Morecambe and Wise

Pencil Portrait by Antonio Bosano.

Morecambe and Wise Pencil Portrait
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Last update: 7/12/15

The frustrated song and dance man listened intently before laughing on cue when his longstanding showbusiness partner made it perfectly clear to Michael Parkinson, on his top rated chat show how he felt about American audiences ; “I like them. I like them because they’re over there.” Whatever his loyalty to Eric and that sentiment ran deeply, little Ern, the one with the short fat hairy legs, didn’t feel the same way. In his mind the Hollywood dream never left him yet for Eric the position was clear. It had taken them years to reach the top of their profession in Britain, why would they want to start from scratch again? As Robert Sellers and James Hogg suggest in their 2012 biography of Ernie Wise, “You can visualize Ernie blending in at showbiz parties in L.A. or New York, sipping cocktails, while Eric waits at the airport in a raincoat waiting to get back to england and fish and chips.”

Matters might have stayed that way but as Eric, feeling decidedly unwell onstage at the Batley Variety Club, cut short their normal performance to drive himself back to his hotel, Ernie was to watch the next six months unfold like a proverbial nightmare as everything he had worked for came grinding to a halt. Ernest Wiseman was forty three and suddenly completely unsure of what the future held for him.

This portrait of Eric and Ernie dates from their peak period in the 70’s when their popularity was at its zenith, and all our expectations for Christmas hinged on the quality of their festive show. Twenty eight million viewers tuned into their 1977 Xmas spectacular, a form of shared public consciousness never to be repeated in the digital age of multi media communication and timeslip recording. Only Tony Hancock, twenty years earlier, had previously experienced the type of professional adoration that could empty the pubs on a Friday night when his show went out on the BBC. Love for any performer is uniquely distinct from professional admiration and one can only realistically add the name of Tommy Cooper to this exulted list.

So how is it possible that I can still watch sketches that are constantly repeated and yet still derive enjoyment from them? Why in contrast have I essentially outgrown Monty Python despite my teenage ability to recite many of the scripts verbatim? For me personally, it hinges once more on the “human condition” rather than pure visual humour.

I have studied the duo’s 60’s work when they first found national fame, and yet much of it doesn’t hold up to repeated viewings. In fact, the rather muted reception to some of this material on the top rated coast to coast Ed Sullivan Show, cannot be completely ascribed to the wildly differing American sense of humour. It’s a well known fact that scriptwriter Eddie Braben felt much the same way about their initial televisual personas. Eric was essentially stupid whilst Ernie was smart and astute with money. Yes, their gift for spontaneous comedic timing could work well in any interactive sense with guests (the “Moonlight Bay” sketch with The Beatles is a case in point) but alone together there didn’t seem much love lost between them.

Once the lads had defected to the BBC it was a proper marriage. Symbolically, Ernie worked and Eric donned “the marigolds” but it was an equal partnership. If Ernie’s thriller plays were hampered by geographical inaccuracies (“his plane touched down at le Bourget airport – it felt good to be back in Holland”) Eric would offer encouragement – “That’s a knockout Ern!” If Andre Previn had the temerity to question Eric’s pianistic skills, Ernie would look on with a sense of wide eyed bewilderment that this classically trained upstart could do anything but appreciate his friend’s latent improvisational talent.

They had ended up with on-stage personas Braben says he did not like – Morecambe was “gormless” (a northern England phrase meaning stupid and unworldly), whereas Wise was tight-fisted with money, smart and hard-edged (they were not dissimilar from their older contemporaries Abbott and Costello in this respect).

Braben’s first trick for the duo was to alter these characterisations. Though retaining his love of money, Wise became more naive and his egotism more innocent and less self-aware – while Morecambe became more worldly-wise and even protective of his friend, though still retaining a child-like innocence himself.

After meeting the duo, Braben noticed their friendship and aimed to bring this out at the same time as adding enough jokes to make it funny. He provided the idea of the two not only living together but also sharing a large double bed – something which would have been unthinkable in the case of their ‘Hills and Green’ characters but which, emphasising their closeness as well as their innocence, became a regular feature of the TV shows. He countered their reticence about the idea by pointing out that if it was good enough for Laurel and Hardy it was good enough for them.

