The son of scriptwriter Jack Davies, who largely specialised in comedy (Norman Wisdom, some of the Doctor films), John Howard Davies followed in his father's footsteps by working in television comedy, albeit as a producer and occasional director.
Davies found fame as a child actor, making his debut as David Lean's Oliver Twist (1948). Three other films followed: The Rocking Horse Winner (d. Anthony Pelissier, 1949), Tom Brown's Schooldays (d. Gordon Parry, 1951) and The Magic Box (d. John Boulting, 1951), before Davies left acting behind to pursue an education.
Before entering television, he held a variety of positions: City clerk, carpet salesman, lubricating oil salesman; he even briefly returned to acting in Australia, where he finally decided that it was not for him. Joining the BBC as a production assistant in 1966, he was promoted to the position of a full-fledged producer in 1968.
The first programme on which Davies worked appears to have been the second series of A. P. Herbert's 'Misleading Cases' (BBC, 1967-71), wittily scripted (by assorted writers) and acted (by Alastair Sim and Roy Dotrice) adaptations of the author's gently satirical tales centred on the complexities of the British legal system. Davies went on to produce the third and final series of this unjustly neglected comedy gem in 1971.
Davies' work over the following few years included The World of Beachcomber (BBC, 1968-69), starring Spike Milligan, the popular religious-themed sitcom All Gas and Gaiters (BBC, 1966-71), between 1968 and 1971, and As Good Cooks Go (BBC, 1970), an attempt at a sitcom for the larger than life Tessie O'Shea, and Davies' first failure.
One of his major contributions to television comedy - if not all comedy - was his production, with Ian MacNaughton, of the first four episodes of Monty Python's Flying Circus (BBC, 1969-74), after which MacNaughton took sole control. Davies followed this with the first two series of another classic of its period, The Goodies (BBC, 1970-80). It was during Davies' tenure that the programme won the Silver Rose of Montreux with the episode 'Kitten Kong' (tx. 9/4/1972, refashioned after an earlier episode).
After producing the 1972 series of Steptoe and Son (BBC, 1962-74), followed by the limp Frankie Howerd series Whoops Baghdad (BBC, 1973), Davies left the BBC to become managing director of EMI Television Productions. This was clearly an unsatisfying move, for he returned to the BBC within a year, for an impressive spell in which he produced the entire run of The Good Life (BBC, 1975-78) and the first series of what is widely considered Britain's best ever sitcom, Fawlty Towers (BBC, 1975; 1979). He became Head of Comedy at the BBC in 1978, the programmes launched under his reign including Yes Minister (1980-84), Not the Nine O'Clock News (1979-82), and Only Fools and Horses (1981- ) .
He was promoted again in 1982, becoming Head of Light Entertainment. However, he was apparently eager to return to hands-on comedy production, and, despite ITV's comparatively poor track record in sitcom, he left the BBC in 1985 to join Thames Television as a producer. In 1987, however, he returned to the executive fold as Head of Light Entertainment at Thames.
Nothing that emerged from his years at Thames can be compared to the quality of comedy that he produced at the BBC. Andy Capp (ITV, 1988), starring James Bolam as Reg Smythe's Daily Mirror cartoon strip character, was a particular disappointment, despite scripts by Keith Waterhouse. He launched the popular Mr. Bean (1990-95). After Henry (1988-92), an adaptation of a BBC radio series, starring Prunella Scales and Joan Sanderson, also has its admirers.
By the mid-1990s, Davies had returned to the BBC. He directed a special Easter 1996 episode of The Vicar of Dibley (1994-98), followed later by the three-part comic drama Armadillo (2001), adapted by William Boyd from his own novel.