Allan John McKeown

Tribute Home Notes Ian La Frenais Remembers Allan McKeown


Ian La Frenais Remembers Allan McKeown

Posted by Al P
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at 07:58 pm on December 31, 2013

Allan McKeown obituary

Television and stage producer known for Auf Wiedersehen, Pet and Birds of a Feather

Anthony Hayward and Ian La Frenais

Tuesday 31 December 2013

Allan McKeown, centre, with Chris Young, left, and Graham Chapman on location on Jake's Journey, 1987. Photograph: Chris Barham/Associated News/Rex

The television producer Allan McKeown, who has died aged 67 of prostate cancer, created the groundbreaking Witzend Productions with the sitcom writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais and had hits on both sides of the Atlantic. It was one of the earliest independent production companies outside the British broadcasting establishment to find success within it.

A prime example of Witzend's attempts to push the boundaries of the medium – and McKeown's credit as executive producer – was Auf Wiedersehen, Pet (1983-86). The series, about a group of itinerant British builders in Germany – developed by Clement and La Frenais from an idea by Franc Roddam – went beyond the sitcom format to become one of the first in the comedy-drama genre.

ITV at first had no plans to make a second series but backtracked when up to 13 million viewers tuned in. The 1986 run caught up with the characters back in Britain, then regrouped them on a building site in Spain. Both series benefited from strong acting performances, good writing, three-dimensional characters and believable situations.

Following a string of other television successes, McKeown was involved in furthering the US career of his wife, the comedy actor Tracey Ullman, whom he had married in 1983. He was executive producer of the special Tracey Takes on New York (1993), which was followed by the Emmy award-winning series Tracey Takes On … (1996-99), with Ullman tackling various topics and playing a variety of characters. Later, they made the sketch show State of the Union (2008-10) together.

McKeown was born in London, where his father was a bricklayer (later a clerk of works when the family moved to Hainault, Essex) and mother a hairdresser. On leaving Beal grammar school, Ilford, he joined the Vidal Sassoon salon in Bond Street as an apprentice ladies' hairdresser. In 1966 he opened his own salon, where his clients included the Beatles, Jean Shrimpton, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. He also worked as a hair stylist on films including If … (1968) and Get Carter (1971, starring Michael Caine).

The bright lights rubbed off on McKeown and, in 1970, he joined the James Garratt agency as a producer of commercials, becoming managing director a year later. He set up a similar company, Pembridge Productions, in 1974 and established an American base with it in 1976.

Three years later, with his friends Clement and La Frenais, McKeown founded Witzend

Productions. They produced To Russia With Elton, with the writers directing this documentary film about Elton John's 1979 tour – the first by a western pop act in Russia. The trio also made Porridge (1979), a film version of Clement and La Frenais's popular television sitcom.

Allan McKeown with his wife Tracey Ullman in 2008. Photograph: Sipa Press/REX

Before the 1982 launch of Channel 4 provided the first chance for independent companies to make programmes in large numbers, Witzend was getting commissions from ITV, starting with the sitcoms The Other 'Arf (1980-84), Astronauts (1981) and Dead Ernest (1982), and Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran's comedy-drama Shine on Harvey Moon (1982-85, 1995). After further sitcoms – Roll Over Beethoven (1985-86), Mog (1985-86) and Girls on Top (1985-86) – McKeown had a major success with Marks and Gran's Birds of a Feather (1989-93). Witzend also made Lovejoy (1986-94), starring Ian McShane as a roguish antiques dealer.

In 1986, Witzend had bought SelecTV, which became its parent company. Two years later, it launched the Marks and Gran subsidiary Alomo – producer of Love Hurts (1992-94) and Goodnight Sweetheart (1993-99) – before being sold to Pearson in 1996 for £51m. McKeown was also a founder of Meridian, which won the ITV south and south east franchise in 1993. After his wife found fame in the US, McKeown and Ullman spent most of their time in America. McKeown became the first Briton to produce for all the three big American networks and as well as starring in her own shows, Ullman was heard as the Telephone Voice in the India call-centre sitcom Mumbai Calling (2007-08), made by his newly founded company Allan McKeown Presents

… McKeown also had success with stage musicals: he co-produced Jerry Springer – The Opera (2003) for the National Theatre and Lennon (2005) at the Broadhurst theatre, New York.

