Festival in Tyrone Guthrie’s production of James Bridie’s The Queen’s Comedy and was in Guthrie’s production the following year, also with The Citz, of The Thrie Estates.

In 1953 he was cast in a BBC series Laxdale Hall (adapted from the novel by Eric Linklater) which had a host of Scottish actors in it and was set in the Hebrides. Gilbert and Fulton played two ne’er-do-well poachers.

Having moved to London in the late 1950s he co-wrote the successful revue Grab Me a Gondola and met up with Baxter. Gilbert, who was working in the BBC’s Light Entertainment Department, suggested in 1959 they wrote a TV comedy show called On the Bright Side. In 1961 Gilbert also directed Baxter in the West End in a stage version and then in 1963 directed the first Stanley Baxter Show for BBC TV. In a recent interview, Baxter was asked what part his Scottish background had played in his career. His number one comment was The Citz and then added: “And Jimmy Gilbert, of course.”

Gilbert’s first television success was directing Whack-O! a vehicle for the flamboyant Jimmy Edwards. From 1961 Gilbert produced many of the Comedy Playhouse series which often proved try-outs for future series – including Steptoe and Son; Till Death Us Do Part; The Liver Birds; Are You Being Served? and, not least, the long-running Last of the Summer Wine. Gilbert’s canny choices were to prove the backbone of BBC comedy and drama for years to come.

In 1972 he directed Kiss Me Kate which opened BBC2 and as head of BBC Comedy from 1973 to 1977, Gilbert commissioned shows that became classics notably Fawlty Towers. Gilbert cast the show with a shrewd understanding. His only comment on reading Cleese’s initial script was: “You’re going to have to get them out of the hotel, John; you can’t do the whole thing in the hotel.”

In 1974 Gilbert won a Bafta for best situation comedy for Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? and he was nominated in the same category for Last of the Summer Wine.

In 1977 Gilbert was appointed head of BBC’s Light Entertainment when he brought to the screen Not Only… But Also (with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore).

In 1951 Jimmy Gilbert married the actress Fiona Clyne, who survives him with their daughter, the actress Susan Gilmore, and son, Colin Gilbert, who was head of BBC Comedy in Scotland (1983-95) and produced Rab C Nesbittt.