Former controller of BBC2

Born: September 14, 1929;

Died: December 6, 2019.

MICHAEL Peacock, who has died of cancer aged 90, was a television executive who brought Britain’s first minority channel to viewers in 1964 as controller of BBC2. In its first year, he introduced Match of the Day and The Likely Lads sitcom. Their popularity meant they were soon moved to the mass-audience BBC1.

Peacock had made his name at the BBC as a producer, then editor, of another TV institution, Panorama. In its early days, he helped to steer its path as an authoritative current affairs series with the highly respected presenter Richard Dimbleby at its helm and Robin Day and Ludovic Kennedy among its reporters.

He brought some levity to the serious issues when, in 1957, he green-lighted an April Fools’ Day hoax – a spaghetti harvest in Switzerland, with women filmed apparently picking the “crop” from trees. Dimbleby delivered his commentary deadpan over the three-minute film and some of the eight million viewers, seeing pasta as an exotic delicacy at the time, jammed the BBC switchboard either to question the authenticity of the report or ask how they could grow spaghetti trees.

Peacock became editor of BBC television news (1961-63) with a remit to fight back against ITV, launched in 1955, with news programmes offering personality “newscasters”, greater flair and less deference to those in authority. But he made news with one of his first decisions, sacking Nan Winton, the BBC’s first female national TV newsreader, in March 1961 after audience research deemed women presenting the news was “not acceptable”.

Launching BBC2 as chief of programmes three years later was a challenge and a learning curve. His idea of themed evenings every day of the week bombed, but he soon found a way to make the channel a genuine alternative to its rivals. So powerful was the 26-part documentary, The Great War (1964), an early example of a co-production – between the BBC, the Australian Broadcasting Commission, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the Imperial War Museum – that it attracted eight million viewers when repeated on BBC1.

It was a similar story for one of his last commissions, The Forsyte Saga (1967), a 26-part adaptation of John Galsworthy’s novels about a wealthy late-Victorian British family. Up to 18 million watched repeats on BBC1.

Peacock’s own switch to that channel as its controller in 1965 was a natural career progression but he resigned two years later to become managing director of new ITV franchise holder, London Weekend Television. With other BBC defectors such as David Frost and Frank Muir, and theatre director Peter Hall, Peacock promised highbrow productions, but the company’s first night in 1968 was hit by a blackout as a result of striking technicians and good ratings failed to materialise. Eventually, in September 1969, he was sacked. Six fellow executives resigned in support of him and the LWT dream was over.

He then spent several years in London and California with Warner Bros Television, but the rest of his career was mainly spent making training films for Video Arts, the business he formed in 1972 with John Cleese, Antony Jay and Peter Robinson. Peacock, who was made an OBE in 2005, is survived by his wife Daphne Lee, and their children, Adam, Caspar and Emma.