Braben found writing for Morecambe and Wise stressful, particularly with pressure to produce the high-profile Christmas Specials, each of which took months to rehearse and film. As a result, he suffered nervous illnesses, including hallucinations. In 1978 Morecambe and Wise were lured back to ITV – but Braben did not go with them because he was still under contract with the BBC. He would not rejoin them on ITV until the 1980s.

In his biography of Morecambe & Wise, Graham McCann investigates the duo’s decision to defect to Thames at the height of their fame with the BBC and hints at Ernie’s continuing obsession with America as one of the principal factors involved. Thames might well have offered the prospect of working with its susidiary Euston films on a new movie project but the pair, as McCann succintly argues, could have stayed with the beeb on financially comparable terms and negotiated with an independent company. Yet Ernie was chiefly aware that Thames was offering an opportunity to build a reputation in America although whether this assertion was ever suitably quantified is somewhat in doubt. As the writer points out “ Thames was not offering Morecambe & Wise more money than the BBC; Thames was not offering Morecambe & Wise greater expertise than the BBC, Thames was not offering Morecambe & Wise more security than the BBC. The only thing, in fact, that Thames WAS in a position to offer Morecambe & Wise that the BBC, in those days, could not was the chance – via its subsidiary, Euston Films – to make another movie”. ‘That in the end, was the only difference,’ Joan Morecambe recalled.

Perhaps ultimately, this was the one business decision Ernie regretted throughout the rest of his life. Sadly, the resultant movie was a disaster and Thames, always under sponsorship pressure and regrettably unaccomodating to Eric’s delicate health situation, could not acquiesce as obligingly as the BBC had, to their need for greater rehearsal time. If, as McCann suggests, the pair had four options to consider, we must speculate upon whether Ernie stressed enough to Eric, the alternative independent route to a fourth film or simply emphasised the BBC’s lack of facilities. Was there a moment when the straight man felt there were dues still owed to him after half a lifetime cajoling, supporting and ‘managing’ his more edgy partner? What also of the six months in 1969 when he was compelled to observe Eric’s recovery from his first heart attack with no assurance that they would ever work together again. The burgeoning video medium offered the opportunity of coast to coast syndication and rental hire opportunities without the need for relocation and the endless grind of night club dates befitting men half their age. Perhaps Ernie envisaged an expanding consciousness amongst American viewers suitably rewarded with a prestigious new television appearance which would seal their transatlantic appeal. Perhaps the wonder of domestic video tape could achieve the level of public awareness that umpteen appearances on the coast to coast Ed Sullivan Show had singularly failed to deliver. Eric surely would not object to that. Pure supposition on my part, but before any of this possibility could begin to take shape, would Ernie have risked dampening the last embers of his American fire by stressing to his partner the Thames assurance of greater transatlantic exposure a mere five years after Eric’s declaration of disinterest in that particular market on ‘The Parkinson Show?’ We shall never know but what is evident is that around the time of their 1978 move to Thames, Eric was pursuing a punishing round of hobbies away from the glare of showbusiness; photography, bird watching, painting, electrical purchases, golf, Trout fishing, Chairmanship of his beloved Luton Town, and most worringly for Ernie, writing. Within three months of their slightly below par inauguaral Thames Xmas Special being broadcast, Eric suffered another heart attack. By 1980 and via the irony of ironies, it was the BBC who, in conjunction with Ernie, brokered a deal with Time Life to show the show on local US Tv channels. Thames never delivered on their American promise, only the production of the movie Night Train to Murder”, a fifth rate television disaster that deservedly never achieved a theatrical distribution. Eric wanted the film stock burnt, a sad coda to their unfulfilled celluloid aspirations. By the time the film premiered, Eric was firmly convinced his future lay in writing, but as ever the problem over Ernie persisted.

Eric’s first published novel about a comic with andeluvian racial views who habitually cheats on his wife whilst treading the boards. Undoubtedly reflective of the social orbit he inhabited in his formative years, his literary character, Sid “Mr Lonely” lewis is prejudiced and persistently makes snide remarks about Asian stereotypes or women. Liberally dosed with comic one liners nobody could deny Eric the right to financially branch out in a new direction; Ernie after all, had been making sound returns for years on his investment property portfolio, earning, as his widow Doreen succinctly puts it, more money from houses than show business.

