John Ammonds: Producer behind Morecambe and Wise


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.

Louis Barfe

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.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
sportWWE latest including Sting vs Triple H, Brock Lesnar vs Roman Reigns and The Undertaker vs Bray Wyatt
Arts and Entertainment
Louis Theroux: By Reason of Insanity takes him behind the bars again
tvBy Reason of Insanity, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap
videoThe political parody genius duo strike again with new video
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark, TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing