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Retro Crimbo/ Legends: Morecambe and Wise ~ the sunshine bringers

December 17, 2010

Antler antics: Beloved for all-time they may be, but Eric and Ern were Britain’s antidote to the ill-wind that blew through the ’70s – and never more so than at the most wonderful time of year

Let’s be honest, more than 30 years after its prime, still nothing says Crimbo on the goggle box like The Morecambe And Wise Christmas Show. Yes, Eric and Ernie’s endearingly naff-looking, ’70s designed and costumed antics – sometimes slapstick, other times witty wordplay – are still embraced and enjoyed by millions up and down the British Isles this time of year. And all in repeat, of course.

But why do so many of us at the yuletide wallow in an hour of these two funnymen from years gone by in spite of – or maybe even instead of – the festive-themed TV specials of today? The answer’s simple. Because Morecambe and Wise were the best at what they did – and they’re still the best at what they did. I mean, they were Morecambe and Wise.

From dancing with Angela Rippon to amending Shirley Bassey’s footwear, by way of their notorious Singin’ In The Rain pastiche and their glorious breakfast sketch, they’re arguably the UK’s ultimate comedy double act. Many comic duos preceded them and many have succeeded them, but none have equalled their immense popularity, enduring appeal or ability to instantly entertain. Morecambe and Wise then are hugely deserved the latests subjects in the ‘Legends‘ corner here at George’s Journal – and not least at Christmas.

Making a song and dance about it: Morecambe and Wise on the up in an image from 1954 – the year of their ill-received first foray into television, with Running Wild at the BBC

John Eric Bartholomew hailed from Morecambe, Lancashire; Ernest Wiseman from Bramley, Leeds. They were born just five months apart; the former in 1926, the latter in 1925. Both were exposed to showbusiness early. As a boy, Bartholomew had dance lessons that he far from enjoyed, but were paid for by his mother Sadie working extra hours (she was determined to make a success of him). Meanwhile, as a child, Wiseman appeared with his raliway lampman father in a music hall act and, as a teenager, went on to appear in famous comic Arthur Askey’s radio show Band Waggon; he was billed at the time as ‘Britain’s Mickey Rooney’.

As a regular winner of talent contests, one day Bartholomew found himself auditioning for band leader and impresario Jack Hylton; at the audition, fatefully, he met Wiseman. The two met again at Hylton’s revue Youth Takes  A Bow at the Nottingham Playhouse, where they hit it off and performed together, impressing Hylton and audiences.

However, despite mum Sadie encouraging her son to form a double act with Wiseman, events got in the way, namely military service. It was now the 1940s and World War Two was raging. Wiseman was packed off into the Merchant Navy and Bartholomew became a ‘Bevin Boy’; he didn’t leave Britain and didn’t have to fight – instead he was sent down the coal mines, although he only lasted 11 months owing to a newly discovered heart defect.

‘Definition of the week: TV set – the box in which they buried Morecambe and Wise’ ~ from a newspaper review of Eric and Ernie’s first TV show Running Wild, a cutting of which Eric apparently carried around with him for the rest of his life

Come the end of the war, however, the two reunited in London (by chance) and, following Sadie’s renewed insistence, teamed up. Adopting stage names for their act – Bartholomew dropped his first name and took that of his hometown for his surname to become ‘Eric Morecambe’; Wiseman shortened his surname to become ‘Ernie Wise’ – they quickly established themselves on stage and radio. By 1954, Morecambe and Wise had managed to secure a contract with the BBC to appear on television – a very new form of media only beginning to find its home in the homes of the British public – in their own show, Running Wild.

Unfortunately, this proved to be the duo’s first setback. It’s fair to say that neither audiences nor critics went wild for Running Wild and soon its stars were running away from the box and back to radio and, especially, the stage to lick their wounds and improve. As the ’50s progressed, they knuckled down and worked the variety circuit hard, re-established their reputation and honed their act. And, as the decade came to a close, appearances on the variety-based television shows Double Six and the era-defining Sunday Night At The Palladium raised their profiles – and popularity – even more.

