John Howard Davies, BBC comedy producer and former child actor, dies at 72

John Howard Davies, a wistful child actor of British movie dramas, memorable as the title orphan of “Oliver Twist,” who became a comedy director and producer who nurtured such enduring programs as “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” and “Fawlty Towers,” died Aug. 22 at his home in Blewbury, England.

He was 72 and had cancer, his son William Davies told the Associated Press.

(Washington Post File) - John Howard Davies in the title role of ‘Oliver Twist’ as filmed in England by David Lean and Ronald Neame.

Mr. Davies, the son of a film critic and screenwriter, was 8 when a family friend, director David Lean, hired the boy to star in his 1948 version of “Oliver Twist.”

Lean described the actor as a “pale, angelic-looking lad, with large expressive eyes.” He proved an ideal Oliver for his adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel about an orphan boy who becomes a pickpocket under the tutelage of abusive masters Fagin (Alec Guinness) and Bill Sikes (Robert Newton).

Writing in the New York Times, reviewer Bosley Crowther called “Oliver Twist” “a superb piece of motion picture art and, beyond doubt, one of the finest screen translations of a literary classic ever made.”

He added of Mr. Davies: “All of the poignancy, courage and humor of the famous orphan are projected by him.”

Mr. Davies starred in another grim but well-received production, “The Rocking Horse Winner” (1949), based on a D.H. Lawrence story about a child tormented by his parents’ arguments over money.

Mr. Davies’s final leading role was in “Tom Brown’s Schooldays” (1951), set in an English boys’ school. He appeared in “The Magic Box” (1951), starring Robert Donat.

Just as quickly as he rose to stardom, Mr. Davies vanished from the screen. He finished his formal education and joined BBC Television’s production team in the late 1960s.

In 1969, he produced and directed several of the early episodes of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” the anarchically ridiculous, often surreal sketch-comedy series. He worked on such skits as “Owl-Stretching Time.”

David Morgan’s history of the show quoted “Python” alumnus Michael Palin calling Mr. Davies a “nice man” and “responsive to our ideas” but someone who “represented the most conventional, conservative side of BBC comedy.”

Another “Python” alum, John Cleese, told Morgan that Mr. Davies was “a very, very good judge of comedy. He wasn’t a tremendously verbal person, but his instincts were extraordinarily good, and he was very good at casting.”

In 1975, Mr. Davies and Cleese collaborated on “Fawlty Towers,” a farce set at a dowdy English seaside hotel that is widely regarded as one of the most accomplished comedies ever made. “Fawlty Towers” starred Cleese as an unspeakably rude, incompetent, quick-to-rage hotelier, Basil Fawlty, who is besieged by his dominating wife, Sybil (Prunella Scales), and constantly threatening to deport his doltish Spanish waiter, Manuel (Andrew Sachs).

Mr. Davies produced and directed six of the 12 shows in the series and played a central role in hiring Scales. Cleese was considering another actress for the role but later said the choice of Scales was better.

Mr. Davies was often asked to explain Basil’s strange appeal to viewers. In an interview with the London newspaper the Independent, Mr. Davies said Cleese wanted the character to be “a failed Hitler, no power but with all the characteristics. Basil is a kind of madman, unwilling to accept the facts. I think there is a bit of Basil in all of us, especially if male.”

John Howard Davies was born in London on March 9, 1939. After navy service, he spent a period as a carpet salesman and acted in Australia before moving into television production.

A complete list of survivors was unavailable, but they include his wife, Linda, and two children.

Mr. Davies served as BBC’s head of comedy from 1977 to 1982 and then as head of light entertainment until 1985. During that period, he oversaw production of numerous comedy favorites, including the political satire “Yes Minister” and “Only Fools and Horses.”

He left the broadcasting corporation for Thames Television, where he rose to controller of light entertainment. In 1989, he fired the raunchy, slapstick TV star Benny Hill, whose girl-chasing comedy sketches brought him a worldwide audience for decades.

“The show was past its sell-by date,” Mr. Davies told the Guardian newspaper. “Benny was all right when he was young, but when you’re in your 60s, it’s a slightly different matter to leer at a pretty girl.”

Mr. Davies replaced the Hill program with Rowan Atkinson’s comedy series “Mr. Bean,” about an alternately endearing and obnoxious oddball with a foghorn voice. Mr. Davies directed and produced several episodes of the popular show.