John Howard Davies
He played Oliver at age nine and went on to make comedy legends
Published 28/08/2011 | 05:00
John Howard Davies, who died last week aged 72, played Oliver Twist in David Lean's celebrated Dickens adaptation (1948); as an adult he directed and produced some of the greatest comedy series in British television.
Chief among these was Fawlty Towers, which he directed during its first series. On reading the scripts, written by John Cleese and Connie Booth, Davies "laughed continuously". It was he who suggested Prunella Scales for the part of Sybil Fawlty, who proved central to the show's enduring appeal.
By the time Fawlty Towers was broadcast, Davies had already had a hand in several other landmark programmes, including Monty Python's Flying Circus. His role was primarily as a producer, but he also directed the first four episodes of Python. By then the show's surreal humour was causing a stir at the BBC. According to Terry Jones, one senior executive wailed: "You've got to do something about this dreadful programme. It's simply not funny."
Davies was able to see the funny side; he had already produced similarly surreal comedy with The Goodies (1970-72). But he could also appreciate the charms of more traditional sitcoms, like The Good Life, which he produced for its entire run (1975-79). Shows with which he was associated were nominated for seven Baftas, with Fawlty Towers winning best sitcom in 1975.
John Howard Davies was born on March 9, 1939, in London; his father was the scriptwriter Jack Davies, who also specialised in comedy, principally for Norman Wisdom. When David Lean was looking to cast the title role in Oliver Twist, he picked John, then nine, whose long thin nose and trembling upper lip conveyed the required innocence for the role.
John's performance led to roles in three other films, including Tom Brown's Schooldays (1951); then, after school, he appeared in the television series William Tell before doing national service in the navy. He worked briefly in the City and as a carpet salesman before travelling to Australia, only settling into a career in television in 1966 when he joined the BBC.
He was made a producer in 1968 and worked first on Misleading Cases, a legal satire starring Alastair Sim, moving on to The World of Beachcomber, starring Spike Milligan and All Gas and Gaiters. Then came Monty Python; The Goodies; Steptoe and Son and Frankie Howerd's Whoops Baghdad.
In 1973, Davies left to become managing director of EMI television productions, but was back at the BBC within a year, where he became head of comedy in 1978, launching yet more famous series, including Yes Minister, Not the Nine O'Clock News, and Only Fools and Horses.
In 1985 he joined Thames Television. But his productions there, barring Mr Bean (1990) and After Henry (1992), were generally regarded as disappointing. He returned to the BBC in the mid-Nineties, directing an Easter special of The Vicar of Dibley in 1996, but increasingly appeared in documentaries recounting the genesis of the great comedies on which he had worked.
Beyond television John Howard Davies enjoyed shooting, painting, and riding motorbikes.
He was married three times and is survived by his wife Linda, a son, a daughter, a stepson and stepdaughter.