The peak of British television light entertainment began at 8.55pm on Christmas Day 1977, and lasted 65 minutes.
Watched by 28 million people, the Morecambe And Wise Christmas Show of that year would be the largest audience they ever had, more than half the nation.
Their rise to festive dominance had begun in 1971 when Shirley Bassey pulled on a pair of brown boots, Andre Previn failed to conduct a piano concerto… and the two stars of the show, Eric and Ernie, cemented their role as the undisputed monarchs of the festive schedule.
Other TV duos have come and gone, but none have enjoyed the enduring appeal of the comedy pairing – the tall, handsome one with glasses and the one with the short, fat hairy legs continue to work their charm on audiences.
The peak of British television light entertainment began at 8.55pm on Christmas Day 1977, and lasted 65 minutes. Watched by 28 million people, the Morecambe And Wise Christmas Show of that year would be the largest audience they ever had, more than half the nation. Pictured: Morecambe and Wise with their wives Joan and Doreen
And yet their celebrated double act might never have happened. After finding fame as teenagers together, the two were torn apart by the Second World War and lost touch completely. Only a chance meeting in London, as I will reveal, saw them reunited… changing the course of British comedy.
Along the way, their relationship was beset by a host of other problems, including Eric’s debilitating ill-health, a disastrous start in TV that threatened to bury their careers, and a mutual dislike between their wives that meant the pair never socialised outside work.
Both Eric and Ernie were child stars – often a recipe for a tragic adulthood. Those who shine brightest earliest can find it hard to keep the flame from fading.
But somehow they defied the odds. Their magical alchemy created a phenomenon that triumphed over all the obstacles and transcended conventional popularity.
It continues to do so to this day. The appeal of the ‘show that nearly wasn’t’ displays no sign of abating.
Other TV duos have come and gone, but none have enjoyed the enduring appeal of the comedy pairing – the tall, handsome one with glasses and the one with the short, fat hairy legs continue to work their charm on audiences
Yet the first meetings between the two comedians, then Eric Bartholomew and Ernie Wiseman, gave no hint of the closeness that was to come.
According to Eric – who was just 13 when they began appearing in a touring variety show together, and still accompanied everywhere by his redoubtable mother Sadie – the slightly older Ernie was ‘cocky’ and ‘bumptious’.
‘He [Ernie] was taller than me at the time, and his mother wasn’t with him, all of which gave him a debonair and – to my mind – devastating advantage with the girls,’ remembered Eric many years later.
‘I remember standing in the wings, watching Ernie in his immaculate, made-to-measure dress suit and straw hat. He looked so assured, and I remember thinking, “Bighead.” ’
It was on the long train journeys between venues for the show Youth Takes A Bow that a friendship began to blossom.
It would turn into one of the deepest in showbusiness.
Both Eric and Ernie were child stars – often a recipe for a tragic adulthood. Those who shine brightest earliest can find it hard to keep the flame from fading
Mature beyond his 14 years – the school-leaving age at the time – the confident Ernie would fend for himself and find accommodation on his own in each town.
But one evening, disaster struck when the show was playing at Oxford’s New Theatre in 1940 and the young man found himself with nowhere to stay.
A fellow performer offered to help him find lodgings for the night, and at a boarding house in the city centre their voices were overheard by Sadie, Eric’s mother. She had booked a room for the show’s run of a week containing one single bed and one double. She suggested to the landlady that Ernie could join them, sharing a bed with Eric – an idea that would later become a staple of their comedy.
At the end of the week, Sadie asked Ernie if he would like to continue the arrangement in other towns for future dates. He leapt at the chance.
Travelling, living and working together, Eric and Ernie spent all their time trying to make each other laugh when they weren’t on stage with the rest of the troupe, using jokes they’d heard on the radio or borrowed from other performers. ‘There wasn’t a minute’s peace for me,’ an exasperated Sadie said later. ‘You couldn’t talk sense to either of them.’