He is survived by Ullman and their children, Mabel and Johnny.

Anthony Hayward

Ian La Frenais writes: I first got to know Allan on a film set. It was in Oban on the west coast of Scotland and it was cold and wet and he was the unit hairdresser. He wasn't his usual ebullient self, having to deal with two problems. One was our leading lady, who was never quite happy about the way Allan styled her hair; the other was suffering from the effects of surgery for piles only two weeks previously. So you could say that he was trying to cope with two pains in the ass at the same time.

He had started that career as an apprentice in the Vidal Sassoon salon in Mayfair. He was really called John McKeown but Vidal already had a John and gave him his new name. Allan was chummy, laddish, a chancer, a flirt and very, very funny. And his ambitions went far beyond a pair of scissors or even his own salon. To my amazement he was suddenly in advertising, producing commercials for a leading London company. I always felt whatever Allan was doing was a stepping stone to the next thing. He was extremely ambitious and self-confident, but he loved having creative people around him.

Our first venture together was the film of Porridge, which Allan and I produced, and Dick Clement directed. Chelmsford prison in January; Dick, wearing what looked like an Afghan warlord's coat in freezing weather. Which was when Allan explained to me that the difference between producing and directing was that, in conditions like this, the producers went to lunch, somewhere warm with a good wine list.

Three months later we were all in the cold war Soviet Union making a film of Elton John's tour, where Allan spent considerable time trying to seduce our KGB handler, Natasha. Not sure if he succeeded, but if so the result will almost certainly be preserved on film, as all our bedrooms had cameras in the chandeliers.

For years after, the three of us were partners in Witzend Productions, with an office in Hollywood and another in Soho. LA was party central in the 70s and we did our share. Allan had a Rolls-Royce for a while but he didn't have a licence to drive it after being arrested for not pulling over for three ambulances and a fire engine. He was probably working on a deal.

America never really panned out for us, but in the UK, Allan was on a tear and, during the 80s and 90s, Witzend or SelecTV was a fantastic place with which to be associated. Under Allan and the producer Tony Charles, an amazing roster of shows was produced, and a stable of writers created, including Dick and myself, and our brilliant and prolific mainstays, Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, always, affectionately, known as Lo and Mo.

Allan's energy and enthusiasm infected us all and the office in Derby Street was always buzzing. Script meetings, casting, pitches, seminars and spitballing weekend retreats in country hotels. And it was fun, enormous fun. Allan wheeled and dealed and made believers of everyone. He was the ringmaster, our Mister Kite. And his secretary, Hazel, was our girl Friday, her desk an oasis of calm among all the raucous rivalries and competing egos. I have never worked in that atmosphere before or since, until Allan and Tracey asked Dick and me to come on board with her HBO series Tracey Takes On …

Allan and Tracey met on a Witzend pilot at Elstree studios. It didn't become a series, but they became an item. I was their best man when they were married in Los Angeles in 1983. Allan, with a wife, and very soon children, became a different man. Family life gave him stability and balance and he was a devoted husband and father.

He and I fell out when we revived Auf Wiedersehen, Pet in 2002 and didn't speak for some years. We made our peace, eventually, thank God. We were like one of those married couples who divorce then remarry years later. Our friendship had deepened and, I think, made us both more appreciative of what made us friends in the first place.

My inbox and voicemail are full of messages expressing sadness and devastated reactions to Allan's death, a true measure of how people loved him in life. Bon voyage, my friend, and thank you for the love, loyalty and lunacy. If you somehow get the chance to read this, I'm sure there will be only one question on your lips: "Is there a series?"

• Allan John McKeown, television and stage producer, born 21 May 1946; died 24 December 2013

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