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Rushton, William (1937-1996)

Actor, Writer, Presenter

Main image of Rushton, William (1937-1996)

Willie Rushton - he once said he was Willie on the BBC, William on ITV - is generally identified with the 'satire boom' of the early 1960s as a regular on That Was the Week That Was (BBC, 1962-63) and a co-founder of Private Eye magazine. But he is fondly remembered as an exponent of a more genial, specifically English tradition, of the surreal and ribald protruding from a patrician surface.

Corpulent, and bearded from the late 1960s onwards, Rushton was born in Chelsea on 18th August 1937, and educated at Shrewsbury, where he set up a satirical magazine with schoolmates Richard Ingrams and Christopher Booker, establishing the partnership which led, in 1961, to Private Eye. Rushton was cartoonist and layout artist, as well as contributing jokes.

By his own admission, he was miscast as co-host of TW3's critically lambasted successor Not So Much a Programme, More a Way of Life (BBC, 1964-65), and soon left. As co-presenter of The New Stars and Garters (Rediffusion, 1965-66), he began a shift towards more mainstream entertainment. His last assignment in the satire skein, Up Sunday (BBC, 1972-73), had little impact.

He seemed uncomfortable in his split-second appearances as Plautus in Up Pompeii (BBC, 1970), and was subsequently dropped. But his storytelling stints on Jackanory (BBC, 1965-96) were much enjoyed, and he made regular appearances on panel games and as a reliable, spontaneously funny chat show guest. His one straight television role was in the Colditz episode 'The Guests' (BBC, 28/1/1974).

In films, he had a pleasant cameo in Nothing but the Best (d. Clive Donner, 1964), and acted alongside childhood favourites Robert Morley and Terry-Thomas in Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (d. Ken Annakin, 1965). Mostly he had unworthy cameos, as in Adventures of a Plumber's Mate (d. Stanley Long, 1978), as a last-minute replacement for a drunk-on-set Jimmy Edwards.

Deserving re-assessment are The Beard (d. Ian Emes, 1978), an unnerving animated short, and The Trap Door (ITV, 1985), a children's series. Both proved he had a vocal versatility beyond what Michael Palin termed "his comic colonel's voice".

In an LBC radio interview in 1994, he complained that there now seemed no room for him on television's many channels, whereas he had never been off it when there were only two. He was happier on stage, and in radio's I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue. He died suddenly, during a heart operation, on 11th December 1996. Army of Innocents (BBC, 2/4/1997), a documentary about National Service, was shown posthumously.

Gavin Gaughan

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Alice in Label Land (1974)Alice in Label Land (1974)

Animated Lewis Carroll characters explain new food labelling regulations

Thumbnail image of That Was the Week That Was (1962-63)That Was the Week That Was (1962-63)

Groundbreaking and controversial BBC satirical programme

Thumbnail image of This Week 416: Satire Boom, The (1963)This Week 416: Satire Boom, The (1963)

A report on early 1960s satire, interviewing many key participants

Thumbnail image of Up Pompeii! (1970)Up Pompeii! (1970)

Ancient Rome sitcom starring Frankie Howerd

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