If you thought you knew Morecambe & Wise inside out you're in for a treat with a show featuring lost footage of the legendary comedy double act
22:31 GMT, 9 November 2012
Sixty years ago a scathing television review appeared to consign Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise’s television career to the dustbin.
‘Definition of the week: TV set – the box in which they buried Morecambe & Wise,’ harped a critic, pouring scorn over the double act who were setting the music hall world on fire.
It was a review Eric Morecambe would carry with him until his final days, even as the pair climbed to the top of the TV ladder, a spot they still occupy today despite their last show being filmed three decades ago.
The Morecambe & Wise Show is still a perennial Christmas favourite
‘Eric would transfer the review from jacket to jacket – he kept it in his breast pocket,’ recalls his widow Joan.
‘They never knew how long their success was going to last. He would never have believed people would still consider Morecambe & Wise great entertainers after all these years.’
The Morecambe & Wise Show is still a perennial Christmas favourite, attracting new fans every year, while the pair have inspired a whole new generation of comics including Vic Reeves. Miranda Hart grew up wanting to be ‘the female Eric Morecambe’ and has become good friends with his family, who got in touch with her when they heard of her obsession with Eric.
Within three days she’d come to see them. ‘We all got on and it’s lovely. She’s very in awe of it all,’ says Eric’s son Gary, who has written and contributed to seven books about his father and his comedy partner.
‘She comes around a lot now and with her I sense the same vibe as my father. She has that spark that makes you realise her mind is working out funny things to say as she’s talking.’
Now a new series called Bring Me Morecambe & Wise will trace the story of the comedy pairing through early footage – some of it never before aired in public – and insights from Eric’s family and the pair’s celebrity fans. Gary says even he has never seen some of the footage unearthed.
Researchers for the show have had access for the first time to all the Morecambe & Wise estate archives and found some hidden gems.
Eric Morecambe with his wife Jean and their children Gail and Gary
Among the surprises are an early incarnation of the famous Andr Previn sketch with Grieg’s Piano Concerto – there’s no Previn but most of the dialogue is the same. We also hear associates revealing how they came up with some of their best ideas: the stage curtain for example, used as a prop in so many of their sketches, was actually totally unnecessary in a TV studio but the pair insisted on keeping it and introducing a studio audience as a throwback to their music hall days.
Eric Bartholomew and Ernest Wiseman (as they were then) met aged just 12 and 13 on the touring variety circuit. Brought together as a double act by Eric’s mother Sadie, they emerged as something new and exciting.
‘I knew from the start they were something special,’ recalls Joan, a former dancer who met Eric on the circuit. ‘Some of their stuff was very original and that was the key to their success. When television came in a lot of the music hall people vanished because they were used to only ever doing one act; Eric and Ernie could adapt, they could come up with new stuff all the time.’
But their first television show, Running Wild in 1954, was not a success. After the barrage of criticism they retreated back to the music hall until they were offered their own show on ATV in 1961.
This time they insisted on being in control of the production – believing that Running Wild’s failure was because the producers of the show had not got to grips with their material.
But in some ways success was harder than failure; and it particularly impacted on Eric’s health. ‘They had to learn new stuff every week and because they were so popular they were in constant demand,’ recalls Joan. ‘They even went across the Atlantic to do the Ed Sullivan show – it was overwhelming and that was why Eric had his first heart attack.’
After that first health scare in 1968, when he was just 42, Eric was supposed to take a year off, but the comedy never stopped. ‘Most people wake up thinking about what they’re going to have for breakfast – he woke up wondering what he could observe today that would be funny,’ recalls Gary.
Now a new series called Bring Me Morecambe & Wise will trace the story of the comedy pairing through early footage
He was back to work within a few
months trying to create a Christmas special – they would often attract
up to 28 million viewers – better than the previous year’s.
of the most memorable sketches, including ones with Des O’Connor,
Angela Rippon and Elton John, have been repeated so often they’ve become
part of the British DNA. Gary too has fond memories of watching the
shows with his father, ‘When it was about to start we’d all grab a
drink. He’d fall about laughing as he watched it and at the end he’d
always say, “I thought Ernie was terrific tonight.”’
He was back to work within a few months trying to create a Christmas special – they would often attract up to 28 million viewers – better than the previous year’s.
Some of the most memorable sketches, including ones with Des O’Connor, Angela Rippon and Elton John, have been repeated so often they’ve become part of the British DNA. Gary too has fond memories of watching the shows with his father, ‘When it was about to start we’d all grab a drink. He’d fall about laughing as he watched it and at the end he’d always say, “I thought Ernie was terrific tonight.”’
But as the pair’s frenetic work rate continued Eric’s health declined and he suffered another heart attack in 1979.
He continued working but knew it would kill him; the pair’s last Christmas special was in 1983, and Eric had determined to give up work. But after taking part in a charity show in May 1984 he collapsed with a third heart attack and died shortly afterwards in hospital.
After Eric’s death Ernie moved to Florida and went cruising around the world before he too died of heart failure and a chest infection in 1999.
‘I don’t think either of them would have dreamt of how their popularity would go on and on,’ says Joan. ‘We were all waiting for the bubble to burst. But it never has.’
Bring Me Morecambe & Wise starts Wednesday 21 November, 9pm, Gold.