It is Christmas time again and, as is the norm at this time of year, there will be many a yuletide tradition being re-enacted: exchanging of gifts, the eating of turkey with all the trimmings, much consumption of alcohol and many inappropriate liaisons between co-workers at the office Christmas party!
For me however, Christmas always says one thing: Morecambe and Wise.
1974 aside, the classic comedy act made Christmas their own through their annual Christmas specials between 1969 to 1980, and they’re yuletide show reached a peak in 1977 when it attracted 28 million viewers, cementing them as the biggest act in the country at that time.
However the road to this level of success was not an easy one, and it was one that had more than its fair share of highs and lows along the way.
The journey to dominating Christmas in the 70s for John Eric Bartholomew and Ernest Wiseman began in 1940 when the then teenagers were booked separately to appear at the Nottingham Empire Theatre. At the suggestion of Eric’s mother, the two became one and were initially named Bartholomew and Wiseman. Unsurprisingly this name was viewed as a bit of a mouthful, so Ernie shortened his name to Wise, Eric changed his to that of his hometown and Morecambe and Wise were born. They performed as a double-act for the first time at the Liverpool Empire in 1941 and in the audience that night was a man who would feature heavily in their future, the comedy writer Eddie Braben – and he wasn’t impressed.
“I saw them at the Liverpool Empire”, he said. “It was a packed, enormous Liverpool Empire theatre and they had all gone to see the top of the bill, Lena Hall. Before we got to Lena Hall, these two boys came on the stage and nobody knew them or heard of them, and they were painful. They were awful.”
This inauspicious start did not deter Morecambe and Wise and they continued to tour the country playing in the clubs and theatres of the variety circuit of the time. They even played the infamous Glasgow Empire, a theatre which Ken Dodd had nicknamed the House of Terror. The theatre had a fearsome reputation amongst artists due to the audience’s knack of giving acts – particularly English comedy acts – a hard time if they were struggling to get laughs. One victim was Des O’Connor who famously fainted mid-routine at the Glasgow Empire due to the hostile nature of the audience. On their first outing there, Eric and Ernie walked off stage to a deafening silence. “They’re beginning to like you,” the stage manager growled at them.
Such baptisms of fire were intimidating, however they helped Eric and Ernie in learning their trade and honing their act. After a bit of radio work for the BBC helped build their reputation further, the pair were offered their first TV series in 1954 – the infamous Running Wild.
Running Wild would prove to be disastrous for Morecambe and Wise. The reviews were so stinging that both Eric and Ernie suggested to Ronnie Waldman, the head of light entertainment for the BBC at the time, to cancel the show after only three episodes. However Waldman was steadfast in his commitment and belief in the pair and insisted that they continue and see out the whole six episodes. Despite this vote of confidence from Waldman the final three shows failed to improve the image of Running Wild and it was cancelled after one series. The damage to Morecambe and Wise’s reputation was viewed as potentially fatal in terms of their TV careers, and one particular review from Kenneth Bailey in The People – where he described TV as the box they buried Morecambe and Wise in – was so hurtful that Eric Morecambe carried a cutting of it in his wallet until the day he died. With their reputation battered and pride bruised, Morecambe and Wise returned to variety circuit and would not return to television for another seven years.
The return to the stage and the variety circuit hurt the pair but it helped them in solidifying their act. Slowly but surely they recovered from the damage inflicted by Running Wild and started to make guest slots on TV again. By 1961 they had recovered their reputation to such a degree that Lew Grade felt confident enough to offer the duo another crack at a TV series at ATV with the show Two of a Kind. Unlike Running Wild, Two of a Kind would prove to be a success for the pair – one which was helped by the writing of Sid Green and Dick Hills.
The show would run between 1961 and 1968 and was a huge success, although one that relied upon a twist of fate accidentally introducing a new format to the show. A strike by the actors union Equity meant that Morecambe and Wise had no actors to appear in the comedy sketches of Two of a Kind. As members of the Variety Artists’ Federation Union, Eric and Ernie were free to work – as were their writers Green and Hills. The decision was made to include the writers in the show and the format was a huge success – cementing the show’s popularity. But just as Morecambe and Wise seemed to be on the crest of a wave, the floor caved in to such an extent there was a doubt the pair would ever perform again.
