Sydney Lotterby, who has died aged 93, was a prolific producer and director of many classic television sitcoms, including Porridge, Open All Hours and Yes Minister.
While he modestly passed off his part in the success of such an incredible roster of popular programmes as “absolute luck”, it was also down to spotting a good script, as with Prisoner and Escort, the 1973 pilot for Porridge, written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, which he regarded as “so clever”.
The script featured Ronnie Barker’s “old lag” Norman Fletcher, a habitual criminal, being transferred by train from Brixton to Slade prison, in the wilderness of Cumbria (then Cumberland), accompanied by two prison officers, the gullible Mr Barrowclough (played by Brian Wilde) and his senior, the belligerent Mr Mackay (Fulton Mackay).
Having directed the pilot, Lotterby also produced the subsequent series, which ran from 1974 to 1977. His original doubts about whether a prison-based comedy would stretch to more than one programme were alleviated on reading the scripts. “A director’s job, and an actor’s, is easy when you receive quality scripts because all you’re doing is interpreting something you know is right,” he told the author Richard Webber.
Nevertheless, Lotterby’s interpretation made an important contribution. Recalling an episode with just one set, featuring only Fletcher and his naive cellmate, Lennie Godber (Richard Beckinsale), Clement said: “He found every possible way to shoot two people in a small cell. He shot it brilliantly and never missed a trick.” Lotterby was also instrumental in casting Beckinsale as Godber after seeing him in other sitcoms.
Clement’s respect for Lotterby had begun a decade earlier when his first sitcom with La Frenais, The Likely Lads (1964-66), went into production. Clement had just completed a BBC directors’ course and was given the task of directing it himself after two others fell by the wayside, with Lotterby assigned as associate producer to give him any support needed.
Shortly afterwards he was given an oblique footnote in the history of popular culture when a pre-Monty Python John Cleese immortalised him in “The Four Sydney Lotterbies”, a classic sketch he scripted with Marty Feldman, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Graham Chapman for the 1967 satirical programme At Last the 1948 Show – simply because he liked the name.
The performers played four people who all speak with the same accent and are present or past “wholesale greengrocers”. Such was Cleese’s fascination with the name that he used it again, for Robert Lindsay’s character, when he wrote the 1997 film Fierce Creatures.
After The Likely Lads, Lotterby went on to produce, from 1969 to 1975, most of The Liver Birds’ original run, also directing many episodes of the Carla Lane sitcom about two chalk-and-cheese Liverpool flatmates, originally played by Polly James and Pauline Collins, with Nerys Hughes and Elizabeth Estensen later featuring. It brought the swinging 60s into the 70s, with the fashions of the time and a message of women’s independence.
Lotterby was less enthusiastic about being assigned in 1978 to the third series of Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em, written by Raymond Allen and starring Michael Crawford as the hapless Frank Spencer, after its first producer and director, Michael Mills, moved to ITV. This time the star was more in control of the storylines and Lotterby failed to appreciate the slapstick humour.
“I didn’t like the physical comedy,” he said. “I prefer more character-based comedy, like Last of the Summer Wine and Porridge. When you are doing special effects, if it goes wrong, you have to do it all over again and the day may be wasted. The pressure is incredible.”
He was happier with his run as producer of Last of the Summer Wine between 1976 and 1983. Roy Clarke’s gentle story of three carefree old men in a West Yorkshire town in the shadow of the Pennines had begun in 1973 and Lotterby joined it for the third series, which reunited him with Wilde, who was beginning his run as Foggy Dewhurst, alongside Peter Sallis as Clegg and Bill Owen as Compo. This injection of new blood on the production and acting side revitalised the sitcom and gave it a regular triumvirate of eccentrics at its core for the next nine years.
Among other classic sitcoms produced and directed by Lotterby were Clarke’s Open All Hours (1976-85), starring Barker as a miserly, stuttering Doncaster corner shopkeeper and David Jason as his assistant seemingly living in a bygone age, and, very much set in the modern world, the first series of Yes Minister (1980) and the entire run of its sequel, Yes, Prime Minister (1986-88), Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn’s disconcerting insight into the machinations of government and the power of civil servants.
Sydney was born in Paddington, London, to Winifred (nee Warren) and Sidney Lotterby, a shopfitter, and grew up in Edgware, Middlesex. In 1941, on leaving Stag Lane school at 14, he joined the BBC as a storekeeper in the electrical department at Broadcasting House, then worked in BBC radio’s sound control room until joining the army in 1946. While at Catterick garrison, he taught radio theory and ballroom dancing, one of the great loves of his life.
Returning to the BBC on demob in 1948, Lotterby became a junior camera operator in television. By 1957, after a spell as technical manager, he was a production manager. Three years later he started directing, first assigned to two episodes in the final series of Charlie Drake’s eponymous sitcom. He had a chance to get more sitcom experience as a director with two actor-writer legends, Eric Sykes in Sykes and a… between 1962 and 1964, then Alan Bennett in On the Margin (1966).
After becoming a producer, Lotterby’s other sitcoms included Jimmy Perry’s The Gnomes of Dulwich (1969), Lane’s The Last Song (1981-83) and Butterflies (various episodes from 1980 to 1983), the Porridge sequel Going Straight (1978), Clarke’s The Magnificent Evans (1984), with Barker again, John Esmonde and Bob Larbey’s Ever Decreasing Circles (launching it in 1984) and Brush Strokes (again, for the first series, 1986), Paul Mendelson’s May to December (the first two runs, 1989-90) and Larbey and Colin Bostock-Smith’s As Time Goes By (1992-2005).
In addition to being presented with four Bafta awards for his programmes, Lotterby received the academy’s special award in 2007. He was appointed OBE in 1995.
In 1997, Lotterby married Marcia Dos Santos, who survives him.
• Sydney Warren Lotterby, television producer and director, born 30 November 1926; died 28 July 2020.