John Ammonds Interview part 3
Feature from 2013Continued….
John’s next show was working with Val Doonican, another success story. As time went on though, London was the place to be for the really big names and John eventually moved back with the promise of doing another Harry Worth show.
It was during that series that a new Irish comic made his first debut on television and went down a storm; his name was Dave Allen.
John looks back at that decision to move back and rightly points out had ne not moved he would never had met up with Morecambe and Wise again.
“I had done a full series with Val Doonican,” he recalls, “ and was sat in the BBC bar. My boss, Billy Cotton approached me, he was head of variety at the time, and asked if I would like to produce Morecambe and Wise.”
“Can a duck swim? Of course I would, but there was no chance; they were with Lew Grade and ATV. Bill smiled and told me he had got them to move to the BBC.”
“The way he got them was very interesting.” John says, “They had a difference of opinion with Lew because he couldn’t guarantee them a repeat or let them do colour. Bill Cotton of course said they could do the show on BBC2, which was in colour, and then give them a repeat later on BBC1. They jumped at the chance.”
Eric and Ern had requested Jon for the producer role, knowing how he worked and what he had done for them in the early radio days. The first series didn’t go smoothly though. For a producer, Eric and Ernie’s request to be raised up from the audience to re-create a theatre stage caused its problems.
“We had to crank the cameras as high as they would go so we weren’t looking up their noses!”
Producing a show was still a mixed bag, but it seemed even more responsibilities were given to him.
“A producer would normally deal with the button pushing and the director wold deal with the actors and cameras. I had to do both. I think it has it’s a distinct advantage in comedy if you can think about the cameras during a rehearsal. Giving the artists direction, going for reaction shots, that kind of thing. You can find the best way of doing it. I also dealt with props and scenery and lighting.”
It was during this first series that Eric suffered his first heart attack, but John was in no doubt he would return; unlike their writers Sid Green and Dick Hills, who left to go back to ATV. That left a large hole that needed to be filled by a quality writer.
“We were very lucky.” John says. “Eddie Braben had just left Ken Dodd and Bill Cotton got to find out. He suggested him to Eric and Ern but they didn’t think he would fit the bill, after all, by his own admission he was a gaga man and not at all what the boys were looking for.”
“Things went well though, as we all know. Most of the time it was just the four of us producing these shows. Eddie was responsible for giving Ernie much more of a character and for changing Eric’s role too. It was remarkable they way Eddie did that.”
John then gave a sneaky peek behind the scenes of a typical Morecambe and Wise show.
“What used to happen was that on a Thursday, Eddie would come down with the new script for a read through. There would be Eric, Ernie, Eddie and myself. As we read through it we would all offer suggestions for extra lines or gags. Then the following day we would rehearse it with just Eric, Ernie and myself. Eddie had gone back to Liverpool to begin work on the next one.”
“As we rehearsed there would be times when things didn’t work the same as it did when we just read it. We would go through the opening for a sketch and one of us would say that it’s not quite right. It was then my job to call Eddie. I spent a long time on the phone, discussing ideas with him that had been thrown in by us all.”
The shows of course were famous for getting guest stars to do things they would not normally do. The job of persuading stars to come onto the show was Johns.
“The first guest we had was Peter Cushing. He was marvellous. He was used to doing drama and films. When we did the first read through he’d write things down on his script. If I gave him direction or a move, he’d write it down. Eric said to him it’s no good doing that Peter, we’ll change that in about half hour.”
“I got Glenda Jackson because I saw an article in one of the Sunday newspapers. It was a profile of her and in it she mentioned she would like to do comedy at some time. The next day I rang her agent. I told them I produced the show and asked if Glenda would like to appear. Her agent called her straight away on the other phone and after a few moments I was talking to her. I asked her if she would like to do the show and she just said when?”
“The important thing is, we took great care not to make the guest star look stupid. In fact Eric’s first line when he met them at rehearsal was usually; If there’s anything at all in this script you don’t like, we’ll change it. Unusually, the guests didn’t see the script until the first day’s rehearsals. I had to put off agents who requested it and the main reason why was that often we were still working on it.”
The most famous guest was probably Andre Previn, and the way in which John got him was a mix of good luck, coincidence and perseverance.
“I’d seen him on a BBC2 programme talking to camera, and I knew he had a good experience with all kinds of entertainment.” John begins, “Eric liked the idea of using for the Grieg sketch but said I would never get him.”
“I called up the producer of the show I had seen him in and was told by his secretary that he was three floors below me at the BBC, editing a show. I went straight down. He informed me he was meeting Andre for lunch the next day and would mention the idea.”
“The following day I got a call and eventually ended up speaking to the man himself. He was keen on the idea and so it was up to his agent and myself to put the plan together that fitted us both.”
“His agent needed to know how long we would want him, as he was obviously very busy. I told them a full week. We always had the guests a full week so they could rehearse. I could almost hear a crash at the other end of the phone. Andre could not give us a full week and the best we could agree on was three days.”
“Eric was unhappy with the situation and expressed concern about how he could learn the whole routine in that time. I managed to persuade him it would be fine.”
“At the first read through I was helpless with laughter. As Andre was reading it, he was also performing it, and we all knew it was going to be great. Then trouble struck. Later that day I got a call from his agent who told me Andre had to leave. He had to fly to America because his mother was ill. Worse still, he wouldn’t be back until the night before the actual show. I was dreading breaking the news to Eric.”
“Eric seriously considered scrapping the whole routine. Based on the brief rehearsal I said it would be fine, but there were very real concerns over this. He confided in me that the routine was not as funny as thought it was. The next night when we did it for real, in front of an audience and the roof went off.”
“A few months before Eric died we were having lunch and I asked if he remembered that moment. He smiled and said; ‘John, I have never been more wrong. It is the funniest thing we ever did.’ “
“I saw it again recently on BBC4 and it’s still as funny as it was in 1971 – not bad for something we did 36 years ago.”
© morecambeandwise.com 2013