Eventually, she suggested they channel their endless in-jokes into a double act of their own. It was one of those throwaway suggestions that can change the course of a life.
According to Eric – who was just 13 when they began appearing in a touring variety show together, and still accompanied everywhere by his redoubtable mother Sadie – the slightly older Ernie was ‘cocky’ and ‘bumptious’
In every spare minute they could find, the two teenagers now worked on their fledgling act. But highly strung Eric’s fiery temper was already in evidence. Matters came to a head one day when Ernie proved slightly less than word-perfect and Eric flew into a rage.
Sadie intervened, told her son off for speaking so sharply and banished him from the room. But Ernie told Sadie that she shouldn’t have said anything.
‘Don’t you see?’ he said. ‘Eric is only trying to make me the best feed in the country. And shall I tell you something? He’s going to be the best comic in the British Isles.’
The incident says much about the adolescent Wise’s maturity and generosity of spirit. Both recalled later that Eric made strenuous efforts to control his temper from then on.
But their charmed life together was about to come to an abrupt halt. In 1943, Ernie joined the Merchant Navy and Eric became a conscripted mine worker at Hargrave Collieries in Accrington, Lancashire, before being discharged with heart trouble – a harbinger of things to come. It was a perilous point in the Morecambe and Wise story.
In the summer of 1945, a newly demobbed Ernie Wise, then 20, was walking along Regent Street in Central London. On the other side of the road he spotted what he thought was a familiar face. As he wove his way through the cars and pedestrians to get nearer, he was astonished to see standing in front of him his old friend Eric, with Sadie. As chance encounters go, it must rank as one of the most extraordinary and significant in the history of entertainment.
Travelling, living and working together, Eric and Ernie spent all their time trying to make each other laugh when they weren’t on stage with the rest of the troupe, using jokes they’d heard on the radio or borrowed from other performers
Without it, Ernie might have become the song-and-dance man he was probably cut out to be, and Eric might have had a successful career as a solo stand-up act. Instead, they would rekindle their old magic and pool their talents to achieve success beyond anything they could ever have dreamed of.
Within a short time, the two were back on the road with the double act they had created as teenagers. But their humour did not immediately chime with audiences. Venues with a capacity of about 1,500 were sometimes attended by as few as six people. ‘Glasgow was definitely the grave,’ remembered Morecambe later of that dispiriting period. ‘The comics’ graveyard. I used to be ill when the telegram arrived saying, “Go to Glasgow.” We used to walk off to the sound of our own footsteps.’
The duo’s break into TV in 1954, in a variety series called Running Wild, should have given them their first taste of stardom. But it was a spectacular flop. The series went out live and no recordings were made, but reviews from the time tell a sorry tale. In the Daily Mirror, Clifford Davis called their performance ‘sick characters in search of an author’, while in The People, Kenneth Baily wrote: ‘Definition of the week: TV set – the box in which they buried Morecambe and Wise.’
A devastated Eric was so stung by the line that he carried the cutting in his wallet for the rest of his life.
The pair might easily have given up at that point, especially as their bookings often involved playing second fiddle to performers without their experience.
The fact that both men had now got married, Ernie to dancer Doreen Blythe and Eric to beauty queen and singer Joan Bartlett, had brought fresh problems to the dynamic. Pictured: Mrs Morecambe and Mrs Wise
Ten years younger than Eric and Ernie, Tommy Steele was already an established headline act. Pop singers such as Adam Faith and Cliff Richard were among the era’s big names. On the comedy scene, the younger Ken Dodd was emerging as a huge talent. Eric and Ernie appeared to have got as far as they possibly could.
With their traditional variety format, they risked being cast aside as relics of a bygone age, despite their relative youth.
Following the Running Wild TV debacle, it would take seven years of hard graft on the regional circuit before they got another break, with a chance to redeem themselves in ATV’s Two Of A Kind show – and they grabbed it with both hands. This time, it paid off.
