Obituary: John Wilford, television executive

John Wilford, who has died at 80, was one of the architects of television news in Yorkshire, having helped to establish Calendar at the newly-formed Yorkshire Television in 1968.

By The Newsroom
Saturday, 10th October 2020, 9:35 am
John Wilford
John Wilford

He rose to become head of all local programmes in the 1970s and later oversaw YTV’s public and media presence as its first head of corporate affairs.

Among the programmes that went out on his watch was the legendary studio showdown between the football managers Brian Clough and Don Revie, in the wake of Clough’s sacking after just 44 days at Leeds. The show was reconstructed for the film, The Damned United.

Wilford later ran his own production company, Grierson Productions, and with his YTV colleague John Fairley led an audacious bid to wrest the ITV contract for the Midlands away from Lord Grade’s ATV.

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His 40-year career in television began not in news but, improbably, as an extra on The Army Game, Granada’s hugely popular national service sitcom. At 16, he found himself being bellowed at by the explosive Sgt Major Snudge (Bill Fraser) prompting letters from viewers about barrack room cruelty.

Wilford recalled later that he was paid the equivalent of about £1.25 and put up in a hotel, a treat which began a lifelong fascination with the medium.

He plotted a route into journalism at Durham University, where he read economic history and co-edited the student newspaper – experience which helped him get a holiday job as a reporter in the London office of what would become United Newspapers, whose stable included Yorkshire Post Newspapers. They offered him a traineeship on the Northampton Chronicle and Echo.

But his heart lay on the screen, and after applying for almost every job he saw advertised, he landed a reporter’s role at ATV in Birmingham.

He had a baptism of fire when, following a tip-off to the newsroom, he was sent to cover a train crash at Stechford, in which nine people died, and he remembered being convulsed by the horror of what he saw. But the job had its compensations, too, and he found himself on the ITV team covering the 1966 World Cup.

He joined Yorkshire TV when the station was set up, and was Calendar’s first news editor. But his influence on the regional output was much wider, and his credits as executive producer included such popular entries as The Indoor League with Fred Trueman, and specials on Harold Wilson, the disgraced architect John Poulson and the Yorkshire Ripper, amongst others.

His time as Head of Local Programmes came to an end when he and Fairley, the station’s controller of documentaries, resigned in pursuit of a bid to form their own station, Mercia Television, on Lord Grade’s Midlands patch. They put together a diverse consortium which included the politician Shirley Williams, cricketer Basil D’Oliveira and comedian Jasper Carrott, with Wilford and Fairley as joint managing directors.

In the event, the regulator favoured Central Television, a reconstituted ATV, for the franchise – and once the dust had settled, the two defectors were welcomed back to YTV, with Wilford now in charge of corporate affairs.

It did not stop him making programmes, however, and among them was a rare network TV outing for Radio 2’s Jimmy Young.

By the end of the 1980s, Wilford was working independently, with a slate as diverse as a series on divorce and a portrait of the rock band Def Leppard, for which his crew spent a year on tour with them.

A long-serving member of the Harrogate Dramatic Society, he also found time to write a fictionalised account of historic crimes in the Lake District, Blood on Cop Fell.

He is survived by his former wife Meryll, children, David, Victoria and Elizabeth, and seven grandchildren.