Eric died in 1984, and a symbiotic forty year partnership came to an end. Despite the fame, two happy marriages, zero scandal, the story of Morecambe and Wise still reads like a modern Greek tragedy. Whilst both men shared a common aim the perceived end result was viewed very differently.

At the core of this relationship was a man who took 75% of the fame and 90% of the laughter, yet could not function alone on stage for more than two minutes without his partner, a man who resented his lifelong friend’s ability to ‘switch off’ from the business at hand immediately a show finished whilst he fretted long into the night smoking incessantly. Yet Ernie’s contribution to Eric’s professional life was immeasurable, and nobody knew that better than the bespectacled genius himself. There was never any friction between them in real life and as Doreen Wise confirms, “they liked each other”.

Ernie was happy to take the insults so long as they got the laughs. Once he perceived the enormous potential in Eric, he was prepared to nurture it and to forgo what would have been a successful solo career in pursuit of the perfect double act. He understood Eric better than any man; his bouts of depression, his mood swings yet in contrast he remained cheerful, placid and easy going. Eric was suffering for his ‘art’ yet essentially remained a loving committed family man.

Reflecting on his life long partner a few days after his death, Ernie was moved to say “He wore himself out. Simple as that. When he was onstage he was very dedicated. I don’t have the same temperament as his, and I’ve always held something back. I don’t go flat out when I’m performing, but Eric did. When he came onstage he gave the audience everything he had, and he didn’t relax or hold back enough, and that’s what killed him. It was stress.”

“When I’m gone, I’m gone. No point worrying about me, you know. But you will still watch the shows won’t you? If you don’t, then it’s all been for nothing.”

Recommended listening

Recommended viewing

Morecambe & Wise – Complete BBC Collection [DVD]

This 20 disc box set contains all the surviving footage from their years at the BBC. All the predictable gems are there but some forgotten ones as well, including Andre Previn’s return appearance. A word of warning though, there are some execrable singing stars liberally scattered throughout, so keep the remote control handy.

Only portions from their inaugural 1968 series (filmed in black and white) survive, but they are included within the set. The full background to the recovery of this rare material can be located at:

A suitable compilation of the best of their ITV work (1961-67 / 1978-1983) in one box set, is still required in order to generate an essential purchase. The consistency was missing, but when a sketch worked it still ‘really worked;’ the 80’s ‘Jungle Book’ send up being an obvious example. The old magic is additionally still in evidence as Ernie enthusiastically conducts the Sid Lawrence Orchestra, whilst Eric physically assists the horn section to reach their highest notes!

Morecambe & Wise: In Their Own Words – Narrated by Jonathan Ross 2008

A television documentary introduced and narrated by Jonathan Ross which aired on BBC One on New Year’s Day 2008, featuring clips telling the story of the rise to fame of Morecambe and Wise. It featured many previously unseen archive clips of the double-act from their days in variety as separate acts, through to their final shows for Thames Television prior to Eric Morecambe’s untimely death at the age of 58 in 1984. Included within the show was one of his last interviews from Gloria Hunniford’s Sunday, Sunday programme. As well as the usual clips of their work (mostly drawn from their years with the BBC with some earlier and later footage) there were transcripts of correspondence unearthed from the BBC’s records, and these were read by impressionist Jon Culshaw throughout the programme.

The pacing of the show is spot on and I am grateful to have recorded it onto DVD at the time, for it has not subsequently resurfaced either as a commercially available release or on Youtube.

Recommended reading

“Little Ern – The authorised biography of Ernie Wise” (Robert Sellers & James Hogg) 2012

In his last years, Ernie Wise lost half of his sight and his hearing following a series of strokes, and became short-tempered because of the medication he was on. His widow Doreen has revealed that he spent the last years of his life paranoid and depressed, seemingly unaware of how much he was loved by fans.

According to the woman who was love of his life “his medication altered his personality and he suddenly began to use strong language whilst developing an irrational fear that people wanted to hurt him. He was afraid of being mugged and became reclusive and depressive.” In view of Eric and Ernie’s aversion to the use of foul language in the pursuit of a cheap laugh, this medically induced character change is a depressing revelation.

