A life and times in pictures

Can the image of Jess Yates be re-made? A Yorkshirewoman who was his last partner has the means to do so. Michael Hickling reports

"I never heard him refer to himself as anything other than a photographer. Right up until his death he never went far without a camera." Serena Daroubakhsh is talking about Jess Yates who she lived with for the final four years of his life.

He is now chiefly remembered as the man who was not Paula Yates's father and those with longer memories will remember his precipitate fall from grace as the religious front of British television.

Jess Yates had made his programme Stars on Sunday a national institution but his career ended overnight when his fling with a much younger woman was revealed by a Sunday tabloid.

Serena thinks her man deserves a better memorial. She may have found it in the archive of photographs which he bequeathed to her. "Not many were published in his lifetime," says Serena. "If you know him as a photographer, it is for his pictures of Paula. She had to get used to posing at an early age."

The photographs in the collection are doubly fascinating. They open a window on the world of television and of showbusiness that is quickly being forgotten. In the Fifties, many television programmes went out live and were never recorded. Jess Yates, who started out in the business as a freelance designer for the BBC, was assiduous in taking behind-the-scenes shots of the programmes in the making and of televised events like early Miss World competitions. His images are now the only record we have of them.

During this period he was also trying to make his way in films and worked on documentaries about some of the major actors of the day. This gave Yates the opportunity to take informal shots of the stars away from the usual controlling hands of the publicists. The stars were at ease with him as they sat and smoked at caf tables or pottered around sight-seeing and some of the shots he took are enchanting.

None of this came about by chance. Jess Yates was a manipulator and what the archive also reveals is the extent of his obsessive attention to detail and his determination to present reality as he chose to make it.

He regularly photographed himself with a timer but hours of preparation were required before the camera button was pressed.

"He would do a professional make-up job on himself, complete with costume, which took about six hours on average," says Serena. "Showbusiness wasn't simply his job, but his way of life. Only in transforming himself into a different person could he fully test and develop the limits of his capabilities."

His portraits were carefully thought-out scenarios with meticulous lighting schemes. "He was mischievous as well as very manipulative. Sometimes when he was photographing you, you got the feeling he was actually more interested in how he got the photographs than the photographs themselves."

Jess was born in Lancashire and had an itinerant early life with his parents until they settled in Llandudno where they bought a family hotel. Aged 10, he went on a trip with his mother and brother to the Odeon in Manchester and as soon as he saw the organist rising out of the pit knew instantly what he wanted to be.

His passion for playing the organ went hand-in-hand with his love of photography. He got started when he bought his first camera with cigarette coupons donated by his father.

At 14, and still at school, he became the youngest cinema organist in the country. Eleven years later, he was the last one still touring, travelling from Odeon to Odeon. Pictures were to be his life, though, and the organ was abandoned as he began learning the technical ropes of cinema and television, first as a designer, then as writer, producer and director. His driving ambition and relentless networking came with a price. It brought on nervous trouble which severely affected his eyesight – he had been invalided out of the Army for this disability – and he took the decision to put showbiz behind him and try another line of work where he had first-hand experience.

He bought a hotel, the Deganwy Castle Hotel, at Llandudno in Wales. If he had been hoping for a less testing occupation, he was wrong. The venture did not work out.

In 1962, he sold up and bought a six-bedroomed period house with its own wood in North Wales. From here he was scanning the job adverts, looking to return to showbiz, when he learnt that the new Yorkshire Television company which had just won the regional ITV franchise, was looking for experienced people. He applied and got the job as Head of Children's Programmes.

For YTV he proved to be the right man at the right time. Jess Yates had a fat contacts book and had spent years getting on good terms with the London agents who mattered. He was to bring glamour and the big time to the television station's headquarters in sooty Kirkstall Road in Leeds – but not until he had first grappled with the realities of small-time programme-making, revealing in the process his extraordinary range of talents and versatility.

