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05 December 2016

In the Spotlight… Hartswood Films’ Beryl Vertue

The recipient of this year’s EON Productions Lifetime Achievement WFTV Award, recognising a woman whose body of work makes her an inspiration and role model, Beryl Vertue CBE is the founder and Chair of Hartswood Films, the production company behind SherlockLady Chatterley’s LoverMen Behaving Badly and Coupling. She tells WFTV’s Kate Kinninmont about starting at the top, accidentally becoming an agent and nuns being good for business.

Beryl receiving her EON Productions Lifetime Achievement WFTV Award from Benedict Cumberbatch

Beryl Vertue has the knack of making her entire career sound like a happy accident. A schooldays friendship with the writer Alan Simpson led to him asking her to become the secretary in the tiny company he had formed with Ray GaltonEric Sykes and Spike Milligan. She didn’t want the job – or the commute it involved – so she demanded the then outrageous sum of £10 a week. Spike figured that would cost the partners £2.50 a week each and agreed. A career was born.

Beryl was making the tea and answering the phone, but she was also encouraging the aspiring writers who showed up at “our funny little office above a greengrocer’s shop in Shepherd’s Bush, all little rooms all over the place. Johnny Speight was selling insurance ’til he became famous with Till Death Us Do Part and Terry Nation was selling furniture ’til he created the Daleks.” Beryl had to deal with the contracts and get as much money as she could for everyone, and one day someone asked her how long she had been an agent, “I hadn’t realised that’s what I was”, was her response. Tony Hancock and Frankie Howard became clients and, famously, she helped Terry Nation retain the rights in the Daleks.

Beryl began to sell format rights, initially in Europe but eventually, radically, to America. She was disappointed by the first American pilot of Steptoe and Son (“It was awful”) and held out for much more of a say in the US version of Till Death Us Do Part. Finally, she entrusted it to Norman Lear, who produced over 200 episodes of All in the Family, garnering over 40 broadcast awards, including eight Golden Globes. Beryl dug Steptoe out of the drawer and showed it Lear – who turned it into Sanford & Son, with 150 episodes and – yes! – a Golden Globe. Robert Stigwood bought over the company and made Beryl the managing director. “He said, ‘She has to have a title because other people have to know what she does.’ So there I was, managing director of the Robert Stigwood Organisation.” Stigwood opened a whole new world to Beryl.

Men Behaving Badly

“It was hugely exciting. Robert also did stage plays. I remember a board meeting when he was in America and there were only three of us there and Robert wanted to buy a record called Jesus Christ Superstar, which was written by two people we’d never heard of, called Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. He just said he wanted to turn it into something for the theatre. Well, I knew nothing about it and didn’t know why he was asking us, but if Robert thought it was so good, I supposed we should buy it. So we did. And then we did Evita. I always remember the first night of that. I got goosebumps everywhere, it was amazing with Elaine Paige, absolutely amazing. We were doing different productions of these shows everywhere. When we did Superstar in New York there were nuns demonstrating outside the theatre. I told Robert and he just said ‘Good! Good!’”

Beryl makes her career sound almost entirely fortuitous, but her judgment and people-skills are superb. And she has a real determination to back them up. When she struck out on her own with Hartswood Films and developed Men Behaving Badly she sold the show to ITV – only to see it cancelled after two series. Beryl quotes Spike Milligan here: “Spike always said to me when you do something, start at the top. You know, when his milk didn’t arrive he’d shout ‘Get me the chairman of United Dairies!’ So I went to see Alan Yentob and David Liddiment at the BBC. No one had ever taken a reject from one network to another, but I believed Men Behaving Badly had huge potential and the BBC agreed, and put it out at ten, instead of half past eight, and we followed AbFab. It was a brilliant move.”

Sherlock

Success has followed success. These days Hartswood is probably best known for Sherlock, created by Beryl’s son-in-law Steven Moffat with Mark Gatiss, and produced by her daughter Sue. “Sue and Steven had seen Benedict Cumberbatch in Atonement and he came to do the audition in my flat in Holland Park. And we didn’t see anyone else. That was it: there’s Sherlock!” Now in her 86th year, Beryl is still fizzing with energy and excitement. At present, she’s planning a huge TV adaptation of Doctor Zhivago with Michael Hirst (The TudorsVikings), “It’s the greatest love story of all time.” Indeed. But perhaps not as great as Beryl Vertue’s love affair with absolutely everything she does.