John Wilford, who rose to become head of local programmes at Yorkshire Television and was first head of corporate affairs has died at the age of 80. Friend and colleague ROBERT CHARLES pays a personal tribute.
John Wilford will always be remembered for a piece of explosive television – the confrontation between Brian Clough and Don Revie in the Yorkshire Television studios on the day of Clough’s sacking as Leeds boss in 1974.
Wilford brought the two together after commandeering a slot on the channel after News at Ten to produce a piece of TV crackling with all the animosity of a verbal fistfight. Wilford recounted with great relish how, before the interview, Revie asked for his fee in cash.
Away from prying eyes John escorted him to the nearest gents’ lavatories in the YTV building, Revie undid and dropped his trousers, crammed a crisp wad of notes into a money belt and the interview went ahead.
This was classic Wilford, courageous bravado and an ability to get to the heart of a story and make compelling television. When asked what made a good journalist he said, “stamina, a thick skin, boundless energy and an annoying habit of asking the questions people would rather you didn’t. Oh and a facility with words helps.”
For those who knew him he could be a brooding, often menacing editor in the YTV newsroom but someone who fought for his programmes and his team, from whom he attracted fierce loyalty. After giving me my start in TV with a three-month contract he extended it while looking out of the window of his office without so much as cursory eye contact.
It was no surprise that amateur dramatics was a love of his following his first professional appearance as an extra in Granada’s hit comedy “The Army Game” when he was 16 – they thought his innocent face would be the perfect foil for the ferocious sergeant major (Bill Fraser) bellowing at him.
He had a merciless, scurrilous sense of humour. When introducing a football director (who didn’t work for him) to a new member of staff he described his greatest achievement as “the man who missed a goal in the semi-final of the FA Cup at Hillsborough.”
A Lancastrian, son of Charles Wilford, eminent editor of the Lancashire Evening Post, his pathway began on the Northampton Chronicle and Echo, his aim to move into television succeeded with a role as a reporter at Associated TV in Birmingham from where he worked on the 1966 World Cup for ITV, then to the embryonic Yorkshire TV as news editor, becoming head of local programmes and after a short time away (bidding for an ITV franchise) returned as head of corporate affairs.
Programmes though were his first love. He said: “We made a film called The World’s Longest Triathlon following a team of guys who ran down England, swam the channel, cycled to Gibraltar then swam across to North Africa. That was fun but life-threatening when the captain of our little boat taking us from Gibraltar turned out to be a drug smuggler.
“He was taken off by armed coast guards and I ended up steering us through the rocks in pitch darkness to the port of Seuta. We were lucky to survive as my previous nautical experience had been taking a narrow boat along the Leeds-Liverpool canal.”
When he wasn’t doing the day job, he was writing football reports for the nationals, novels, poetry and plays. One of his last projects was a seven act play for the seven junior schools in the suburb of Leeds where he lived – each section telling the story of Horsforth from the Doomsday Book to the present day and gold medal Olympians – the Brownlee (Alastair and Jonny) brothers.
His driven and restless character inspired him to make courageous decisions leading to award winning TV programmes and be the inspiration to others with lesser talents.
He is survived by former wife Meryll, children David, Victoria and Elizabeth and seven grandchildren.