Stewart Morris & Zapata Ugland

Stewart Morris & Shirley Bassey
Stewart Morris & Shirley Bassey

Tody an article and a video about Stewart Morris and Zapata  Ugland the oil rig where recordings took place for the 1976 BBC shows. Stewart Morris died on January 10 2009 aged 78. He produced some of the best known and most innovative shows in the heyday of BBC TV light entertainment and all of Dame Shirley’s shows for the BBC.

Physically imposing and utterly fearless, Morris had a barking voice, a cutting wit, a way with talent and superb technical expertise. Above all, he was prepared to take risks. It was he who, on a live show, had the singer Susan Maugham make her entrance from the Thames in an amphibious vehicle, straight up a ramp into Riverside Studios.

More of a circus ringmaster or variety impresario than a typical corporation man, Morris none the less spent 24 happy years with the BBC, creating The Rolf Harris Show, producing numerous series and specials for Shirley Bassey, Bruce Forsyth and Sammy Davis Jr, and reviving Opportunity Knocks with Bob Monkhouse and Les Dawson. He was also behind major events such as The Royal Variety Performance, Eurovision Song Contest and the opening ceremony of the 1986 Commonwealth Games.

Stewart John Southan Morris was born in Luton on March 30 1930, the son of William Southan Morris, who owned SM Associated, a chain of cinemas. Stewart was educated at Winchester, after which he trained as an accountant and worked briefly for his father. In November 1958 he joined the BBC, serving his apprenticeship on pop shows such as Drumbeat and Juke Box Jury before beginning on the spectaculars that were to become his speciality.

His closest professional association was with the affable Australian entertainer, Rolf Harris, who had been born on the same day. Shirley Bassey was another recurring collaborator. Once, when filming for one of her shows on a North Sea oil rig, he persuaded the singer to climb into a flimsy basket, assuring her that it would be lifted no more than a few feet off the ground, camera angles giving the impression that she was high over the water. Once she was in, Bassey was swung out over the lapping waves. “We did the biggest edit job in matching the effing and blinding to the song,” he recalled in 2005. “She came back, landed, and said: ‘You dangerous bastard!’ But it looked good on the end product.”

The quality of Morris’s programmes earned him much goodwill from hard-worked crews. Although those perceived to be slacking could be expected to feel the lash of his tongue – one cameraman was told: “Listen to the music, cloth ears!” – Morris was also quick to praise. On one occasion, when told by a favoured cameraman that a shot was impossible, Morris asked: “Surely not to a man of your calibre?” The cameraman replied: “That’s how I know it’s impossible.” Morris gracefully conceded: “There’s no answer to that.”

Technical limitations were not the only problems. When Toni Warne, the child singer who won Bob Says Opportunity Knocks, sang Michael Jackson’s Ben (a love song by a small boy to his pet rat), supported by a live hamster, the rodent disgraced itself down Warne’s dress. Morris was forced to “fire” the animal, replacing it with a stuffed fox.

With the support of his friend and mentor, Bill Cotton Jr, the head of BBC light entertainment, Morris became head of variety for two successful years in the early 1970s – but he preferred studio life, and returned to production.

It was a measure of the esteem in which he was held that the normally inflexible BBC allowed him to stay on until 1992, two years past the retirement age of 60.

He was then enticed to LWT on the South Bank, where he worked until finally retiring at the age of 68.

Stewart Morris is survived by his fourth wife, Hazel (née Barry), and by four children from his second marriage.

Stewart Morris


downloadThe Zapata Ugland oil rig was built in 1974 at Beaumont Yard in Texas and was as tall as a twelve story building. The basket that Dame Shirley was filmed in was used for crew changes.

A cheerful rendition of a classic showtune has a bizarre history involving presidents, tragedy, and oil. By David Gomez (Actor, Songwriter, and Stagemom)

The last time I saw Shirley Bassey, she was proving she still had it belting out her signature tune Goldfinger at the Oscars.


But here is Dame Shirley Bassey in a strange enivernoment. She’s aboard the Zapata Ugland, an oil rig singing the hit song “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” from Gypsy as men around her toil. She struts about bringing fabulosity to a normally dreary location.

In 1976 it seemed to make sense because ecomonically things were “coming up roses” when oil was discovered in the North Atlantic. This commercial was made to celebrate the sudden boom.

But everything didn’t end in roses. On Valentines Days of 1982 the same oil rig Dame Shirley Bassey is standing on received a mayday call from a rig called the Ocean Ranger. The weather was treacherous, and  the porthole of the Ocean Ranger couldn’t withstand the waves and water entered the control room. Even with a rescue attempt from the Zapata, all 84 members of the crew perished in the disaster.

Pretty crazy right? But the truth get’s even crazier. Former President George H. W. Bush actually owned the oil rig company.

This video is a strange combination of oil, power, and tragedy all backed by a Jule Stein score. And hearing Bassey’s booming voice and stake-sy vibrato as oil flows freely creates a unique time capsule for this moment in history.

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From the George Webb collection
From the George Webb collection

6 thoughts on “Stewart Morris & Zapata Ugland”

  1. Thank you Pieter. Absolutely great archive. What a character Stewart Morris was. I would love to have been there to see when Dame Shirley walked up to him and punched him…LOL! Thank God Shirley didn’t have an accident on that rig. Great video, and thank you for the information on Stewart Morris, what a great chap.


  2. Yes Pieter, I agree with the other comments this is a great archive. As I have said before I think these shows of Shirley’s in the 70’s were the best.


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