The first piece of YTV light entertainment to go out was a puppet show that was made in the corridors of a neighbouring trouser factory. All the original YTV personnel subsequently became signed-up members of the 'Trouser Club'. In six years, he often worked 100-hour weeks, presenting, directing, writing and producing over 1,000 programmes, all of them fully networked.

Jess Yates met Serena's mother in Rhyl when she was a 17-year-old beauty contestant. Later, she moved to London where she met her future husband who came from Persia (now Iran). After marrying they went to live in Persia and returned to England when Serena was due. She was born at Bradford Royal Infirmary in 1970.

Serena recalls: "My parents were with an aunt in Ilkley and she said, 'Jess is only round the corner now. Why don't you look him up?' So they did. Then Jess came to see me in hospital when I was only a few hours old."

In the next few years Jess Yates was in his pomp. Stars on Sunday began in 1969. "He had lined up a presenter called Liz Fox to front the show but she could not do it," says Serena.

"So Jess, a technical person, decided to stand in front of the camera as the only person who knew what he was doing."

It was an inspired move. The people ready to appear with him began to read like a Who's Who of the church, politics and showbiz: the Archbishops of York and Canterbury, Prime Minister Edward Heath, Earl Mountbatten, Sir John Gielgud, Sir Ralph Richardson, Gracie Fields, Eartha Kitt, Shirley Bassey, Harry Secombe, Cliff Richard, Roy Orbison – the list goes on. The show hit a peak of 22 million viewers with the Remembrance Sunday Special in 1973 followed by the Christmas Special, just after the Queen's Speech, when Grace Kelly came out of retirement to be the guest star.

This was religion re-cast as light entertainment. As well as Bible readings from the great and the good and hymns sung by the stars, the programme also showcased young people who had never been on television and other up-and-coming talent (Jess Yates had also been the man behind Junior Showtime).

It all came to an abrupt halt on July 7, 1974 when the News of the World revealed that the middle-aged Yates (who they called "the Bishop") had been carrying on a five-year affair with 22-year-old actress Anita Kay. He was married at the time to Heller Toren, a former Bluebell Girl and actress turned author of steamy novels. For a man who took the high moral ground when he appeared in the nation's front rooms every Sunday evening on television, this behaviour seemed somewhat hypocritical.

"Jess and Heller were not living together," says Serena. "But they had done a couple of 'happy family' interviews for Titbits magazine and the TV Times, so the public perception was different."

Television bosses then were less tolerant of scandal than they are now. "He went to work the next day planning to hold a press conference, only to find they were already tearing down his office. He was smuggled out of the YTV offices in the boot of a car. After the News of the World story, he never worked in front of the cameras again."

Serena's family had remained on friendly terms with Jess Yates and she remembers visiting him at the house at Conwy in North Wales when she was 11 years old. At that point Jess and daughter Paula were not speaking. Over the following years Serena steadily got to know and like Paula who was 12 years older.

Four years before he died of a stroke in April 1993, Serena moved in. "He left everything to me. Paula disputed it. When it went to court in 1999, the court found in my favour." Even in death, scandal continued to dog his name. In 1997, Hughie Green of Opportunity Knocks, was revealed to be Paula Yates's biological father. Three years later, she was found dead at home in Notting Hill.

Serena still lives in the house Jess bought 40 years ago and reflects on those closing years. "I was an only child. My job was looking after him."

Now her job is rehabilitating his memory. She has over 40,000 images in the archive, the earliest dating from 1928, which she is steadily putting into order. Eventually she hopes that this product of a private, lifelong passion will become part of a national museum collection.

"People forget the kind of man he was," she says. "Yes, he had a terrible temper and a commitment to detail which was beyond normal. Although he had a wide social circle, he was a very private man. But he had charisma and people naturally congregated around him wherever he was and whatever he was doing. But what is he remembered for? His affair and his daughter who was not his daughter. I'd like to put that right."