In a diary entry from 17 August 1967, Morecambe complained of a pain around the “left side of his heart”. As a heavy smoker and drinker, Morecambe did not enjoy the best of health and this came to a head on the night of 8 November 1968 after a performance at the Variety Club in Bately. Whilst driving home, Morecambe started to experience chest pains that became so severe that he was unable to drive. He lay stricken in his car until a passer-by, a young local lad by the name of Walter Butterworth, found him and drove him at high speed in Morecambe’s Jensen Interceptor car to Leeds Infirmary where it was established that the performer had suffered a major heart-attack at the tender age of 42. He would not perform again for six months.
The doubts about Morecambe’s health prompted Sid Green and Dick Hills to split from Morecambe and Wise – a move that left a sour taste in the mouth of Eric Morecambe as the pair didn’t inform him or Ernie Wise in person that they intended to leave. The departure further complicated matters as Morecambe and Wise had left ATV earlier in the year to join the BBC, and the first series of the now titled Morecambe and Wise Show had just finished a month before Morecambe’s near-fatal heart attack. With one half of the act recuperating from a serious health condition, and with no writers to speak of, there were big doubts about the future of Morecambe and Wise. Whilst Morecambe revovered, Wise kept working the club’s and theatre’s and sent half of the royalties he received to his partner and friend. Meanwhile Bill Cotton, who was head of light entertainment at the BBC, dealt with the writing issue by hiring the Liverpudlian Eddie Braben, who had recently stopped writing for fellow Scouser Ken Dodd, to take over from Sid Green and Dick Hills. Morecambe recovered and returned to record the next series of The Morecambe and Wise Show in May 1969, and they returned to our screens on 27 July of the same year when the first episode of the second BBC series was broadcast to the nation. Yet again Morecambe and Wise had come back from the dead – this time almost literally – and they were about to embark on the glory years of their careers.
Braben would be a vital factor in that. On first meeting the pair he observed that Eric and Ernie were closer than any brothers he had ever met, and he felt that was an opportunity to be exploited: “I was there with these two men in Bill Cotton’s office”, said Braben, “and I saw what was missing; it was warmth. What was missing was the genuine and honest affection that they had for one another, but we never saw this on television. I wanted to bring that out.”
And bring it out he did, with hugely successful results. Wise’s “straight man” routine was altered also with him becoming the pompous writer with his “plays what he wrote” which the guests, who were becoming more and more glamourous with each passing series, would star in.
From 1968 to 1978 Morecambe and Wise were the biggest name in show business as they soared from one success to another. High profile guests and awards came raining down on them, and the many years the pair had put in on the variety circuit were now paying off with an act that was perfected through attention to detail, endless rehearsing and the unshakeable confidence they had in each other. However the success came at a price.
Firstly Eddie Braben suffered a mental breakdown. The endless travelling from Liverpool to London coupled with the constant tinkering and requested rewrites of scripts, from Eric Morecambe in particular, became too much and he succumbed in 1972 – ironically the same year he was awarded with a Bafta for his outstanding contribution to television. Then in 1979 Eric Morecambe would suffer another heart attack that would on this occasion require heart bypass surgery. The price of the success of The Morecambe and Wise Show was taking its toll, and Braben complained that the pressure around the Christmas shows in particular was unfair and unrealistic. With more than half the country watching, Braben felt that Christmas in Britain was almost dependent on the success of Morecambe and Wise’s Christmas special.
But despite the pressures the show rumbled on and huge names like Glenda Jackson, Elton John, John Thaw, Edward Woodward, Peter Cushing, Dusty Springfield, Vanesa Redgrave, Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey queued up to appear on the hottest show on television. In 1976 the newsreader Angela Rippon appeared on the Christmas special, in doing so revealing her shapely legs for the first time – which until that point had remain firmly hidden behind her newsdesk – and an impressive ability to dance. After the success of Rippon’s appearance, the following year saw a host of current affairs correspondents like Richard Baker, Frank Bough, Barry Norman and Michael Aspel appear on the Christmas special to perform ‘Nothing Like a Dame’ from the musical South Pacific. In the sketch, these middle-aged and slightly rotund men performed ever increasingly difficult flips and jumps. It is only after a few minutes of watching that the audience realises they’ve been conned, and even then there were some who belived that Barry Norman could do a somersault five feet in the air. Like Rippon’s appearance the previous year the sketch was a huge success. However there is little doubt that the Morecambe and Wise sketch most people remember is the infamous Andre Previn sketch in 1971, where Morecambe attempts to play Grieg’s Piano Concerto which results in arguably the best line Eddie Braben ever produced. When Previn informs Eric that he is playing “all the wrong notes”, a frustrated and insulted Morecambe tells the famous conductor and composer that he is “playing all the right notes – but not necessarily in the right order”.
