It takes a special sort of talent to turn a good act into a great one, and without John Ammonds, who died last month, aged 88, it’s quite possible that today’s couch potatoes never would have heard of Morecambe & Wise. As their BBC producer, he transformed them from jobbing comics into a national institution. The seven series he made with them still stand as the acme of Light Entertainment television.
When Ammonds teamed up with Eric and Ernie, their double act was two-dimensional. Viewers liked them but they didn’t warm to them. Ammonds reconnected them with their theatrical roots, filming them on a raised stage with wings and curtain. He booked highbrow guests for them to bounce off, like Glenda Jackson, Vanessa Redgrave and their most celebrated co-star André Previn. He used close-ups and reaction shots, exploiting the intimacy of the camera. Their previous TV work had been slick but forgettable. Now the viewers felt as if they really knew them — they felt like part of the show.
I went to see Ammonds in 2007 — I was writing a book about Morecambe & Wise. He showed me an award, from the Society of Film & Television Arts. There were three names on it: Eric Morecambe, Ernie Wise and Eddie Braben (their scriptwriter). I asked Ammonds how he came by it. It was a present from Eric, he explained. He’d gone to an awards ceremony with Eric and Ernie. When they returned to the table with their latest trophy, Eric handed it to Ammonds. ‘Here,’ he told him. ‘You keep it. It’s about time you had one of these.’