The Show Wot I Starred In
Of her own spell performing there, Ann, who was sent fan mail by Benny Hill, admits; "I don't think my mother was very pleased, but at the time Windmill girls were the highest paid chorus girls in the West End and I was getting £13 10 shillings per week, which was big money."
Ann met theatre director Tony Clayton the following year and married him on October 22,1959. Their only child Michael (now a London-based sound engineer), was born in 1961. But being settled didn't prevent unwanted interest in Ann.
"In 1963, after we opened in How To Succeed in the West End., the parting shot to me from its composer Frank Loesser was 'I have you down for great talent and great moral cowardice' because I'd said 'No thank you' to him.
"Five years later, when I was playing 'the whore with the heart of gold' in the Wind In The Sassafras Tree, the American theatre producer David Merrick took the whole English cast over to Broadway. He sent his Welsh sidekick backstage at Boston to tell me 'The Moustache (which is what Merrick liked to call himself) would like to take you out to dinner'. I was told what he'd done for other female stars and, if I played my cards right, he'd do the same for me. I said 'No thank you'. It happened again in Washington, and again in New York, I was then told 'Nobody turns the Moustache down three times..,you'll never work in America again.' In fact, I never even tried to work there again,"
But Ann was soon working with the then hot British stars such as Roy Hudd, Ken Dodd, and Bruce Forsyth whose TV scriptwriters Sid Green and Dick Hills recommended her to Morecambe & Wise.
"The Bruce Forsyth Show had sketches featuring celebrity guests like Tom Jones and Douglas Fairbanks Junior, just like Morecambe & Wise would do" explains Ann, "I was 'the girl', 'the feed'. When Eric and Ernie wanted a girl for a Man From U.N.C.L.E sketch in their series for ATV, I was brought in. And, when they then moved to the BBC, they took me with them.
"It was a joy to go to work, especially as Eric and I both had families and only worked in school term-times. Eric was always extremely funny. He never stopped making people laugh, and he was so naughty, If he saw anyone about to 'go' (corpse), he'd work on them until they 'went'. In that Man From U.N.C.L.E sketch I corpsed and, as we only ever did one take in front of the audience, I was so determined to never laugh again during their shows that, after the final studio rehearsal, I'd sit in my dressing-room and make myself dislike them - otherwise I wouldn't have got through it.
"But Eric and Ernie were nice people and a joy to be with. My God, did they know their job! Eric once said to me 'You may not get paid as much as we do but we expect the same standard' - and they did. It was a very close-knit unit and, if you didn't fit in, you didn't get asked back. You were booked because you could do what they wanted you to do, you were expected to turn up and deliver it to the very highest spec, and not to cause any trouble. It's what's called professionalism.
"In all the Morecambe & Wise Shows I did, I was a harem girl on more than one occasion. The first time I had body make-up from top to toe underneath the Yashmak, baggy trousers, etcetera. At the end of every show, either Eric or Ernie would invite everybody for champagne in their dressing-room, and you were all expected. After that show I had to have three baths to get the body make-up off, so I arrived late and Eric was cross. But no more was said until about eight months later, the next time I was a harem girl, when Eric said 'Ann doesn't wear body make-up'. And I never did again.
"Eric was quite paternal towards me. Once when I told him something had cost me '100 quid', he replied 'Pounds Ann, pounds!' Another time a big star recited a rhyme which included a very rude word, and at the end Eric said 'We don't use language like that in front of Ann - she's a lady.' When his daughter Gail got married, Tony and I went to the wedding. And, whenever there were awards do's, we were always invited to those too. I was offered the role of Ken Barlow's girlfriend in Coronation Street and turned it down because it clashed with a Morecambe & Wise Show. Eric and Ernie were upset when they found out, saying they could have worked around me. Joanna Lumley got that part on Coronation Street.
"I remember watching with Eric and Ernie in the director's box when Shirley Bassey was rehearsing for them. She had a silver lame dress and a mink coat on. She flung the coat on the floor, then wanted it back on again, then flung it again. She was getting worked up because she's a temperamental artiste. Eric went down to pacify her and said 'Shirl, you look absolutely wonderful...just like a Brillo Pad!' She fell about laughing. He had such a way about him that she was a pussycat from then on.