Enter the 1960s and ITV came knocking. Launched in 1955 and the nation’s first advertising channel, ITV was immediately challenging the BBC in the entertainment stakes. The decision by Lord Lew Grade, legendary chief of ATV (one of ITV’s subsidiaries), to seek out Morecambe and Wise for their own prime-time show was a big deal then and showed they genuinely were back. By now, of course, they were better and weren’t about to mess up on TV again.

However, commencing in 1961, Two Of A Kind ran into trouble almost immediately. Ratings were far from terrific and the material the duo were getting from their writers – successful ’60s comedy scribes Sid Green and Dick Hills – was ill-suited; it forced the former pair to act as if they were the latter two’s mouth-pieces rather than smoothly appear as performers in their own right.

Understandably, Eric and Ern weren’t happy and confronted Green and Hills, only for an Equity strike to bring things to a head. The writing pair assumed the double act would have to abandon their show, but as the latter belonged to a separate union (the Variety Artists’ Federation), their show was able to continue airing and, perhaps chastened, the writers produced far better suited material – and even went on to appear in some of the sketches themselves as stooges.

As the decade rolled on, Two Of A Kind went from strength to strength and Morecambe and Wise eventually became what they’d always threatened they would – TV stars. Perhaps the most well recalled moment in the show’s history was when none other than The Beatles guested (see video above). In a nice sketch, Morecambe playfully insulted the guests (in keeping with his comic style), which owing to The Fabs’ – and especially John Lennon’s – quick wit, turned into a trading of light insults. Eric went on to refer to Ringo Starr as ‘Bongo’ (mis-naming guests was also a major trait of his and Wise’s routine) and eventually dressed up in ‘moptop’ pastiche attire to perform with the foursome, as well as Ernie, the old variety standard On Moonlight Bay. In black-and-white and not quite as rip-roaringly funny as their later moments with top guests, it nonetheless stands up on its own and makes for something of a forerunner of those such hugely audience-friendly skits that were to follow in later years.

Silver screen and script machine: Eric and Ern on a poster for 1966 film That Riviera Touch (left) and with their chief writer at the BBC in the 1970s, their third muskateer, Eddie Braben (right)

Two Of A Kind‘s sixth series, broadcast in 1967, was not only in colour, but also went out in the US and Canada as well as Britain. As such, it featured mostly North American guest stars. Given that, at the same time, Eric and Ern themselves guested on the legendary Ed Sullivan Show (like The Beatles famously had), it was a conscious effort by the duo to break America and showed just how far their ambition was now taking them. However, unlike The Beatles, they weren’t a hit in America – although viewing figures of their show in Canada weren’t bad. No doubt disappointed, their reaction was to up their pay demands, something that Lew Grade and ATV couldn’t meet, which resulted in another ambitious move – in 1968, Morecambe and Wise returned to the BBC.

Eric and Ern will be forever associated with the decade that followed, of course, but they were certainly no slouches in the ’60s either – indeed, it’s perhaps because of that fact that they really did become as popular as they did. Indeed, throughout the ’50s and ’60s their media work was just one – if the largest – form of income for them, as they worked the variety circuit for as long as they could. Moreover, it’s not well recalled nowadays, but they even headlined a trio of crime-cum-spy capers The Intelligence Men (1965), That Riviera Touch (1966) and The Magnificent Two (1967). Admittedly, none of these flicks exactly lit the world alight. Things came to head, though, in November 1968 when Morecambe suffered a heart attack.

The result of his lifestyle – he smoked 60 cigarettes a day and enjoyed more than the odd tipple – as well as overwork, the heart attack was a wake-up call and made it clear that he and Wise would have to cut back on their live shows up and down the country. Instead, for the most part, their focus would now be their new TV show with the Beeb. It also meant that, in place of ciggies, Eric adopted a pipe – which was to become as much a visual motif as his glasses, askew or not.

