Comedian Matt Roper meets producer Johnnie Hamp to talk about early shades of Woody Allen.
Johnnie Hamp was Head of Entertainment at Granada Television 1960-1987. As a producer, his number of ‘firsts’ is staggering, staging television specials for the likes of Burt Bacharach, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie and Sarah Vaughan. In addition to engineering the first television appearance of the Beatles, in 1965 he produced The Music of Lennon and McCartney – featuring a now legendary performance by Peter Sellers as Richard III reciting a spoken-word version of ‘A Hard Day’s Night’. That same year, with a sagacious amount of foresight which was to become synonymous with the name Johnnie Hamp, he produced The Woody Allen Show – the first-ever television special for the comedian on either side of the Atlantic. Four years later Allen had quit stand-up completely to focus on making movies, never to return to the medium. Hamp, once again, had bagged television gold dust.
MR So, it’s 1965. You’re making a television special with Woody Allen, 30 years old, native New Yorker, part-time screenwriter and full-time stand-up comic. How did you first hear about him?
JH I’ve always been a fan of American stand-up… Mel Brooks, Shelley Berman, Jack Benny. I was discussing them with Burt Bacharach…
MR As you do.
JH …with whom I was planning to produce a special which we recorded a bit later on. He mentioned a young comic and writer who was making a bit of a stir in the US – Woody Allen. Burt and Woody shared the same agent and he arranged for me to get an LP of Woody doing his stand-up routine. I was impressed. It transpired that Woody was in Paris working on his first movie What’s New Pussycat, so I shot across to Paris to see if he would be interested in making a one-off special in England.
MR I read somewhere that you’d “conned” Woody Allen.
JH Well, that quote comes from the fact that at that time Brits were only allowed to take so much cash out of the country… no credit cards then… and I booked into the same hotel as him – the George V – the most expensive in Paris, to make a good impression. After one night there my cash had run out, so I had to book into a fleapit, but continued to pretend I was still staying at the George V! There we were, with much saying goodnight in the lift, then after with me heading out into the street!
MR The creative process working with him – at that point in his career – interests me very much. He was notoriously prickly during this period due to working on What’s New Pussycat? and becoming dissatisfied with a lack of creative control. How closely did you work together on the content of the show?
JH We talked and I made a few suggestions about Anglicizing his act and we agreed a date to make the special. I think he was very much at ease doing his stand-up and didn’t seem to be a bit concerned that he would be working to a British audience.
JH One suggestion I did make was to change the punchline to the moose gag from “the golf club was restricted” to “they don’t accept Jews”. Also Woody wanted to plug his LP which I didn’t want in this type of programme, so I suggested he make a joke of it and gave him the old 78rpm disc to break, after he said it was unbreakable.
MR His stand-up persona was neurotic and self doubting, which of course became his on-screen persona in his films. A natural progression. How much of that persona is there in Woody off-camera?
JH I found him to be pretty neurotic during those discussions… but I felt sure that this was due to the enormous pressure he was under. He was writing scripts for the next day’s shoot and everything was going wrong with the movie… you’ll find better information elsewhere! However I felt sure that once he got to Manchester he would be much more relaxed. Which is what happened. No sign of temperament whatsoever… We got on well, paving the way perhaps for the interviews I did with him later on for Cinema.
MR He was very alternative for a British audience at that time. It amuses me to think of all those families sitting at home in places like Ipswich and Oldham, randomly coming across this perpetually self-questioning American comic performing his ‘Moose’ routine.
JH The day after the recording I arranged a press call. One of the Manchester hacks asked Woody who would be the star of his next movie. Woody then described a romantic leading man… Jewish, horn rimmed glasses, green jacket… of course he was describing himself, but very few of the journos got the gag.
MR I also find it interesting that the show was recorded with a Manchester audience including much of the cast of Coronation Street in attendance. His humour is distinctly New Yorker. Then there’s all of that left-brained analytical stuff… we’re not talking Danny Kaye or Bob Hope here. It was groundbreaking stuff.
JH Well as you know the studio audience loved him. As for the viewers… I’m not sure but there were no negative reactions, in fact there were a lot of very positive letters. Anyway in those days those of us working in television were not so concerned with ratings. We were much more interested in innovation. For example, The Comedians – all those unknowns – it would not happen on mainstream television these days.
Six years later in 1971 Johnnie Hamp came face-to-face with Woody Allen once again. Hamp was producing and interviewing the likes of Jack Nicholson, Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier for Cinema (see video below), ITV’s flagship movie magazine show. Woody Allen – now a filmmaker – was in town to publicize his third motion picture: Bananas. Once the cameras were rolling, Allen is captured in a playful mood, offering preposterous – and hilarious – responses to Hamp’s questioning. Over forty years later, nearly forty minutes of unaired footage from this session have recently surfaced online.
MR So we come to this remarkable bit of film intended for Cinema.
JH Cinema was a long running series created by my boss Cecil Bernstein, because of his connections with the film companies and Granada Cinemas. This was one of the last interviews I did for that show as I was already well into making The Comedians and with the great success that show was having on the network I had to devote all my time to it.
MR If either of these shows – The Woody Allen Show or Cinema – were BBC productions they would’ve been wiped to save room in the archives… the beeb produce brilliant comedy but before the mid-70s they seem to have possessed a shocking lack of foresight when it came to preserving great television. You’ve watched this footage for the first time ever, very recently.
JH I remember the interview well… who could forget! But I had no idea that all this footage still existed.
MR There’s nothing like this sort of stuff from Woody anywhere else. It’s just magic…
JH All the other interviews I’d done for Cinema were straight forward affairs plugging the actor/director’s latest movie, but this one was pure magic. We’d done the special and he’d been in to do an interview for Take the Money and Run, so we knew each other quite well.
MR It’s almost perfect improv between the two of you. He really starts to jazz, playfully, like a cat playing with a ball, but you never relinquish control. Chairing it perfectly.
JH Woody suggested we do something different – I’d ask whatever I liked and he’d answer with whatever he liked.
MR You keep rolling with it until the 12-minute mark which is when he finally breaks you and you call for a cut saying “I need a cigarette!”
JH He and I obviously enjoyed the tennis and only once or twice do I detect a glimmer of a smile from Woody – whereas I, off camera, was able to giggle as much as I liked. All the interviews I’d done up to that point were done without me being in shot so I hadn’t been miked up. I wasn’t in shot on this one, but I felt it might be necessary for the questions to be heard… hence the mike. The whole thing was improvised.
MR When you resume filming, his responses to your questions become increasingly absurd and farcical as the taping continues…
JH A lot of other interviewees did their bit and pushed off, but I felt that Woody wanted to go on until one of us won.
MR One curious point is an answer where he’s deadly serious, which is after you ask if he watches his own films, which of course – famously – he never does. Presumably you had to salvage 3 to 4 minutes of functional material to use from this footage for the programme itself?
JH There are a few leaders later on which must have been the bits I salvaged. The film editor would add those bits to the untransmitted footage and tuck it away God knows where.
MR Just for the Woody fans, one final question: which film would you choose as your all-time favourite and why?
JH It has to be Annie Hall but a very close runner was Broadway Danny Rose – I loved the ad-libs from the comics and I felt I knew those agents and spesh acts!
For more information about Johnnie Hamp and his autobiography ‘It Beats Working For A Living’ visit johnniehamp.co.uk