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.
In the history of British popular music, the record producer Hugh Mendl’s name deserves to be spoken of in the same breath as George Martin’s. Although more of an old-fashioned artists and repertoire man than a studio wizard, Mendl was, among many achievements, responsible for Lonnie Donegan’s Decca recording of “Rock Island Line”, without which the Beatles-to-be and many other future legends might never have picked up a guitar.
Mendl was born in 1919 in London, and educated at Radley and University College, Oxford, where he read History. He was expected to join the Diplomatic Corps, which he “wasn’t looking forward to very much”. However, he spent more time listening to jazz than studying, and a chance hearing of a McKenzie & Condon’s Chicagoans record from a study window made him realise that music was his future. In 1939, with war looming, he regarded “plodding away in the hope of getting a good degree [as] bloody silly”. His loss of interest in his studies resulted in rustication, and he went to work as a 10-shilling-a-week post boy at the Decca Record Company, of which his grandfather was chairman.
In 1929, Sir Sigismund Mendl, a professional City gent, had chosen a seat on Decca’s board ahead of a directorship of Smith’s Crisps because Lady Mendl regarded the frying of potatoes as a matter for the servants. His grandson’s request for a job was not received well. In 2002, Mendl explained that it was as though “the owner of a large chain of brothels in Port Said had a grandson who could, if he had wished, have married Princess Anne. Instead, he said ‘Actually I don’t want to, grandpa, I want to marry one of the girls that you showed me the other day.’ That was how my grandfather greeted the suggestion.”
After wartime service in Jerusalem, Mendl returned to Decca, initially in promotion. The bandleader-turned-disc jockey Jack Jackson introduced the young plugger to the black pianist Winifred Atwell, with whom Mendl began his producing career in earnest, later adding Dickie Valentine and Joan Regan to his roster. “Rock Island Line” came about as a filler at the end of a album session for the trad jazz bandleader Chris Barber; Donegan was his banjo player. Mendl was also the first record executive to see the potential of Tommy Steele, then purely a rock’n’roller.
His other productions included Frankie Howerd at the Establishment (1963); Ivor Cutler’s first album, Who Tore Your Trousers? (1961); a series of recordings with Paddy Roberts, best-known for “The Ballad of Bethnal Green”; countless cast albums, including Oh! What a Lovely War; and an LP record of the 1966 Le Mans 24-hour race, inspired by Mendl’s life-long passion for motor-racing.
In addition, he was a driving force behind Decca’s progressive Deram label, most notably as the executive producer of the Moody Blues’ 1967 LP Days of Future Passed. He overcame Decca’s infamous parsimony to ensure that the Moody Blues had the time and resources to become more than just a Birmingham beat group, and he also used Decca’s pop profits to cross-subsidise avant-garde jazz musicians like John Surman.
From a shaky start in the 1930s, Sir Edward Lewis had steered Decca to become the only serious rival to the monolithic EMI, which Mendl held in “massive contempt”, regarding it as having “all of the arrogance of the BBC without any of the education”. Unfortunately, Lewis tended to play his staff off against each other, resulting in poisonous office politics. Mendl, who had overcome the early accusations of nepotism with his charm, wit and professionalism, rose above it all and stood up for harassed colleagues. His fellow producer Raymond Horricks described him as “far too clever [and] genuinely disdainful” to get involved in the backbiting.
Lewis also refused to adapt or delegate, and, by the 1970s, other labels were eroding Decca’s market share. When Mendl suffered a serious heart attack in 1979 at the British Phonographic Industry Christmas party, he attributed it to “the stress of working for a dying company, which had been [my] life for 40-odd years”. By the time he was fit to return to work, Lewis had died and Decca’s record arm had become part of PolyGram.
While Mendl had been convalescing, the new owners cleared his office, throwing away his diaries, which would have been a valuable de facto history of Decca. He turned his back on the record industry, retiring to Devon, where he became an antique dealer.
Hugh Rees Christopher Mendl, record producer: born London 6 August 1919; three times married (two sons, two daughters); died Torbay, Devon 7 July 2008.
Stewart Morris, who died on January 10 aged 78, produced some of the best known and most innovative shows in the heyday of BBC TV light entertainment.
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 Maughan 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 34 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.
The title of this book is slightly misleading. Bernard Spilsbury, the celebrated pathologist of the early 20th century, is not the focus; the “brides” are, along with what their stories tell us about marriage and morals in a Britain where women didn’t have the right to vote. Or, for that matter, too many other rights. As the person who supplied the evidence that clinched the guilty verdict in the trial of the bigamous psychopath and serial killer George Joseph Smith (aka George Oliver Love, aka Henry Williams, aka John Lloyd, etc), Spilsbury figures heavily, but only as a vital supporting character. His tale is the story of the rise of science in legal evidence, and also of the cult of personality in the reporting of prominent legal actions. And standing against science we have Smith’s barrister, Edward Marshall Hall, a frustrated actor-manager with a shaky grasp of legal procedure but a spellbinding way with words.
So, as well as being a gripping, pacy account of a gruesome murder trial, this book is also a compelling piece of social history, saying much about the progress made in the first 30 years of the past century. Jane Robins is very strong on historical context: Smith’s first murder comes shortly after the sinking of the Titanic, while his trial occurs at the height of the First World War, and Robins makes connections with both without straining the reader’s patience or credulity.
The details of the basic relationships between Smith and his doomed brides say much about the time. How did he get his hooks in? Robins sets the scene skilfully. The mortality of male infants being higher than that of females had left a massive imbalance which favoured males seeking a partner, and leaving what were known as the “surplus women”. Men could, without shame, advertise for brides and specify a dowry.
Smith’s victims Bessie Munday, Alice Burnham and Margaret Lofty were all surplus women – ladies who had been prevented by advancing years or plainness from attracting the attention of a man. When one came along and swept them off their feet, they were too dazzled and/or pathetically grateful to question why he was arranging their wills or suggesting that they take out life insurance. That such a man would assume the name Love can possibly be seen as a sick joke. Marshall Hall came to believe in his client’s guilt, but believed that he had hypnotised the victims into drowning themselves. Whether this was oblivious, or a sly reference, to his own hypnotic qualities in the court room will never be clear.
Just as Marshall Hall prided himself on the ability of his oratory to get any defendant off the hook, it looks likely that Spilsbury was himself guilty of mind control, his reputation becoming sufficient that his presence in a court room was enough to condemn a defendant. Some of his conclusions are, with hindsight, utter cobblers. Spilsbury’s evidence against Smith was indicative rather than conclusive, and it was the dogged determination and relentless logic of the arresting detective, Arthur Neil, which made it compelling. This time around, the right man had been fingered, but the success of the trial was a major contributor to Spilsbury becoming unimpeachable for much of the rest of his career – something he came to relish. To be fair, pioneers in any field have to make mistakes, but in murder trials with hanging as the ultimate sanction, the stakes were unusually high.
An author tackling a story like this has to fight hard to avoid tipping into prurience and ghoulishness. Robins wins the fight, and shines a light on a dark age for women.
Link to original article on the Independent’s website.