I’ve just heard the sad news that light entertainment luminary John Ammonds (pictured with Jack Parnell in 2004) has died, aged 88. I had the privilege of interviewing Johnny (as he was universally known) in 2005 as part of my research for Turned Out Nice Again. Naturally, we talked at length about his work as Morecambe and Wise’s radio and TV producer, but we also touched on other aspects of his career. He’d began at the BBC in 1941 as a sound effects boy, often supplying the diver’s bubbles for ITMA. After wartime service, he’d returned to radio, becoming a producer when he moved to the north region in Manchester. While in Manchester, he transferred to the television service, where he produced many of Harry Worth’s early programmes. He was working with Worth on the night of 22 November 1963, when he found himself co-opted by current affairs to direct Harold Wilson’s tribute to President Kennedy. Talking of Wilson, BBC Parliament tonight has a whole evening of programmes devoted to the former PM. It begins at 6pm and is well worth watching and/or recording. It is also incumbent upon me to mention that Turned Out Nice Again is still available in hard copy form from all good bookshops, and as a Kindle e-book from Amazon.
We were recording a show that night in Dickenson Road. First we heard the news that he was badly injured, then that he was dead. And we thought ‘Oh God, I hope the audience hasn’t heard, because to do a comedy show after that, we’ll be in trouble…’, I don’t think they’d heard. So we finished about 8.30, and the commissionaire called me to the front reception desk of the studio. It was Paul Fox, who was then head of current affairs. He said ‘Look, we’ve got some tributes being done live. We’ve got the Prime Minister’, who was Alec Douglas-Home, and the leader of the Opposition was Harold Wilson. ‘We’ve got him coming over with a very fast police escort from Chester to Manchester. Can you direct this into the network?’ I said ‘Well there’s nobody else here’.”
I told Harry he was coming. Wilson arrived at Dickenson Road and they shook hands. The first thing Wilson said was ‘Have you got a private phone? I need to ring the Prime Minister and check what he’s saying’. The only private phone I could think of in the place was in the kitchen, a little ante-room used for stocking the corned beef and soup. Can you imagine the Leader of the Opposition ringing the Prime Minister with all of this in front of him? This actually happened.
Harry had exactly the same type of Gannex raincoat that he had, and what happened next could have come straight out of the show. He went into the studio, and Harry said ‘Do you mind if I come up to the gallery?’. He was intrigued by the fact that we gave Harold Wilson the five minutes to go and wind-ups that he used to get. So 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, this confusion routine.