With updated scripts, slicker production and a clean-cut, family image that set them apart from the slightly off-colour jokes of some other performers of the era, they had found a formula that worked.
Suddenly, audiences could not get enough of them. By 1964, nearly a quarter of a century after their first meeting and now approaching their 40s, they were heading the bill at theatres and topping the TV ratings. Even stars such as The Beatles were happy to make an appearance on their TV show, joining Eric and Ernie for a comedy routine after performing a selection of their classics.
‘The boys never socialised because the wives didn’t get on,’ remembers ventriloquist John Bouchier, who toured extensively with Eric and Ernie in the 1970s
When John Lennon tried to suggest Eric and Ernie were old-timers, Morecambe, pretending to be affronted, asked him what he meant. Lennon replied ‘Well, my dad used to tell me about you’, holding his hand horizontally a short distance from the floor to indicate himself as a child. Eric pounced. ‘Have you only got a little dad, then?’ Lennon began laughing, his famed enigmatic persona evaporating instantly.
Des O’Connor, a fellow comic and close friend, did not escape their barbs. ‘He came to my daughter’s wedding,’ announced Eric in the 1979 Christmas show, with O’Connor sitting alongside him. ‘He wasn’t invited, but he came.’
Comedic misnaming of their guests became part of their stock in trade. Poldark star Angharad Rees was renamed ‘Handgrenade’ while Elton John became ‘Elephant John’. And the stars loved it.
The only celebrity to turn them down was the actress Sarah Miles, who shocked strait-laced Ernie with her barrack-room language over lunch. ‘Right through the lunch, Sarah was using every four-letter word in the book,’ remembered producer John Ammonds. ‘Poor Ernie was going redder and redder. Eric was all right, but Ernie was a bit old-fashioned with things like that.’
Angela Rippon didn’t turn them down – but one of their most famous sketches might never have happened if Eric had had his way.
‘Ernie’s wife thought that he was the star and that Eric couldn’t manage without him and so consequently, although they were electric on stage, they never mixed,’ John Bouchier said
Producer Ernest Maxin recounted how he had spotted the newscaster while she was showing a relative round the BBC.
‘The aunt wanted to see the Morecambe And Wise studio. It was the first time I’d seen Angela from the waist down. I’d had coffee with her in the canteen, but she was always sitting down.’ As she was on the Nine O’Clock News.
‘Now I saw these gorgeous legs and said, “Do you dance at all?” She said, “Well, I can dance. I went to a dancing school and I love ballet.”
‘I asked if she’d like to come into a Morecambe And Wise Show, and she said, “I’d love to, but I don’t think my boss would let me.”
‘I said, “Would you mind if I went to see him?” ’
Angela’s boss was easier to convince than Eric. When Maxin mentioned the meeting to the two men, ‘Ernie said, “Yes, great idea.” Eric said, “No. We’ve had a lot of stars on this show – Diana Rigg and all these people. No” ’.
In 2009, Doreen told an interviewer that when she and Ernie first began dating, Eric was always there, too
But Maxin was not about to give up. Hearing about a lunch at which Angela would be present, he made sure that Eric was invited, too, feeling that once he met her, he’d be convinced. And so it proved.
At a rehearsal later that day, Eric said nothing. ‘I thought, “It’s all over now – we tried,” ’ remembered Maxin. ‘Eric was the last one to go. He closed the door as he went out. A few seconds later, he put his head around the door, and, smoking his pipe, said, “Let’s have Angela Rippon in the show.” ’ And so a piece of TV history was made.
MORECAMBE and Wise had arrived. But behind the laughter on set, the reality was far from tranquil. Gone were the carefree days of their boyhood, the shared rooms and beds, the hilarious train journeys where the two would end up helpless with laughter.
