Beryl Vertue, founder of Hartswood Films, received a Lifetime Achievement Award at last night’s RTS Awards, held at the Grosvenor House Hotel.
This is the citation that accompanied the award:
“The recipient of tonight’s Royal Television Society Lifetime Achievement Award runs a small family business. Members of the close family include Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Who, some Daleks, two girls and two boys whose behaviour is never as good as it might be, a couple of rag and bone men, some goons, the late Queen Mother and the odd Chelsea Pensioner. Our recipient is as tireless now as she was when she started typing for two comedy script writers called Galton and Simpson back in the early 1950s. She shows no signs of retiring; in fact her daughters can’t even persuade her to do a four day week. She has produced feature films and TV series here and in America, including an award winning silent film long before that was fashionable, and a re-versioning of Upstairs Downstairs. She made the very first format sale of a British show to a US network. She moved her shows from one channel to another if she felt they would thrive better somewhere else. She helped write the first PACT agreement when she was its chair, and received an OBE for services to the indie sector. She helped shape the television industry that we know today though she has never worked for a network broadcaster. She says that she just makes television that “she would like to watch”, huge numbers of viewers over the decades, and all over the world, have liked to watch it too. She is Beryl Vertue.
Born in Mitcham, Beryl went to school with comedy writer Alan Simpson. Then, in the early 50’s, when he and his writing partner Ray Galton were looking for a typist, they asked Beryl to apply. This led to her joining what soon became Associated London Scripts where she quickly found that, quite by accident, she had become an agent. Not just to her employers but to lots of other comedy writers as well. People like Spike Milligan and Eric Sykes and Johnny Speight, and performers like Frankie Howerd and Tony Hancock. Hancock was never the easiest of men and he fired and re-hired Beryl on numerous occasions. She also negotiated Terry Nations’ partial rights deal for his creation the Daleks, a type of deal that had never been done before, but has subsequently given both the BBC and her son-in-law, Doctor Who writer Steven Moffat, endless hours of fun and the occasional nightmare. At ALS she also got her first taste of producing because “people thought there was no reason why she wouldn’t be good at it”. She was the executive producer on the award winning silent comedy The Plank, and discovering that the BBC did not have any way of exploiting the film rights of their writers hits, she helped produce the big screen versions of Till Death Us Do Part, Up Pompeii and Steptoe and Son.
In the late 60’s, impressario Robert Stigwood absorbed Associated London Scripts and Beryl became Deputy Chairman of the Robert Stigwood organisation. Now she came up with the novel idea of selling UK formats to Europe and America. Steptoe and Son became Sanford and Son and Till Death became All in the Family. Beryl then went on to produce Beacon Hill, the US version of Upstairs Downstairs set in up scale Boston and an American version of It’s a Knockout. Back in the UK she produced The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie for TV and then one of her proudest achievements; she was one of the executive producers of Tommy starring Eric Clapton, Elton John and Tina Turner.
When Beryl started her own independent, Hartswood, in the 1980s, she widened her range considerably. She made comedies like Fear, Stress and Anger, Coupling and Carrie and Barry for the BBC and sold them to the US. Three series of the wonderful Is It Legal? for ITV and then for Channel 4. A channel moving trick she had pulled off earlier with the hugely successful Men Behaving Badly. Beryl had read Simon Nye’s book of the same name and had asked Simon, who had never written for TV before, to adapt it. Simon became one of the most sought after writers and the show became a huge success after a shaky start on ITV. It was Beryl’s talent and tenacity that charmed the BBC into taking what had essentially been a bit of a flop and that similarly turned it into a hit. She made documentaries on subjects that she thought would be interesting, like In Love with Elizabeth about the early life of the Queen Mother, along with The War behind the Wire and The Welsh Great Escape, both extraordinary wartime stories. She made Going to Chelsea about florist Stephen Woodhams preparing for the Flower show and the wonderful Officers and Gentlemen, the first documentary that had ever been given access to the Chelsea Pensioners hospital. Beryl’s palpable honesty and interest had made another conquest. Channel Controllers began to speak of being “Beryl’d”. Hartswood made dramas like Jekyll and Wonderful You, The English Wife and mini-series like Codename Kyril and Border Café. Most recently; of course, it has made one of the biggest drama hits in years, Sherlock, part-written by her son in law and exec produced by both Beryl and her daughter, Sue. Sue says of her mother “Beryl has always tried to work with like-minded people and quite often she has been related to them.”
Beryl Vertue is an extraordinary woman who has had and is still having, an extraordinary career. She has done it by breaking the rules, she has said “Why can’t you do that?”, and if no one has come up with a really good reason why not, she has done it. To meet her, if only briefly, is to get a sense of the tenacity, talent and downright charm of a woman who makes it impossible for people to say “no” to her. Why would you? She has changed television.”