In 1978, a mere 12 months after the Christmas sho had attracted its record breaking 28 million viewers, Morecambe and Wise stunned the showbiz world when they left the BBC and returned to ITV with Thames Television. Bill Cotton described their move away from the BBC as “feeling like a divorce”. Contractual obligations with the BBC meant that Braben would not join the pair at Thames until 1980, but even when Braben did finally arrive the shine was starting to wear off the show and Morecambe’s second heart attack in 1979 had again put question marks over his ability to perform.
By the 80s there was a feeling that Morecambe and Wise were on the slide and Morecambe’s son Gary recalls watching the final Christmas special Morecambe and Wise ever made in 1983. “We watched it together, as usual,” he said, “but my father’s mood was far less buoyant. Now made by Thames TV, rather than the BBC, the programme looked tired. Whenever a Thames show transmitted, he’d look to us for reassurance. ‘It was good, though, don’t you think?’ he often asked.
“It was a difficult question to answer. With a lack of decent new material, Eric and Ernie had resorted to rehashing old routines. They looked older, and there was a spark missing. That day, my father was slightly defensive about the show, which was very weak by their own high standards, and I found it very sad.”
From his first heart attack in 1968 Eric Morecambe had always promised to make alterations to his lifestyle, particularly his workload. He stopped smoking a reputed 60 cigarettes a day in favour of a pipe, and took up fishing and birdwatching, but his widow Joan said recently that fear of failure always drove him back towards work. “He was always worried the next show would be the last, always worried they wouldn’t survive”, she said.
This inability to switch off would ultimately cost Morecambe his life at the relatively young age of 58. On 27 May 1984, Morecambe was due to appear at the Roses Theatre in Tewkesbury for a charity show hosted by his close friend Stan Stennett. Morecambe had been feeling unwell on the run-up to the performance and had considered cancelling. But that inability to switch off coupled with a desire to not let an audience down meant that Morecambe fulfilled his commitment. Morecambe would put in a tremendous final performance, making six encores. As he stepped into the wings for the final time he collapsed with his third heart-attack in 16 years and died early the following morning at Cheltenham General Hospital.
His death brought an end to the one of the most iconic double acts of all time. And 34 years after his passing, Eric Morecambe is still to be found on the television at Christmas time with the seemingly endless line of repeats of classic episodes and documentaries about their career.
After Morecambe’s death Ernie Wise continued to work up until his 70th birthday in November 1995, by which time he had his own health issues. Four years later in January 1999 Wise also underwent heart by-pass surgery in Florida after suffering two heart attacks within a week of each other. In March of the same year he was flown back to the UK and died on 21 March at the age of 73.
Eddie Braben admitted that after Morecambe’s death he still had lines for the duo “running round in my head, but there was nowhere for them to go”. His tribute play to Morecambe and Wise entitled The Play What I Wrote, which ran at London’s Wyndham’s Theatre in 2001, provided closure on that. Braben died in 2013, aged 82.
Ernie Wise’s widow Doreen died in April of this year and so out of all the people involved in the most loved comedy double-act this country has ever seen only Eric’s widow, Joan, remains. Now aged 91, she is still proud of what the “one with glasses and the one with short, fat hairy legs” achieved.
“Now there’s no Eric, no Ernie, Ernie’s wife Doreen has gone, there’s only me left”, she told the Radio Times recently. “I’m sad because he’s not here and doesn’t know how successful they still are. But how marvellous for him that they’re still so loved.”
And loved they are. Eric Morecambe has a statue honouring him in the town he was born and took his name from. Ernie Wise has a similar statue in his home town of Leeds. And the pair are immortalised in bronze together at the Winter Gardens in Blackpool – a town they very much made their own during their variety circuit days.
So if you get the chance this Christmas why don’t you revisit them? I can promise you one thing, and that is that is they’ll bring sunshine to your Christmas.