Local heroes have long since been a vital part of each and every community up and down the land for a whole range of different reasons. Journalism is frequently portrayed with caution by a large section of the British population as a result of the negative stigma attributed to outlets like The News of the World who were forced to cease trading amidst the controversial phone hacking scandal. Fortunately local showbiz journalism remains a million miles away from the dubious cut-throat nature of tabloid hearsay and glamourisation. Here on the Isle of Wight, such a responsibility was passed to just one man who brought his unique take on the world of showbusiness to the island for over half a century. He might not have had the national acclaim as Sir Michael Parkinson, but to the residents of the Isle of Wight, John Hannam was a star.
Born in East Cowes on the Isle of Wight, John discovered his passion for entertainment when his parents took him to watch twice nightly variety shows at the Theatre Royal in Portsmouth where he would later enjoy a whole host of successful interviews. These were the final days of traditional theatrical variety and John was lucky enough to watch some of the icons of the art on that famous stage. Everyone from Barry Took to Benny Hill travelled south to perform at the Theatre Royal and thus sparked John’s lifelong passion for the stars of the big and small screen. This ignited his fascination with showbusiness but with showbiz journalism not yet recognised as a profession, John was forced to find alternative employment outside the glamorous world of entertainment.
As a salesman for Britain’s leading biscuit manufacturer United Biscuits which was the umbrella company for McVities for thirty years from 1969 – 1998, John took pride in his job and was loyal to the company for many years. While it lacked the bright lights of Hollywood, United Biscuits offered John consistency and freedom to indulge his passion for entertainment which began a long association with local publication The Isle of Wight Weekly Post and then followed by The Isle of Wight County Press. This coincided with the rediscovery of Summer Seasons on the island and John was commissioned to write a weekly column entitled Stage Talk where he would interview the stars performing at either Sandown Pier or Shanklin Theatre. These two theatres welcomed some of the biggest names in entertainment including; Cilla Black, Tommy Cooper, Jimmy Tarbuck and Bob Monkhouse who all were the subjects of John Hannam’s Stage Talk as the biscuit salesman began to build an unrivalled catalogue of celebrity insights.
Contributing articles to the entertainment magazine The Stage, John tasted his first brush with national acclaim. Yet despite being extremely passionate about fame and celebrity, the local journalist never craved it for himself and was more interested in the showbiz careers of the figures whom he admired rather than furthering his own entertainment journey. In later years he was delighted when Desmond Carrington from BBC Radio 2 contacted him in his quest to use a clip from his interview with a Hollywood legend. To Carrington’s surprise, John waived the broadcast fee explaining that it was never about the money for him. Instead the thought of one of his interviews being played on BBC Radio 2 was a joyous feeling which no amount of money could ever buy.
By 1990 the Isle of Wight had won the licence to create its own dedicated radio station based in Newport. In the same year, John took the somewhat brave decision to leave his job at McVities and follow his dream to become a full time showbiz writer and journalist. The newly formed Isle of Wight Radio promptly offered him the Sunday lunchtime slot in which he would interview significant figures from the world of entertainment who each had a link to the island. For over a quarter of a century John Hannam Meets became a staple of the radio schedule and was the perfect accompaniment to roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. Unphased by fashions, fads and current affairs, John Hannam Meets became a local slice of pure unadulterated showbusiness which provided much needed escapism in a troubled world.
Forever devoid of analytical commentary, John was never fussed by the intellectual and superior approach of modern journalism and instead created all his interviews in the same informal style. He absolutely loved everything about entertainment and this became evident from his line of questioning. The analysis of entertainment was for straight talking journalists with political bias but for John, he just wanted to revel in his subject’s showbusiness credentials and this was his unique appeal. Personally I find it impossible to create an interview without an analytical approach so although John made asking informal questions look natural, this style is really difficult to execute. It’s only embracing this aspect of his career that one is able to fully appreciate the sheer talent of John Hannam.
A tireless supporter of local entertainment, John became the resident host of the annual Island Theatre Awards and took much pleasure from charting the success of many local artists. He was extremely proud of his Isle of Wight roots and frequently featured celebrities with a local connection. Everyone from Mark King from Level 42 to the broadcaster and campaigner David Icke benefited from John’s generosity and support over the years. Here was a man who took pride in showcasing what the Isle of Wight had to offer and was eager for local stars to shine. Having such a unique way of interacting with people, John always had his finger on the pulse when it came to local talent and just wanted to lend a hand to their showbiz plight.
His association with the community didn’t simply end with showbusiness. Following a successful start to his Isle of Wight Radio tenure, he realised that his audience didn’t just want to learn about the lives of celebrities. Instead he expanded the show’s remit to encapsulate the strong sense of community on which the island is based. Suddenly it wasn’t just the rich and famous whose voices were being heard on a Sunday lunchtime. People from all walks of life were now being featured and through John’s enthusiastic tone, the listening audience were able to obtain an insight into their surroundings from someone who would never have been given a platform. It might have only been a local radio show but for many islanders, John Hannam embodied the very essence of entertainment.
