Alison Hammond wants to clear something up: she didn’t actually interview a tree. “It was the tree specialist that interviewed her,” she says over the phone, in her trademark heavy Brummie tones. “That’s where people are getting it a bit wrong. I had a specialist who said that she could talk to trees, so I gave her the questions I wanted to ask. It was a great piece of television.”
Hammond should know. For 17 years, she has been a fixture on ITV’s This Morning, presiding over insane exploits and lawless celebrity interviews. Her 2017 encounter with Harrison Ford and Ryan Gosling, which isn’t so much an interview as a piece of art, has been viewed more than 11m times on YouTube and saw all three of them in hysterics. A video of Hammond doing the weather on a floating map of the UK, an activity that saw her accidentally push a male model into the Royal Albert Dock in Liverpool, was an instant viral hit. She’s also “gotten married” to the Rock, fed chocolates to Hugh Jackman, nearly been arrested on camera in Italy and played Connect 4 with Beyoncé.
But in June of this year, viewers saw a different side of Hammond. Following the death of George Floyd and the swell of Black Lives Matter protests around the world, This Morning broadcast a segment on Blackout Tuesday, a social media campaign to protest police brutality. Speaking to hosts Phillip Schofield and Holly Willoughby, she made an emotional speech.
“Firstly, I’m a mother to a 15-year-old black boy,” she said through tears. “So when I saw that image of George Floyd, I saw my brothers, I saw my father, I saw my son. I saw everybody’s son, and I was disgusted to my core. And it hurt me to the pit of my stomach.”
Recalling her speech, Hammond says she was “genuinely upset. And if something upsets me, I’m going to be honest about it. I was a little bit thrown that they even wanted to speak to me. The producers phoned and asked whether I would mind speaking about George Floyd. Literally, I was on the air within seconds. I didn’t really have time to think about it.”
Her speech resulted in the presenter receiving a call from Sue Walton, a producer at ITV. “We got into a conversation about the fact that I’d told everybody that they needed to educate themselves,” Hammond says, “and I was sitting there thinking: do you know something, I might have to educate myself as well. There’s a lot of black history – my history – that I don’t know about.”
Thus the concept for her latest project, Alison Hammond: Back to School, was born. Airing at the beginning of Black History Month, the hour-long documentary sees her travel around the UK to learn about key, and often overlooked, figures from black British history. Those profiled include the British-Jamaican nurse Mary Seacole; Septimius Severus – the first Black Roman emperor; the black Tudor trumpeter John Blanke; and Walter Tull, who was the first black soldier in the British army to lead white soldiers into battle. Hammond says that she felt a need to take part. “It’s my duty to do this for my son, for other kids. I just think it’s important.”
Hammond says it wasn’t until she was in her 20s that she first learned about black history, when her mother took her to see a show at the Alexandra theatre in Birmingham called Black Heroes in the Hall of Fame. There, she was introduced to people such as Seacole, and Garrett Morgan, the inventor of the three-light traffic light. They were so enamoured, they went back to see the show again the following night. “I was blown away,” she says. “It was unbelievable and overwhelming; I did not know that stuff. Why didn’t I know that stuff? I was asking my mum questions and she just said: ‘It’s one of those things.’”
Hammond grew up in Kingstanding, an area in north Birmingham that had a strong National Front presence. Her mother, who had emigrated from Jamaica, worked multiple jobs to support her three children. It was one of these jobs in particular that ensured that her family were, relatively speaking, left alone. “My mum was a Tupperware manager and she got on with all the mums,” Hammond explains. “I was talking with my brother about it the other day, and he said that a lot of boys would pick on him, but when they found out who his mum was they left him alone. She was connected to all the mums in the area because of her job. I was in a National Front area but I always felt safe. It was bizarre.” The first time that she remembers feeling the sting of explicit racism came at school. “Someone said to me: ‘I didn’t realise elephants were black.’ It really stuck with me. That was the first time that I felt: ‘That’s not fair what you just said.’ This is my colour, deal with it! I didn’t like it. It was the first time that I felt that something was unjust.”
To keep her occupied, her mother enrolled Hammond into the Television Workshop, a prestigious performing arts club, at the age of 11. Hammond, who had been a diligent student at school but was never really academic, excelled at the club, landing jobs as a teenager on shows including Grange Hill-parody Palace Hill. However, financial restraints meant she was later unable to take up a place at drama school.
After stints working at British Gas, in a cinema, as a holiday rep and more, a friend suggested that Hammond audition for Big Brother, which at the time was preparing for its third series. She was successful, and in 2002, along with Jade Goody and Adele Roberts, she was one of the 14 contestants. Unfortunately, Hammond only managed to stick around for two weeks before being evicted, although she made an impact, breaking a table by jumping on it and frustrating her fellow housemates with her constant eating.
As luck would have it, she had also been spotted by a producer for This Morning, who asked whether she would be interested in doing a segment on the show called Diet Camp, which would see her attempting to lose weight. A few months’ work “turned into six months, which turned into a year,” she says. “Then I went to interview George Clooney and Britney Spears and that was it. I haven’t left. I’m going to be using a Zimmer frame still working for This Morning, aren’t I?”
It’s not surprising that ITV were keen to keep Hammond on board: she oozes fun and entertainment. Even talking to her over a dodgy phone line is joyous. She regularly explodes into endearing and infectious fits of laughter, and there is no doubt that the unapologetically big personality you see on TV is representative of who she is off screen, although she admits she does heighten things a bit for TV. “If anything, I’m gutted when the cameras stop rolling,” she adds with one of her signature guffaws. “Honestly, though, I didn’t create this. It’s not a character. When I’m on the telly, it’s just me showing off to my mates. That’s what I do.”
While she says that fans regularly ask her why she isn’t a full-time host on This Morning, Hammond says she’s more focused on keeping her life balanced. She wants to be around for her teenage son as much as possible, “even though he’s not bothered”, and while she recently covered the main presenting slot for the first time alongside Dermot O’Leary, she doesn’t seem all that fussed about helming the programme. She would like her own chatshow, though, but only if it could be pre-recorded. In fact, she was supposed to be filming a pilot for one before Covid came along. In the meantime, she’s happy with her pivot to fronting cookery sections for This Morning. “This is a country of people who don’t really season very much. A bit of salt and pepper? It’s not enough. I am trying to season up the nation,” she laughs.
With this, Hammond has to go. Before she does, though, one final question: how does it feel when people call her a national treasure? “It’s what I’ve been thinking most of my life, to be honest,” she says, before erupting into the most incredible honk of laughter. “I totally agree with them. I’m 100% behind these people. I am national and I am a treasure.” Another fabulous cackle and she’s gone.
Alison Hammond: Back to School is on at 9pm on ITV on 6 October