Paul Stewart Laing obituary
The Guardian
10 February 2023
Paul Stewart Laing
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Television producer and director behind such popular 1970s shows as Celebrity Squares and New Faces

Paul Stewart Laing, who has died aged 83, was a producer and director of popular TV light entertainment shows in the 1970s featuring stars such as Bob Monkhouse, Dickie Henderson and Tom O'Connor.

His biggest success, hosted by Monkhouse, was Celebrity Squares (1975-79), ITV's version of the American game show Hollywood Squares. Two members of the public battled to win big money by playing noughts and crosses on a giant "board", with boxes populated by showbiz personalities answering general-knowledge questions. The contestants' task was to judge the truth of the answers from celebs including Willie Rushton, Frank Carson and Pat Coombs.

Whereas the American version ran daily, Celebrity Squares was a weekly show that needed a climax. When a light-bulb moment came to Laing, he phoned Monkhouse and said: "We'll ask a question that requires nine answers." Naming nine kings of England was one example and each show ended in this way, with contestants either playing for an additional £100 or risking everything for £1,000.

Viewers might have been forgiven for thinking that Rushton was the wittiest of the celebrities, but Laing revealed that the answers to the questions were not of their own creation. "There was a guy called Dennis Berson," he said in a 2010 interview with the TV historian Chris Perry. "He was a writer and he was really the genius behind lots of the gags on Celebrity Squares."

The game show, made by the Midlands-based ITV company ATV, was the second on which Laing worked with Monkhouse. He had previously been a camera operator on The Golden Shot (1967-75) when it was fronted by Monkhouse, and then by Norman Vaughan.

Laing's other success at ATV was the talent show New Faces. When it began in 1973, he directed some episodes, but within 12 months was co-producing them. Les Dennis, Victoria Wood, the pop group Showaddywaddy and the future Emmerdale star Malandra Burrows were among the contestants during his time on the programme, before he switched to Celebrity Squares. Lenny Henry was also invited to appear on New Faces after Laing saw him in a club.

He left Celebrity Squares in 1978 before its final run to work as a freelance for Thames Television, where he produced and directed the ITV variety show Wednesday at Eight in 1978 and two series (1979-80) of London Night Out, with both programmes hosted by O'Connor.

He also directed dozens of episodes of This Is Your Life between 1980 and 1983, and was instrumental in Douglas Bader being featured. Bewildered that the second world war flying ace was listed in the show's "black book" of personalities whose families had indicated they did not want their famous relative included, he approached a relative of Bader and was told there were no longer any objections.

Paul was born in Hitchin, Hertfordshire, to Philomena (nee Clancy) and Geoffrey Stewart Laing, an RAF electrical engineer who was appointed MBE for his contribution to the Valiant, Vulcan and Victor bomber programmes. The family moved around Britain and Paul attended Bishop Wordsworth's school, Salisbury, before studying at Aston Technical College, Birmingham.

After failing his second-year exams, he went through jobs with GEC and other Birmingham firms before joining Alpha Television, a production company formed by ATV and its fellow ITV franchise holder ABC, as a camera operator in 1961. He worked on programmes such as the pop music show Thank Your Lucky Stars (1961-66), Emergency – Ward 10 (1957-67) and Crossroads (which started in 1964). He was also the ACTT technicians' union shop steward at ATV and vice-president at national level during a two-week ITV strike in 1968.

Among Laing's first programmes when he switched to directing in 1973 were episodes of The Mike and Bernie Show, starring the Winters brothers.

As producer-director, his other collaborations with Monkhouse included the ITV special Summer Night Out (1976) and three series of the variety show I'm Bob, He's Dickie (1977-78), also starring Henderson. When Laing moved from Birmingham to London, his family became the first in their street to own a microwave – a housewarming present from Monkhouse. "Bob became almost like one of the family," said Laing.

At Thames Television he produced the feature-length special The Likes of Sykes (1980), starring Eric Sykes. As a freelance, he also directed the BBC series Barbara's World of Horses and Ponies (1981), with Barbara Woodhouse, and programmes for ITV's Plymouth-based company TSW from 1984 before joining the staff the following year.

He was promoted to head of features in 1986, then deputy director of programmes and, from 1989 until the station lost its ITV franchise in 1992, controller of programmes. Those he commissioned included the animations Mother Goose Stories (1988), produced by the Jim Henson Organisation, and Tube Mice (1988-89) and Frootie Tooties (1992), from the Devon-based Honeycomb Animation. He ruffled a few feathers – although was applauded by some critics – when he dropped the networked sitcom The Nineteenth Hole (1989), written by Johnny Speight and starring Sykes, in the region after just three episodes, deeming it to be racist.

In 1966, Laing married Julia Harris; they later separated and she died in 1993. He is survived by his partner of 36 years, Margaret Ellis, by the children, James, Jemima, Emily-Jane and Paul, from his marriage, and by his sister, Sheila.

Paul Stewart Laing, producer, director and television executive, born 16 November 1939; died 29 January 2023