It was for this very reason that myself and John got to know each other very well. With a shared love for all things entertainment, it seemed obvious that we would get along…and we did. Unfortunately I only met John later in his life when I was embarking on a project surrounding the history of theatrical agents in the UK. The first time I met John was at the entrance to Medina Theatre as I was waiting to meet the great Jimmy Tarbuck ahead of the Isle of Wight leg of his nationwide tour. Tarbuck had given me strict instructions to make myself known to the reception staff who would then inform him of my arrival. As we were waiting, the automatic doors to the theatre opened and in walked John carrying his infamous briefcase containing his sound equipment and carefully crafted notes. The receptionist then directed him to Tarbuck’s dressing room where the pair reunited for a chat. When the receptionist returned, she asked me if I’d ever met John and recommended him as a useful ally. This was the start of a blossoming friendship between myself and Mr Hannam which spanned almost a decade.
Over the years, I was lucky enough to witness firsthand John’s precision and dedication to his craft. On one occasion, on the lead up to the launch of my radio documentary in 2016, I accompanied him up to the BFI Southbank where he recorded a special edition of John Hannam Meets with the major contributors to my radio documentary: the musical director Mike Dixon and comedy writer and author Colin Edmonds. Ever prepared, John had piles of colour coded notes and made use of the hour ferry journey to undertake some crucial last minute preparation. Each subject matter took on a different colour so that John could cover all aspects of their career. It’s pertinent here to note that it was very seldom for John to prepare deliberate questions for his subjects as he always strove to make the interview appear as informal as possible. Therefore such preparation was invaluable for John to feel in control of the interview without making it seem forced or contrived.
When we arrived at the BFI, John quickly realised that there was another guest in our presence which he hadn’t accounted for and I began to panic on John’s behalf. Ever confident and professional, John interviewed Colin and Mike effortlessly with his trademark showbiz style which island residents had grown so familiar with for generations. Now it came to the third impromptu guest who had no idea that he was an unexpected addition to the episode. I felt so incredibly sorry for John as without research or preparation, surely it would be impossible for him to do the interview? Yet this was John Hannam: an unrivalled master of broadcasting and communication. The interview was flawless and John was able to use his forty year experience to get him out of what would have been a tight situation. On the ferry trip on the way home, I said “were you expecting that third guest?” To which he replied “no, but I think I got away with it!”. Therefore it just shows that even the great John Hannam was able to wing it from time to time.
This wasn’t the only time that John embarked on a journey to interview fascinating characters from the world of entertainment and despite the locality of the show, John remained forever eager to travel all over England in order to interview the great and good of showbiz. When interviewing the legendary comedy actress June Whitfield in her hometown of Wimbledon in London, she was so honoured that John had made the trip on the train that she agreed to collect him from the station. Such a simple gesture meant a lot to the humble man who had grown up listening to Take It From Here on the wireless and this produced one of thousands of anecdotes which he was never afraid to draw upon. Whether it was going to dinner with Jimmy Tarbuck or stepping onto those famous cobbles of Coronation Street, John never took his position for granted and was always in awe of the status he had created.
Embracing new technologies in 2015, the veteran broadcaster moved what had since become the legendary John Hannam Meets to an online podcast available on all streaming services. This wasn’t the only new project that he had up his sleeve as following the advice of his good friend Marty Wilde, John collated his favourite interviews into a book featuring music stars of the fifties and sixties. In developing the book he realised that there was scope to replicate the process to celebrate figures from the whole breadth of entertainment. Such an idea spawned the publication of three more books in the succeeding years which filled him with immense pride.
Just four years later as he was putting the finishing touches on his fourth and final book within the John Hannam Meets series, he fulfilled a lifetime’s ambition when he secured an interview with his heroine Dame Judi Dench. This meant so much to him after a whole career of attempting interviews with some of the biggest names in entertainment and Dame Judi didn’t disappoint. In the same year, he and his new partner Bertie were personally invited to a garden party in the grounds of Buckingham Palace where they met members of the Royal family. After a lifetime of interviewing and researching the biggest names in entertainment, it seemed that showbusiness was starting to give back to the man who had devoted his life to it.
Thursday 23rd September 2021 shall forever be a very dark day for local showbusiness journalism as the Isle of Wight slowly woke to the sad death of the multi-talented John Hannam. His legacy is one which is difficult to quantify and summing up his extraordinary contribution to island entertainment remains even harder. Yet through his comprehensive archive of interviews with some of the most prolific figures of the latter half of the twentieth century, his work is immortalised for future generations to learn from. Therefore John Hannam may be gone but as long as there’s audio equipment, he’ll never be forgotten.