My youngest daughter loves them and explaining to her that they tried to entertain people without resorting to pointless expletives or obscenities would be to suggest that they were “bland and “safe”. Such an explanation might have closed her mind to watching them when she first enquired about my tapes. In any event what they did was to craft such clever, playful and funny performances that everyone appreciated them, regardless of background or education. That, in fact, took considerably more thought, skill and effort than peppering the act with the “F” word and insulting the old and infirm.

Of the tributes that poured in when Ernie died in 1999, Doreen has said: ‘I just wished those accolades had been said to his face when he was alive. He had no idea how much he was appreciated.’

Ernie’s widow attributes much of her husband’s latter day health problems to the BBC documentary made in 1990, six years after Eric Morecambe’s death, which upset him greatly, portraying him as a forlorn figure without his comedy partner.

At the time, he wrote to one fan: ‘I fell out with the director. In the end it was just a put down.

Nowadays, Doreen believes the 40 Minutes film, “The Importance Of Being Ernie,” contributed to his first heart attack.

Ernie did indeed carry before him, all the goodwill possible after Eric’s death, but the man who had previously handled the partnership’s business affairs had now lost all his clout and bargaining position. However, this statement negates some obvious career possibilities that Ernie still had in the spring of 1984. As inconceivable as it was to millions to contemplate him working with another partner plenty of comics would have taken up his offer. It was HIS decision not to continue working in such a fashion, not the dictates of showbusiness.

“Morecambe & Wise” (Graham McCann) 1998

Yet another of my £3.00 charity shop purchases! Anyway I prefer hard backs and you have to have more money than sense to buy first editions. Patience always rewards.

The book charts the progress of the duo from a conventional working class music hall act to a mass-audience television team to a national institution. From northern working men’s clubs at the beginning of their career to the 1977 Christmas special that had an audience of 28 million, Morecambe and Wise were a double act continually changing the dynamics of their relationship to reflect their influences and their times.

Morecambe and Wise Untold (William Cook) 2007

A treasure trove of photos and reminiscences from contemporary stars plus an insightful commentary from the author. On page 15, he reiterates the all important distinction between The Two Ronnies and Eric and Ernie. Messrs Barker and Corbett were invented on, and for television, and both comic actors had independent careers that ran parallel to their joint ventures. Morecambe and Wise, on the other hand, were a classic front-of-curtain double act. What we saw on TV was merely the end of a long and very winding road. This volume followed Cook’s earlier literary entry on Eric entitled…

Eric Morecambe UNSEEN – The lost diaries jokes and photographs (William Vook) 2005

Eric’s ultimate dilema is summarised on page 168. ‘The only accurate barometer of success in show business is the money you make’, said Eric, but there was another reason why he carried on, even when his heart could take no more, and that was his loyalty to Ernie. Ernie had never had a day’s illness in his life. He was in no hurry to retire. He’d passed up the prospect of becoming the Britsh Mickey Rooney for a selfless career as Eric’s straight man, and after forty years of faithful service, Eric felt it would be unfair to simply walk away. “He was still on the treadmill”, says son Gary sadly, “and he was still on it until the day he died”.

Eric & Ernie - The autobiography of Morecambe and Wise (W.H. Allen) 1973

A slim, long out of print autobiography, but invaluable for the duo’s recollections of their early years.

If their original style was heavily based on Abbott and Costello, even down to cod american accents, then they would eventually begin to carve out their own individual style. Nevertheless, confidence still came with props, as Eric was candid enough to admit, even in the 70’s;

“I’ve got to have an ‘idiot board’ with the words of our song, “Brong me sunshine,” when we sing it on TV. I know them backwards – sometimes I sing them backwards – but I wouldn’t feel secure without my prop.”

Those early american accents served them well though; an ENSA tour of US army camps in Germany with the Vic Lewis’ Orchestra proving particularly satisfactory. The audience presumably considered them fellow countrymen!


The Morecambe & Wise Website\

The definitive site for updates on product releases, archived articles and scanned memorabilia.\

For younger visitors to my site, a useful starting point for research into Morecambe’s life.