Across nearly 50 years working with top entertainers, from Tommy Handley to Mike Yarwood, John Ammonds is best known for producing the BBC TV Morecambe and Wise shows from 1968 to 1974. He knew that Eric and Ernie, with Eddie Braben’s scripts, were the main reasons the show’s guest-stars volunteered in droves, but recalled Morecambe acknowledging his charm and contacts: “There was a Parkinson when they were interviewed and Eric said, ‘It’s Johnny Ammonds. He gets them. Him and his moustache’.”
John Edwin Ammonds’ father was a watchmaker by trade and “a very frustrated actor” by inclination. This theatrical bent and a love of building crystal sets led young Ammonds to the BBC. He began on 10 February 1941 as a sound effects operator on 27/6 a week plus 1/6 living allowance. A month with the variety department, evacuated to Bristol, became two and a half years until he was called up into the Royal Signals.
That Bristol and Bangor experience was invaluable. “No university could give me the instruction I had in that time,” he said in 2005. “I was working with Jack Buchanan, Evelyn Laye, Robb Wilton and all these big stars… Of course, ITMA with Tommy Handley. We did that live… an incredible experience.”
Demobbed in 1947, Ammonds returned to the BBC, quickly becoming a studio manager. Keen to move up to producer, but preferring scripted comedy to Music While You Work, Ammonds got his break in 1954, with a producer vacancy in Ronnie Taylor’s North Region variety department. In Manchester, Ammonds began working with Ken Platt, Dave Morris, Harry Worth – and a young double-act called Morecambe and Wise on their radio series You’re Only Young Once. Shortly after arriving in 1954, Ammonds had also auditioned a semi-pro Mancunian comic and singer called Les Dawson, rejecting him and noting, “Badly out of tune. Quality of voice unpleasant”.
In 1958, Ammonds moved over to television. A pilot with Worth impressed head of light entertainment Eric Maschwitz and led to a networked series. The opening sequence with Worth amusing himself with his reflection in a shop window was Ammonds’ idea.
Ammonds was recording with Worth on the night that Kennedy died. A call came from London. Harold Wilson was on his way to Rusholme from North Wales. Could Ammonds stay and direct Wilson into the network tribute? He agreed and Worth asked to watch. “Harry had exactly the same type of Gannex raincoat that [Wilson] had,” Ammonds recalled. “We finished it, Harry came down the stairs with his Gannex coat, and Wilson said, ‘Thank you, Mr Worth, for bringing my coat’. Harry said, ‘Oh no, it’s mine’. Wilson said, ‘Are you sure?’. It could have come straight out of the show.”
Ammonds began working with Irish singer Val Doonican, and when Doonican’s show moved to London in 1965, Ammonds came too, joining light entertainment at BBC Television Centre. Over the next 13 years, Ammonds worked extensively with Doonican, Lulu, Dick Emery, Mike Yarwood and the comedian he’d rejected in 1954, Les Dawson. He also received the MBE in 1975 for services to broadcasting.
When Morecambe and Wise joined the BBC in 1968, Bill Cotton Jr knew Ammonds was perfect for the job. They liked to rehearse endlessly, and Ammonds was happy to put in the hours. He was also, as Braben has testified, a meticulous script editor. Moreover, he was responsible for their skipping dance, based on a step Groucho Marx had done in Horse Feathers.
The rehearsal issue might have killed one of the show’s best-loved moments if not for Ammonds standing firm. When André Previn had to miss rehearsals for the Grieg’s Piano Concerto sketch, Morecambe told Ammonds, “Sod him, we don’t want him.” Ammonds insisted. “Some younger producers would have wilted,” he suggested. “I knew it was going to be a gem.”
His care and professionalism also benefited the impressionist Mike Yarwood. When Yarwood had to play more than one person in a sketch, it would often be Ammonds – a performer like his father – supplying the missing lines, just out of shot, timed to perfection, making the edit easier.
Ammonds had handed over responsibility for Morecambe and Wise to his friend Ernest Maxin in 1974, after his wife, Winifred, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. When Morecambe and Wise moved to Thames in 1978, they wanted Ammonds. Cotton, who had lost his first wife to cancer, persuaded Ammonds that it would not be disloyal of him to take the improved Thames money to pay for Win’s care.
At Thames, Ammonds was reunited with Morecambe and Wise and Yarwood, and worked with Bernie Winters and Jim Davidson. Ammonds was always calm, but never afraid of standing up to the stars, a tendency he needed with Davidson. “We were oil and water. One morning, he was 45 minutes late and I just tore into him. ‘You’ve got the whole bloody studio waiting for you’. Mind you, he’d got the white Rolls-Royce outside and I hadn’t, which is probably why he felt powerful.”
In 1986, LWT head of entertainment, Alan Boyd, asked Ammonds to become an executive producer at the South Bank studios. Ammonds accepted, but found it unsatisfactory. “I didn’t like being an executive producer,” he explained, “I wouldn’t like anybody over my shoulder as well.” He retired in 1988, continuing to devote much of his time to caring for Win until her death in 2009.
John Edwin Ammonds MBE, radio and television producer: born Kennington, London 21 May 1924; married 1952 Winifred Laithwaite (one daughter); died Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire 13 February 2013.