Tell him that those six or seven people made all the difference~ Eric’s reaction on hearing that Des O’Connor had asked his audience to pray for Morecambe the night of his first heart attack

Unquestionably, the ’70s were Morecambe and Wise’s glory years. Their (second) move to the BBC was an unmitigated success, even Eric’s heart attack coming, as it did, after just their first series with the Beeb, didn’t knock them back. The result of twenty odd years of development on stage, radio and screen, The Morecambe and Wise Show was the duo in their prime and at the peak of their powers. Ostensibly, it was a sketch show mixed with a sitcom; however, sections in which the duo simply appeared in front of a stage curtain (emblazoned with a capital ‘M’ atop a capital ‘W’) were common to practically every episode.

Other regular inclusions were historical play pastiches that served as climaxes to shows (they would legendarily become known as Ern’s ‘plays what I wrote’); a rather large woman – Janet Webb – inexplicably coming on at the very end of proceedings thanking the audience for coming to see her show; guest Peter Cushing appearing and complaining he hadn’t been paid (this went on for over a decade); singer Frankie Vaughn getting mocked, only to be replaced as an insult target, when it actually ticked him off, by Morecambe’s more than eager and good friend Des O’Connor (‘If you want me to be a goner, get me an LP by Des O’Connor’); and, last but very definitely not least, sketches in which Eric and Ernie lived together, sharing a lounge and even – like a genuinely married, yet entirely heterosexual couple – a bed.

The latter, classic facet of their shows was, at first, an unsure one – at least for Morecambe. After his heart attack, writers Green and Hills (who’d followed the two stars to the Beeb, but probably still enjoyed a less than brilliant relationship with them) decided Eric would likely never be the performer he had been and moved on. In came Eddie Braben, who had written for Ken Dodd, and one of his first suggestions was the bedroom set-up for domestic sketches.

Strange bedfellows: Eric and Ern sharing a bed – eyebrows weren’t raised, many a laugh was

Because the idea came to Braben thanks to comedy giants Laurel and Hardy memorably sharing a bed in several scenes – if it was good enough for them, it must be good enough for Morecambe and Wise – and because it went down a storm with viewers, Eric gave it the thumbs-up and it went on to become one of the double act’s most fondly recalled and best sketch set-ups. A personal favourite of mine is when both of them are reading in bed: Ern exclaims ‘I can’t believe it!’, owing to him reading from his broadsheet about drops in the stock market; Eric responds, ‘I know, Desperate Dan’s eaten four cowpies and he’s still hungry’, commenting on the story from The Dandy comic he’s reading.

Indeed, through the ’70s Braben’s hand in the development of the act – and its ever increasing popularity – extended even into its dynamic. Traditionally, Morecambe and Wise had been a fairly standard act: buffoonish clown (Eric) and straight man (Ern). But thanks to Braben’s writing, this subtly morphed into something different – in essence, they both became clowns. Granted, Wise would take on the straight man role if a joke demanded it, but often both would appear to be buffoons, especially in the presence of guests and during the pathetic but highly amusing plays supposedly written by Wise. Mind, Morecambe remained the stupider, yet wittier, harder-edged and essentially funnier of the two. Long after the end of the act, in fact, Ern was adamant he wasn’t the straight man, preferring to describe himself as ‘the song-and-dance-man’.

Which is perhaps a moot point. For, nowadays, it’s easy to look on the duo as a comedy act, plain and simple. And yet, very much born out of the high variety era, they had always been more than that, having necessarily weaved song and dance into their performances. And even when they were TV stars and their shows called for less of the singing and stomping, it didn’t disappear from their repertoire. The best example, of course, is their signature number Bring Me Sunshine, which would often close their shows, as well as the dance that would accompany it – skipping away from the camera and to the back of the stage, while raising alternate hands behind their heads. It was a dance, to paraphrase the late, great Sir Bobby Robson, as daft as a brush – frankly, and delightedly, like much of their act.

