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News & Views

Ignorance is power

In the 1950s, Beryl Vertue was a secretary.

One day, an old school friend said he needed someone to do his typing, would she work for him?

His name was Alan Simpson and he worked with a bloke called Ray Galton.

They were trying to do sitcom scripts to sell to the BBC.

She went along for the interview and there were two other young writers there as well.

They were Eric Sykes and Spike Milligan.

All four writers interviewed her and they offered her the job.

But the job meant a long trolleybus ride every day.

She didn’t really want such a long commute, so she thought she’d price herself out of it.

She asked for more than secretaries were getting then: £10 a week.

The four writers said “Well that’s £2.10 shillings each, we can afford that, okay.”

So she started work for what would become four of the greatest comedy writers in Britain.

Because she was earning so much she felt she should do whatever she was asked.

And because they were all creative, they were very disorganised.

For instance, Alan Simpson had to negotiate a contract with the BBC.

He didn’t want to do it, so he sent her along to do it for him.

She didn’t know anything about negotiating contracts.

But she thought, with simple logic and honesty nothing should be too difficult.

She said “I don’t play games. You have to decide in this business what is your way of working. My way is to be truthful.”

And she negotiated such a good contract that the other writers asked her to do theirs too.

So, without knowing what the job entailed, she became their agent.

And, when other writers and comedians heard how good she was, they wanted her as their agent too.

People like Johnny Speight, Frankie Howerd, and Tony Hancock.

They even began asking her advice on their work.

And again, without knowing anything about script writing, she just gave her honest opinion.

She said “How do I tell if something is funny? If I laugh.

I figure I’m not that extraordinary and if I laugh then other people will too.”

And her ability to spot what was funny, and help turn it into a success, meant that everyone wanted her working on their ideas.

And she became a producer.

And she produced some of the finest sitcoms on British TV.

But that probably isn’t the thing that she’s most famous for.

She was the first person to go to the USA to negotiate the sale of UK television comedy to America.

She didn’t know anything about how to do this.

In fact no one did, because it had never been done before.

She said “When I first went to America, I was talking to someone about a script and I said that the middle part did not work but
that I knew how to fix it.

Afterwards this person came up to me and said ‘What’s all this honesty angle of yours?’

I had not thought about honesty being an angle before.

He thought it was shocking.”

Since Beryl Vertue pioneered it, selling UK television comedy to the USA is now standard practice.

In fact it’s become essential to the health of the entire independent production sector.

In 2000 she was awarded the OBE for services to television.

In 2004 she was awarded a BAFTA.

In 2012 she was awarded the Royal Television Society’s lifetime achievement award.

Over her career, she’s managed some of the best talent in the business.

She’s negotiated some of the toughest deals in the business.

She’s produced some of the best work in the business.

What was her advantage?

What did she know that no one else knew?

Well, she says herself that ignorance was her advantage.

She didn’t know what everyone else knew.

So she didn’t know all the things that other people thought couldn’t be done.

“It’s terribly important not to know too many rules. If you know rules and obstacles you spend a lot of time dealing with them.

If you don’t know there’s a rule you just do it.”

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