Date of Birth: 15 May 1923, Edinburgh, Scotland, UK
Birth Name: Cecil James Gilbert
As a producer, and then as the BBC’s head of comedy, James Gilbert was adept at spotting winning formulas. Among many successes, he was responsible for launching two of British TV’s long-running comedy mainstays, The Two Ronnies and Last of the Summer Wine.
Gilbert and David Frost originally teamed up Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett in the BBC’s satirical show The Frost Report (1966-67), winner of the 1967 Golden Rose of Montreux. Frost, the programme’s presenter, hired Corbett and John Cleese, then Gilbert, the producer, signed up Barker. “I had a tall one in Cleese and a tiny one in Corbett, so Ronnie seemed an obvious choice,” Gilbert told Barker’s biographer Richard Webber.
Those three actors’ variations in height were memorably used in the sketch satirising the British class system, with the bowler-hatted Cleese looking down on the trilby-wearing Barker, who looks up to Cleese but down on Corbett, in a flat cap, who says resignedly: “I know my place.”
Barker and Corbett were soon paired together once Gilbert recognised the chemistry between them. When the duo returned to the BBC in 1970 after a spell at ITV, they asked for him to be executive producer of the light entertainment show they were to make together, so he was taken off all other projects for a year to devise and oversee the first series of The Two Ronnies, which aired in 1971. Gilbert opened and closed each programme with the news desk format previously used by Frost. The show was an immediate hit and, during its 16-year run, attracted audiences of up to 19 million.
Shortly after his year with Barker and Corbett, Gilbert produced and directed the 1973 Comedy Playhouse pilot and first series of Last of the Summer Wine.
Gilbert known as Jimmy was born in Edinburgh, the son of Mabel (nee Crump) and Cecil. His father was a civil servant. Jimmy played the piano as a child and enjoyed performing in school productions of Gilbert and Sullivan at Edinburgh academy. He spent a year at Edinburgh University before serving as a pilot with RAF Coastal Command during the second world war. On demob, Gilbert trained as an actor at Rada in London and spent his early years with the Glasgow Citizens theatre company, acting alongside Fulton Mackay and Stanley Baxter, being directed by Tyrone Guthrie and writing music for pantomimes.
He moved to London, had small roles in films and on television and, with the lyricist Julian More, composed the hit West End musical Grab Me a Gondola (staged at the Lyric theatre, 1956-57), a satire based on the film star Diana Dors’s publicity stunt of wearing a mink bikini as she floated down the Grand Canal during the Venice film festival.
In 1957, Gilbert joined the BBC as a producer and director, making music programmes, including the popular Off the Record (1957), before launching Baxter’s TV career in the sketch series On the Bright Side (1959-60) and the first Stanley Baxter Show (1963), which both showed off the actor’s talent for mimicry. He also worked with the comedian Jimmy Edwards, seen in different guises every week in The Seven Faces of Jim (1961) and two sequels (1962 and 1963).
Various programmes followed before Gilbert produced The Frost Report, with a “dream team” of writers including Marty Feldman, Barry Cryer, Keith Waterhouse, Willis Hall, Frank Muir, Denis Norden, David Nobbs, Antony Jay, Graham Chapman, Bill Oddie and Tim Brooke-Taylor. He also produced and directed the third series of Not Only… But Also (1970), starring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, and the first run of Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? (1973), which won a Bafta for best sitcom.
As a BBC executive, Gilbert was responsible for commissioning comedy successes such as Porridge (1974-77), The Good Life (1975-78), Fawlty Towers (1975-79) although he voiced concerns about it being based almost entirely inside a hotel, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (1976-79) and Yes Minister (1980-84).
After leaving the BBC in 1982, Gilbert worked as a freelance producer for the corporation and ITV, making Tripper’s Day (1984), French Fields (1989-91) and Ain’t Misbehavin’ (1994-95), before retiring. Teaming up with More again, he also wrote the musical Good Time Johnny (Birmingham repertory theatre, 1971-72), based on The Merry Wives of Windsor and starring Barker.