The choreographer behind this notorious dance was John Ammonds, a light entertainment producer. However, in the ’70s his place with the duo was soon replaced by another, whom – like Eddie Braben – became utterly identified with their success. Ernest Maxin was a TV producer as well, and succeeded Ammonds in 1974; he would remain with Eric and Ern for as long as they were with the Beeb. Among his crucial contributions were the choreography of the excellent Singin’ In The Rain pastiche (in which Wise repeated Gene Kelly’s exact steps from the original scene, while Morecambe got covered in water every few seconds) and of the golden, hilarious ‘breakfast sketch’ (performed expertly to the tune of David Rose’s instrumental The Stripper – see bottom video). Maxin also won a BAFTA for producing the pair’s 1977 Christmas show.

Ah, the Christmas show… The Morecambe And Wise Christmas Show. It was, without doubt, the crowning glory of Eric and Ern’s career. Hugely popular events – whether serious or merely of the zeitgeist – tend to become surrounded by an air of myth and, famously, it’s been said many times that the British people of the ’70s tended to measure how good their Christmas had been based on how good Eric and Ern’s seasonal offering had been. Yet, there’s always a slice of truth behind a myth, and when it came to the importance of The Morecambe And Wise Christmas Show to the UK public, methinks it’s something to take seriously.

This was a nation that during an oftentimes dark, depressing and always confusing decade, full of the divisions exacerbated by economic problems, strikes, immigration, social liberation and, yes, punk, inevitably came together as families – both young and old – at Christmas and was a genuine captive audience for the universally appealing antics of Eric and Ernie. The Morecambe And Wise Christmas Show then did matter and, more often than not, was brilliant. And that’s why to this day, to some extent, it still defines the yuletide on these shores.

Shoe loss lore and Rippon up the dancefloor: Shirley Bassey about to have a footwear malfunction (left) and newscaster Angela Rippon shows off her legs – shock horror! (right)

Between 1969 and 1977, there were eight Christmas shows – 1974 instead saw Parkinson Takes A Christmas Look At Morecambe And Wise, in which the eponymous chat show host interviewed the now slowing-down pair and showed clips of previous Christmas shows. Arguably the duo’s greatest moments derive from their festive specials (some years they didn’t even make series to focus on the end-of-the-year extravaganzas), among them the Singin’ In The Rain sketch; attractive TV newcaster Angela Rippon showing off her pins and high-kicking here, there and everywhere as she danced with the duo (newcasters’ legs were never seen on the box until this point, so it was a revelatory moment, much to the public’s amusement); and, of course, many of ‘Ern’s plays’ featuring mostly serious and celebrated actresses such as Glenda Jackson, Vanessa Redgrave and Diana Rigg.

Perhaps the classic Christmas show was the one served up in 1971, which featured Shirley Bassey’s performance of Smoke Gets In Your Eyes while the pair dressed as flat-capped dogsbodies try to salvage her footwear, as well as the world-famous André Previn conducting Eric’s ‘version’ of Greig’s Piano Concerto ‘by Greig’. The latter, to my mind, is probably the greatest Morecambe and Wise sketch of all. The lines (‘I’m playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order’), the timing, the development – or dissolution into inevitable chaos – and terrific support from Previn (or ‘Andrew Preview’) are all oustanding. And, yes, it’s very, very funny. For me, it’s the epitome of telly entertainment.

After achieving an extraordinary TV audience of 28.5 million for their ’77 Christmas show (the biggest and boldest show they ever staged), Eric and Ernie transferred from the Beeb back to ITV – or, to be specific, to Thames Television, ITV’s week-based South East subsidiary. By making the switch they were paid a higher salary, but the real appeal for them was the opportunity to star in another film, which would be made through Thames’s Euston Films division – it turned out to be the poorly received murder-mystery spoof Night Train To Murder, released in 1983.

