Ned Sherrin

Edward George Sherrin was born, the younger of two sons, on February 18 1931 into a Somerset farming family. From early childhood he was a mystery to the rest of his family.  Photo of Ned Sherrin

He hated getting his hands dirty and liked dressing up and making model theatres out of old Shredded Wheat packets. He collected wild flowers, wrote stories (including one commissioned by the Sparkford Vale Hunt entitled The Spook of Sparkford Vale) and thumped out show tunes on an old Bechstein in the drawing-room. “What use is that to a boy?” his father would ask.

But his parents wanted the best for him: recognising his passion for the theatre, they bought him a model theatre to replace the cereal packets and it became his most prized possession. He got on well too with his elder brother, Alfred, who made a crystal radio set on which they listened to Band Waggon and ITMA. But the big difference between us,” Sherrin recalled, “was that Alfred was straight and I was gay.”

At Sexey’s Grammar School at Bruton, young Ned staged a musical adaptation of Pygmalion for which he wrote a number for Eliza which included the lyric “Emancipation is the New Sensation of the British Nation”, which at the time he felt was witty; he also persuaded the school to establish an arts sixth form in which he was the only student. After leaving school, he did his National Service with an Army signals unit in Austria. As Motor Transport Officer, he signed his own driving licence.

He won a scholarship to Exeter College, Oxford, where, to placate his father, he read Law, hoping it might lead on to something connected with show business. He got into student theatre, starring as the Fairy Queen in an Oxford University Dramatic Society pantomime and penning the first line a youthful Maggie Smith (playing a cinema usherette in an Edinburgh Festival revue) ever spoke on stage: “It’s my première tonight.”

He was called to the Bar by Gray’s Inn in 1955, but as he had already been offered a job by ATV, he never practised. Two years later, he moved to the BBC as director of the Tonight programme.

After directing the original That Was The Week That Was in 1962, he went on to direct its successors, Not So Much A Programme More A Way Of Life and BBC3; he also produced a range of television variety shows, panel games and musicals and won three Bafta awards.

Sherrin left the BBC for Columbia Pictures in 1966 and, over the next few years, produced 10 films, including The Virgin Soldiers (with Leslie Gilliat, 1968), The National Health (1972), Girl Stroke Boy (1971), Every Home Should Have One, starring Marty Feldman and Shelley Berman (1969), Up Pompeii and Up the Chastity Belt (both 1971), starring Frankie Howerd, whose comedy career Sherrin had helped to resuscitate on TW3.

As an author, Ned Sherrin had a long collaboration with Caryl Brahms, and together they produced many songs, three novels, two collections of short stories, a number of radio and television plays, five plays for the theatre — most notably Beecham, with Timothy West (1980) — and six musicals including I Gotta Shoe (1962-63), Sing A Rude Song (1970), Liberty Ranch (1972), Nickleby And Me (1975) and The Mitford Girls (1981).

In addition he directed five musicals, including Side By Side by Sondheim (1976) and The Ratepayer’s Iolanthe (1984) for which he won an Olivier Award.

Sherrin was a prolific writer. His autobiography, A Small Thing Like An Earthquake, was published in 1983, and he also wrote Song By Song (with Caryl Brahms, 1984), Cutting Edge (1984, with Neil Shand), Anthology Of Wit (1984), and 1956 And All That (1984, with Neil Shand).

Sherrin returned to the theatre as director of Keith Waterhouse’s Mr & Mrs Nobody, starring Judi Dench and Michael Williams, which won critical success in 1987. He directed Victor Spinetti’s one-man show, Thoughts From A Very Private Diary, and five more plays by Keith Waterhouse — Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell, starring Peter O’Toole, which broke all box office records for the Apollo Theatre; Bookends (Apollo, 1990), starring Sir Michael Hordern and Dinsdale Landen; Our Song (Apollo, 1992), and Bing Bong, starring Dennis Waterman and Patrick Mower (1999).

Among other shows, he directed Stephanie Cole in Kay Mellor’s comedy A Passionate Woman (Comedy Theatre, 1994), Julian Slade’s Salad Days (1996) and A Saint She Ain’t by Dick Vosburgh and Denis King (Apollo, 1999). He also toured with a one-man show An Evening with Ned Sherrin.

A prolific journalist, Sherrin wrote a regular gossip column for a theatre magazine and a restaurant column for the Evening Standard. He was memorial services correspondent for The Oldie and always read the obituaries columns first.

Although Sherrin made his name by satirising the “Establishment”, he was not anti-Establishment. When the novelist Ken Follett asked him to canvass for New Labour, Sherrin had to disillusion him: “I have always been a stern unbending Tory and monarchist,” he claimed.

He believed in God, but “avoided” spiritual experiences by regular attendance at church, turning up before the Communion, but after the Peace. He remained unconcerned about the Bible’s strictures on homosexuality, noting that the Good Book also forbids the eating of shellfish and pork. He was an energetic campaigner for Aids charities.

Ned Sherrin was appointed CBE in 1997

Daily Telegraph – Published – 02 Oct 2007