It’s not quite a cackle, as that implies harshness. Alison Hammond’s thunderous laugh is somehow soft, and seemingly bubbles from a place of unadulterated joy deep within before it collapses into an exasperated rasp when the euphoria is too overwhelming for any discernible notes to come out. The TV presenter possesses one of the most contagious howls in Britain and has had us giggling at our screens since the early noughties, when she appeared on Big Brother in 2002, as a regular presenter on This Morning, and also on other beloved UK reality shows, I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, Strictly Come Dancing and Celebrity Masterchef.
Every on-screen appearance is a masterclass in warmth and likability, a skill so few people naturally possess. When we meet in a bright South West London office, she’s similarly charming, giving me an instant confidence boost by complimenting my vinyl coat and saying that it makes me look like “a little Rihanna”. I’m not delusional enough to believe that, but I’m struck by how kind you have to be to even construct such a beautiful lie. Mind you, she is fresh from her most recent authorial pursuit so she’s still in the habit of tapping into her colourful imagination.
Alison, 47, is a national treasure that should be celebrated for her consistent contribution to British pop culture. And over the last couple of years, she’s begun searching for other Black luminary figures that have made their mark on the country. Her recent book, Black in Time, is her non-judgmental literary exploration of historic figures that she believes you should know, written in a tone that won’t chastise you if you don’t. It’s a timely read for those wanting to expand their knowledge during Black History Month, and a project she describes as the “proudest” achievement of her career so far. “This is a legacy I can leave that hopefully children, adults, even teachers will learn from,” she explains.
Creating a learning resource means she took great care to make sure the project was both accessible and accurate. “I needed a lot of help with this book. I’ve only written one other book, but this came with massive responsibility. This is history, I had to get it right,” she says. To assist with the book’s accuracy she worked with writer Emma Norry and they fact-checked the entire book via Olivette Otele who is the first Black woman in Britain to become a history professor.
Black in Time follows Alison’s ITV documentary Back To School which was released in October 2020 and showed her own personal journey to fill in the blanks she realised she had. During the Black Lives Matter uprisings that year she realised she struggled to name many influential figures from this country’s past. So the book spotlights them. Not only does it unpack the stories of modern characters like Ethel Scott, the first Black woman to represent the country in an athletics tournament, and Claudia Jones who started Notting Hill Carnival, it stretches back centuries to Jacques Francis from the Tudor era and Septimus Severus who was born 27 years before Christ, therefore, dispelling the myth that our history on this island began with the Windrush generation.
Yet Alison’s own personal history is intimately linked with the influx of Caribbean migrants to the UK. Born to an immigrant mother Maria from Jamaica, Alison’s blue plaque would be in Kingstanding, in the north of Birmingham. “I’d like a sign that just says ‘Alison was here,” she laughs. Maria imbued Alison with her love for entertaining when she was “really young”. She performed as an extra on the BBC nurse drama Angels and Marjorie and the Preacherman. “You wouldn’t have heard of them – they’re old-time shows,” she says. Alison’s mother secured her first role at just eight in a movie called Art in Society. “I was kind of thrust into the world of television early on. My mom said to me, I want to get you off the streets,” she adds. This was the catalyst for Alison to audition for a drama school called Central Television Workshop where she was trained to entertain for her secondary school years.
“It was a sliding door moment where I could do Big Brother, money. Or Blind Date, love. So I chose money”
There were some key Black figures who showed that she could blaze her own trail to stardom as a Midlands-based dreamer. “I got a picture of me, age eight, watching Musical Youth, a young Black band. It was two sets of brothers, and they were from Birmingham that went catastrophic,” she explains. I laugh because I think she means stratospheric as the band was experiencing a gold rush of fame. “They were performing with Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, and my mum was friends with [band members] Patrick and Junior’s mum. They were really good proper family friends. I can remember looking up to them – remember their song ‘Pass the Dutchie’?
She hands me her phone to show me a photo of her, her brother, her mother, and the band. Young Alison looks in awe of the musicians, her hands are clasped as she beams surrounded by a room full of great afros. It’s a lovely archival snapshot into England’s past. “When I was watching the band, I see myself, I’m thinking, I could do that. I could be on that stage. And I think things like that are very, very important. To be able to see yourself in other people doing well.”
By her 20s she’d had some luck as an extra, like her mother, acting in the background of another popular BBC medical drama, Doctors. To make ends meet she had also worked as a holiday rep in a Tunisian hotel keeping the guests’ children entertained. “Basically, I was grafting as an actress but I wasn’t getting the work as a Black actress. Then someone says ‘why don’t you go and audition for this Big Brother? You could win yourself 70 grand’, I was like ‘really?’” It was a tricky decision knowing which avenue to take because Alison, who was 27 at the time, had also auditioned for Cilla Black’s Blind Date and she couldn’t do both. “It was a sliding door moment where I could do Big Brother, money. Or Blind Date, love. So I chose money.”
This year, it was announced that Big Brother would be returning to British screens after a four-year hiatus. On the red carpet of the Ethnicity Awards, before she won an award for best host, she admitted that she had not been offered a hosting role on the show but would love to. Although, like everyone in Britain, she will always have a soft spot for Davina’s tenureship. “She was the matriarch,” she adds.
Despite the fact she is one of the most memorable housemates from the franchise, Alison was actually only in the house for two weeks. But she made a huge impression on the series. “I broke a table, I stood on the table and broke it,” she says. During that time she mimicked the workshops she taught kids in Tunisia, admitted she’d never been in love, and tried to forge friendships with other notable housemates Jade Goody and Kate Lawler before her premature eviction.
Viewers clearly wanted to see more of Alison and her stint on reality TV led to more permanent presenter roles. “When I came out, I became very famous because back then there was no social media, no Instagram, no Twitter or anything like that – I was in the papers. Then This Morning came along and offered me a two-week job. I went and did that and then from that, I got another job and I’ve been there for 20 years now.”
The allure of Alison is that, unlike a lot of people in showbiz, she seems very genuine and down to earth. I ask, how much of her zany on-screen personality is a skillful construction. To her, the key to success is just remaining authentic at all times. “You just literally got to be yourself. You’ve got to just be self because everyone else is taken,” she says. “There are moments when Alison Hammond – believe it or not, stop the press – is quiet. There’s no way you can be consistently the same. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be human.”
Given how long it took for her to navigate her way from sporadically being in the background of scenes to becoming one of the country’s premiere entertainers, Alison wouldn’t describe her journey as a struggle to the top. “I’m not a fighter, I never fight for anything,” she says. But that doesn’t mean that things just get handed to her. “I’m a hard worker, don’t get it switched up but I don’t beg for anything.”
Now Alison enjoys the fruits of labour, relaxing with her “small” circle of friends in Soho House in her free time. Outside of those plush cosmopolitan settings, her face has become a regular fixture of the chaotic British pop culture meme pages like Love of Huns as a fresh wave of fans celebrates Alison’s most entertaining moments. The page commemorates noughties television and music icons who are bold, and brash, and represent a specific brand of Britishness that encapsulates how camp our nation is. She says the page admins once sent her an Easter Egg. “It was a full chocolate sculpture [of my face],” she laughs. Clearly flattered, she muses whether this means that, like the characters in her book, she’s leaving a legacy.
“Do you think in future you’ll look back and go ‘do you remember Alison Hammond?’” she asks in a sincere and almost coy tone. The obvious answer is yes.
Black in Time is out now.