‘All men are fools. And what makes them so is having beauty like what I have got’ ~ Glenda Jackson as Cleopatra in one of Ernie’s unforgettable, (un)sophisticated plays

Although successful with the public still, the duo’s second spell with ITV never hit the dizzying heights of their BBC years. This was due in part perhaps because it featured a lot of recycled material, in spite of Eddie Braben joining them from 1980 onwards. And there was another reason too – Morecambe’s health.

After one series and one Christmas special, in January 1979 Eric suffered another heart attack and underwent heart bypass surgery. From this point on he would never be the performer, full of nervous energyand terrific timing, he once was. As the early ’80s progressed, more series and more Christmas specials were made, but Morecambe and Wise’s star was fading – from ’81 onwards, the seasonal shows were no longer broadcast on Christmas Day itself, a sure sign they weren’t the draw of yesteryear.

Indeed, in private, Eric was less keen on performing and was really concentrating on writing; he published three novels, Mr Lonely (1981), The Reluctant Vampire (1982) and The Vampire’s Revenge (1983). Following his and Ern’s final show – ’83′s Christmas special – he told his wife Joan that any more Morecambe and Wise would give him another heart attack and, inevitably, kill him. In the event, he hadn’t long to go.

Larger than life: the suitably more-than-life-size statue of Eric in his home town of Morecambe

Eric Morecambe died on May 28 1984, aged 58, the result of a third and final heart attack having just come off stage in Tewkesbury, following a sixth curtain-call at a friend’s show. The media went into mourning and rightly so. For his part, Ernie carried on in showbusiness, appearing regularly as a panellist on What’s My Line? and as a ‘dictionary corner’ guest on Countdown; he even went on to hold the distinction of making the very first mobile phone call, on January 1 1985. Eventually, he retired on his 70th birthday and, following heart bypass surgery too, died on March 21 1999, aged 73. Although, in terms of talent never spoken of in the same breath as is Morecambe, his contribution to the double act simply cannot be underestimated. Like Eric, he too was terrific. Plus, he was their manager.

Mind you, the thing with Morecambe and Wise is that it feels like they haven’t actually gone, such is their aforementioned enduring popularity and presence – especially at this time of year. And that’s a blessed thing indeed. With their sense of Northern fun, childish eagerness, on-screen shtick as failing performers and Goon-esque irreverence, there’s never been a double act quite like them. And, quite simply, there’s never been one as good. There probably never will be. ‘What do you think of it so far?/ Rubbish!’ Quite the opposite, in fact, Eric. Long may the repeats continue, long may the plaudits ring in our ears and long may the memories linger. Because Morecambe and Wise are such utter legends, there’s no danger they won’t – and I say that with an utterly straight face… well, all right, maybe also with my glasses askew.

~~~

Ten of the best

A dectet of classic Eric catchphrases and gags:

  • ‘(He’s got) short, fat, hairy legs’ ~ said of Ern
  • Bullying Ern or a guest by grabbing their lapels and pulling them to his face (memorably done to André Previn)
  • ‘This boy’s a fool’ ~ after totally confounding Ern or a guest
  • Looking away and grimacing if he considers Ern or a guest has suddenly become challenging
  • ‘Be honest’ ~ to the audience after a particularly good joke/ routine
  • Losing focus and mock-realising a camera’s on him and grinning at it like a child, only to be joined by Ern
  • ‘Keep going, you fool!’ ~ in reference to his heart, following his first heart attack
  • Unnecessarily performing the flicking-the-paper-bag-trick, as if an invisible coin has fallen into it
  • ‘You can’t see the join’ ~ said of Ern’s (supposed) wig
  • Fighting his way out from behind the curtain and finally appearing ruffled and, often, with his glasses askew

~~~

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