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Sir Denis Forman

Television executive;

Born: October 13, 1917; Died: February 24, 2013.

Sir Denis Forman, who has died aged 95, was born into the Scottish landed gentry, was continually in trouble as a boy, flunked his university exams and horrified his old headmaster at Loretto by becoming a soap salesman.

That did not last long, but soap would play an important and very different role in Sir Denis's life after he joined the new commercial television station Granada in 1955. He took a direct interest in programmes such as Coronation Street and went on to become company chairman in the 1970s and 1980s.

By the time he joined Granada he had already lost a leg in the Allied invasion of Italy – blown off by his own side – and had been director of the British Film Institute. He rarely had an on-screen credit, but he was the driving force in the creation of several notable programmes, including What the Papers Say, which began on ITV in 1956 and continues as a BBC radio programme.

He believed ITV had to spend big to produce quality television and challenge the BBC's domination in serious drama and Granada set the bar at new heights with Brideshead Revisited (1981) and The Jewel in the Crown (1984).

In the early 1990s Sir Denis was part-time chairman of the Scottish Film Production Fund and there was controversy a few years later when £1million of public money was allocated to a film version of his memoirs. My Life So Far was shot on location in 1997 in Argyll, with Colin Firth as a fictionalised version of Forman's father.

John Denis Forman was born in 1917, at Craigielands, the family seat, near Moffat, in Dumfriesshire. His father was an ordained minister, but was enjoying life as a country gentleman, managing the estate that belonged to his wife's family.

Forman and his father clashed repeatedly on many issues, including religion. His father was an old-fashioned Christian, from the spare-the-rod-and-spoil-the-child school. From Sir Denis's writing and the film My Life So Far, rightly or wrongly, the father comes across as an odd mix of tyrant and buffoon.

Forman was clearly a difficult child, in one instance stealing chocolates and allowing his younger brother to be punished for it, after the brother started crying at the inquisition and the mother interpreted it as guilt.

He went to Loretto public school in Musselburgh and then Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he failed his elementary classics exams and wound up with a degree in rural economy – awarded "aegrotat", where a student is ill. He claimed the distinction of being "the only MA Cantab who had never passed any exam".

After the brief and inglorious period selling soap, he was commissioned in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders at the outbreak of the Second World War and worked closely with Lieutenant-Colonel Lionel Wigram on developing battle school training.

When the Allies invaded Italy, he and Col Wigram organised partisans to mount hit-and-run attacks on the Germans. Col Wigram was killed in action and Sir Denis lost a leg a few weeks later at Monte Cassino. He also rose to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.

After the war he worked in the film section of the Central Office of Information and at the British Film Institute, where he was responsible for the opening of the National Film Theatre in London, before joining Granada in Manchester.

It was the dawn of commercial television in Britain and Granada quickly established itself as one of the key ITV companies,.

The Jewel in the Crown was very much a personal project for Sir Denis, which he initiated after reading Paul Scott's Raj Quartet, set at the end of the British period in India.

They do not stick to a conventional linear narrative, but Sir Denis wrote out the plot chronologically on reams of paper and convinced himself it would work. It was shot on location in India and was reputedly the most expensive British television series of its type. It won Bafta, Emmy and Golden Globe awards and sold all over the world.

A similar approach fared less well during his stint as chairman of the Scottish Film Production Fund, when a large part of a limited budget was allocated to Prague (1992), a drama starring Alan Cumming, which was shot in the then Czechoslovakia.

Sir Denis wrote several books, about his life and also on classical music. In 1996 the Scottish Arts Council approved a £1 million lottery grant for a film of his first volume of memoirs Son of Adam, though essentially it was rubber-stamping a recommendation from the Scottish Film Production Fund, of which Sir Denis had been chairman just a few years earlier. It came out as My Life So Far in the US in 1999 – after prolonged testing and some reshooting, and it did fairly mediocre business. It received a limited release in the UK in 2000. The director Bill Forsyth alleged the funding system was open to charges of cronyism and it went through a major overhaul.

Forman's first wife died in 1987 and he subsequently married the widow of the Scottish journalist James Cameron. He is survived by his second wife and two sons from the previous marriage.

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