"After Andre Previn shook my hand I didn't wash it for ages. Glenda Jackson and I talked about our sons. During rehearsals Robert Morley always wanted to stop for lunch, asking 'Can't we retire to a hostelry, dear boys?' Each time Eric replied 'No, we don't stop for lunch. I bring an apple and Ann brings some pea and ham soup. Lovely...thick enough to trot a donkey across!' Robert wasn't impressed and the next day at lunchtime there was a knock on the rehearsal room door. Standing outside was a uniformed chauffeur carrying a Fortnum and Masons hamper for each of us, courtesy of Mr.Morley. It was very nice but I think Eric still preferred my pea and ham soup. If we didn't stop for lunch we were able to start late and finish early."
When Morecambe & Wise switched to ITV in 1978, Ann was only included in a couple of their sketches. "Most of their ITV sketches were re-workings of their BBC sketches. Yet they had not only the guest stars playing the guest star parts, but they had stars in all the feed parts as well. I think that completely unbalanced the sketches, which was a shame."
On May 28,1984, Ann was at home (in Ealing) alone when she heard on the radio that Eric had died from a heart attack at the age of 58. "It was really horrible, and I cried. That was the end of an era because it broke the double-act up." Of Ernie's death on March 21, 1999, she says 'It had been a long time since I'd seen him, so it wasn't as poignant. By then, the era of Morecambe & Wise had already gone."
By then, Ann's career had gone too. She and Tony had made the move to Suffolk in 1935 and she quit acting two years later, "I'd got fed up with being away from home." Two years after that she quit the 20-a-day smoking habit (she'd had since she was 21) too.
"I gave up smoking and took up eating instead, because I had starved for so many years to keep thin. I used to be a good-looking broad with a good figure, but I'm porky now. A little more rounded, shall we say."
That despite the fact that Ann has spent much of the past 23 years walking and training dogs. She now has Border collies called Brock and Cookie, is a qualified dog trainer and canine behaviourist, on the board for The Kennel Club Accreditation Scheme, and last year judged at Crufts. This interest even put Ann back on telly. Bring Your Husband To Heel, which involved training husbands with dog-training methods, caused a male furore. Neither the programme idea nor its title were Ann's idea yet, because she fronted it, she became the target of outrage. "On a couple of websites, men said they wanted to do terrible things to me. One said he hoped I'd get breast cancer and die."
Ann had actually had breast cancer in 1997. She'd also suffered ovarian cancer at 30, leading to a major operation which the surgeon at Guys Hospital described as changing Ann "from a family saloon to a sports model".
Like her fellow judges on The Underdog Show, Kay Lawrence and Peter Purves, Ann refused to play the Simon Cowell role. "None of us was nasty. They didn't like that. They wanted somebody to be a bit nasty, but Kay and I are both dog trainers and we both believe in positive reinforcement. You can't teach people that in dog-training classes and then go on national television and do quite the reverse - slate people and make them look silly."
For Series 2, The Underdog Show was relegated from BBC2 to LivingTV, and Ann was asked to be a trainer rather than a judge. "I said no. They wouldn't tell me who they were thinking of having as judges, and I said 'Unless I know who will be judging my celebrities' work, I'm not going to put myself in the business of being marked down by someone I may not respect as a judge.'
One of those judges turned out to be Brendan Cole, bad boy at Strictly Come Dancing. "I wouldn't have thought Brendan Cole, knowing nothing about dog training, could actually criticise my celebrities who were handling dogs that I had taught them to handle" says Ann, although she is a massive Strictly fan...partly because of its host, her former colleague Bruce Forsyth.
"I love Bruce. I've loved him for years. I worked with him and he is enchanting. To me, he is the greatest all-round performer there's ever been in this country. To see him doing his job at 80-plus is amazing. He's bound to be a bit sensitive about his age. I'm more rotund than I used to be. If I were in a position where I had to defend my figure, I'd probably try and defend it with humour but it would still hurt a bit. Of course he can't do anything about being old and I could do something about my figure -I could stop eating!
"Do I think Bruce deserves a knighthood'.' Absolutely! I'm not wild about stars who make a fortune being given gongs. I do think the awards should go to little postmasters/mistresses and charity workers. But, as they always will be given to stars, I think Bruce does deserve one. Even though he's had three wives, he's a very good ambassador."
Ann last saw Bruce at Eric Morecambe's funeral. "I don't stay in touch with any of the stars I worked with because their lifestyles are so different. They were never close friends. When you stop working with big stars, no matter how closely you worked with them, your worlds don't meet."
© Suffolk Magazine 2009