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Morecambe, Eric (1926-1984) and Wise, Ernie (1925-1999)

Comedy Duo

Main image of Morecambe, Eric (1926-1984) and Wise, Ernie (1925-1999)

Morecambe (tall, glasses) and Wise ('short, fat, hairy legs') were Britain's most popular comedy duo for over two decades. It was in the 1970s, at the BBC, that they hit their peak, perfecting their characters and relationship (Eric, the child-like buffoon; Ernie, the aspiring playwright), and delighting audiences. Their Christmas Day shows became a national institution; the 1977 episode, with 28 million viewers, still stands as the most watched comedy programme in British television history, a record that will probably never be broken.

Eric Morecambe (b. John Eric Bartholomew, Morecambe, Lancashire, 1926) and Ernie Wise (b. Ernest Wiseman, Leeds, 1925) first worked together as teenagers in 1941. Ernie had been a child prodigy (working the halls in a father/son duo, 'Bert Carson and The Little Wonder'), while Eric had worked his way up through talent shows. It was Eric's mother who persuaded them to work as a duo when both were appearing in the Jack Hylton revue, Youth Takes a Bow.

War service disrupted the budding act (Ernie in the merchant navy, Eric as a Bevin Boy), but they were reunited by accident in 1946, and began to work on their act again (at one point with Eric as the straight man). Times were hard, but they persevered, making their television debut on the talent show Parade of Youth (BBC, tx. 28/9/1951). This followed some earlier radio appearances on the BBC in 1947/48 (they had also appeared on radio in 1943 prior to war service).

It was the duo's radio appearances that led to their first taste of fame. Becoming semi-regulars on the BBC's Northern Home Service show Variety Fanfare from 1952, they were awarded their own series, You're Only Young Once, on the Northern Home Service in November 1953, running until December 1954. They also appeared on television during this period on the variety show Pantomime Party (BBC, tx. 23/12/1953), along with Stan Stennett and Josef Locke.

They were sufficiently popular by this stage to be offered their own television series by Ronnie Waldman, the head of light entertainment at the BBC. However, the ensuing series, Running Wild (BBC, 1954), very nearly killed their careers. Poorly written, inadequately prepared, and exposing the duo's inexperience, the only thing wild was the critical hostility. Six episodes were planned, but by the third Morecambe and Wise were desperate for the series to be dropped. However, it dragged on, at Waldman's insistence, to an ignominious and, for them, depressing end.

Fortunately only a minority of the population possessed television sets at this time, so the damage was not irreparable. They spent the ensuing years perfecting their timing and routines and renewing their self-confidence.

They returned to television as the resident comedians on The Winifred Atwell Show (ITV, 1956), with scripts in the capable hands of Johnny Speight. They also reappeared on the BBC in Variety Cavalcade (tx. 1/7/1956), before hosting the revue series Double Six (BBC, 1957). Extracts from their summer shows were also regularly screened during the late 1950s, under such titles as Stars at Blackpool (BBC, tx. 23/9/1957), Let's Have Fun (BBC, tx. 3/6/1957 and 3/7/1959), from Blackpool, and Northern Lights (BBC, tx. 22/7/1958), from their show at Morecambe.

The duo's hard work following the disappointment of Running Wild now paid dividends. In 1961, they commenced production of the ITV series that would seal their stardom. Billed as The Morecambe and Wise Show, but with the on-screen title of Two of a Kind (their theme song of the period), the ATV series (ITV, 1961-68), established them as the country's most popular comedy team. Essential to this success were the scripts by Sid Green and Dick Hills, or Sid and Dick as they were popularly known from their almost wordless appearances in the shows' sketches.

Their television popularity led to three attempts at film stardom, The Intelligence Men (d. Robert Asher, 1965), That Riviera Touch (d. Cliff Owen, 1966) and The Magnificent Two (d. Owen, 1967). However, despite the involvement of Sid and Dick, the films failed to capture the chemistry of the duo's stage and television performances.

In 1968, Morecambe and Wise made the decision to move over to the BBC. The ensuing series, The Morecambe and Wise Show (BBC, 1968-77), would prove to be the golden period of their careers. Sid and Dick wrote the first series, but from the second onwards, Ken Dodd's ex-writer Eddie Braben would be at the helm (Sid and Dick had returned to ATV after Morecambe's first heart attack in 1969, when the future of the duo seemed in doubt).

The majority of the duo's well-loved traits and catchphrases would be developed by Braben over the following few years, with Eric's common man forever pricking the pomposity of Ernie's budding playwright (at least two dramas hot off the typewriter before lunch). Big-name actors seemingly queued up to be in Ernie's plays: Glenda Jackson, Vanessa Redgrave, Peter Cushing (forever reappearing looking for his fee) and John Mills to name but four. Musical performers were also more than willing to be ridiculed: Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey, André Previn (or is that 'Preview'?), Des (short for Desperate) O'Connor, and Cliff Richard.

Recurring gags were prominent. Eric's comments on Ernie's fictitious wig ("You can't see the join"), or the show itself ("What do you think of it so far? Rubbish!"); references to Luton Town Football Club (Morecambe was on the board); "Not now Arthur", as harmonica player Arthur Tolchin attempted to play at inappropriate moments; Eric, with cap, coat and carrier bag, exiting at the rear of the stage ("You told me it was flippin' finished") as Ernie carried on a song and dance number by himself. All of these helped make the BBC shows among the most popular television ever broadcast, and Morecambe and Wise two of the most loved of comedians.

Unfortunately, it was not to last, and they were enticed back to ITV in 1978. Under contract to Thames Television they made The Morecambe and Wise Show (ITV, 1978-83), with scripts initially by themselves, Barry Cryer and John Junkin, before Eddie Braben rejoined them in 1980. Whoever was responsible for the scripts, the quality of the shows dropped alarmingly. Even when they recycled sketches from their BBC shows, the chemistry no longer appeared to work. For whatever reason (Morecambe's second heart attack, the interruption of commercials), the flame was simply not burning as brightly.

One of the enticements to join Thames had been the company's promise to produce a film vehicle for the duo. This never actually materialised, although they did appear in 'Hearts and Minds' (tx. 23/11/1978), an episode of The Sweeney (ITV, 1975-78), an uneasy blend of that series' usual thick ear drama and the duo's comedy.

The closest they came to starring in another film was Thames's feature length comedy Night Train to Murder (ITV, tx. 3/1/1985), a lumbering, poorly filmed, unfunny spooky house tale fashioned after the much-filmed John Willard play The Cat and the Canary.

By the time this was transmitted Morecambe was dead, having succumbed to his third heart attack. Morecambe and Wise had rarely worked apart, although Eric had featured in a small, virtually dialogue-free role in Betjeman's Britain (ITV, tx. 25/8/1980), as well as in a short film in 1981 containing similar visual interpretations of Betjeman's poems, Late Flowering Love (d. Charles Wallace). Ernie was never to overcome the loss of his partner.

Wise went on to host many compilations of Morecambe and Wise material over the ensuing years, in addition to appearing on stage in productions of The Mystery of Edwin Drood and the famous farce Run for your Wife, but, wisely, he never tried to pursue a career as a solo comedian. He was the subject of the documentary 'The Importance of Being Ernie' (tx. 27/4/1993) in the series Forty Minutes (BBC, 1981-94).

Like his partner before him, Ernie Wise died from a heart attack in 1999. Morecambe and Wise had won six BAFTA awards between 1963 and 1977 for their television shows, and had been awarded OBEs in 1976.

John Oliver

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