‘Eric was smoking between 60 and 100 cigarettes a day and living on his nerves,’ Ernie observed later. ‘None of us who worked with him quite appreciated the stress he was under.’ Eric’s son Gary says: ‘He always had to have a worry. If he didn’t have a worry, he’d be worried he hadn’t got a worry.’
The fact that both men had now got married, Ernie to dancer Doreen Blythe and Eric to beauty queen and singer Joan Bartlett, had brought fresh problems to the dynamic.
‘The boys never socialised because the wives didn’t get on,’ remembers ventriloquist John Bouchier, who toured extensively with Eric and Ernie in the 1970s.
Eric and Joan wasted very little time in starting a family, their first child, Gail, arriving ten months after the wedding
‘Ernie’s wife thought that he was the star and that Eric couldn’t manage without him and so consequently, although they were electric on stage, they never mixed.’
In 2009, Doreen told an interviewer that when she and Ernie first began dating, Eric was always there, too. ‘We never could get rid of him,’ she said. ‘He was always in the way. I used to joke that we’d have to find a girl for Eric, otherwise we’d be lumbered with him for ever.’
Eric and Joan wasted very little time in starting a family, their first child, Gail, arriving ten months after the wedding.
Taking his family responsibilities seriously, Eric learned to drive. But as soon as finances allowed, he employed drivers so he could arrive for work as calm as it was possible for someone as naturally stress-stricken as him to be.
Ernie and Doreen took a decision early on not to follow the same path as Eric and Joan. Family life was not to be for them.
After Wise’s death in 1999, Doreen explained it had been a question of fidelity. If she travelled with him and they kept up their sex life, he’d never be tempted to stray.
In 1968, aged just 42, Eric Morecambe suffered the first of three heart attacks. Although reports described it as ‘slight’, it had been a serious one, and the comedian had been lucky to survive.
Its gravity cast doubt on the future of the partnership. Peter Boita, a drummer who would go on to work extensively in television, recalls an encounter with Ernie at a gig in Peterborough. ‘In the interval, Ernie came in to the dressing room. It was just after Eric had had his heart attack. He said, “He’s not too good. I don’t know how long we can keep going.” ’
If the episode had proved fatal, it’s unlikely that Morecambe and Wise would be remembered so fondly or intensely all these decades later. The years in which they were to find their stratospheric success still lay ahead.
But a second attack followed in 1979, after which Eric underwent bypass surgery and was fitted with a pacemaker. His last five years were spent in the shadow of a third – and fatal – one which struck in 1984, when he was just 58. The remarkable 45-year bond was at an end. Ernie never recovered from the loss of his friend. In the latter part of their career, the two had been able to express their deep and enduring love for each other only through their extraordinary chemistry on stage or screen. But in the aftermath of Eric’s death, it finally became apparent just what his co-star had meant to Ernie.
Their scriptwriter Eddie Braben had once written a line for Eric for when Ernie disappeared into the wings briefly. ‘Don’t be too long, I get a cold draught all down one side.’ It was a joke, but it was based on the writer’s close observation of his friends. ‘Eric said he was aware there was a space, an uncomfortable emptiness, when Ern wasn’t there,’ remembered Braben.
‘He’d say, “I’m fine. I’m OK for about two minutes. After that it doesn’t feel right.” Off-stage, they could manage without each other. In the studio, rehearsal room or the variety theatre it was very different.
‘The following has happened when I’ve gone into Eric’s room. “Have you seen Ernie?” “He’s in the gallery talking to the sound man. Do you want him?” “No, no, nothing important.” This has happened in Ern’s room. “Is Eric around?” “He’s at the tea machine. Did you want him?” “No, I’ll talk to him later.” Each one looking for the other half of himself.’
Ern would spend the rest of his life looking for Eric. Six years on, during the radio show Desert Island Discs, he was still referring to his friend in the present tense.
Eric and his beloved ‘little Ern’ remain the gold standard for double acts. As recently as last December, as lockdowns and Covid tiers gripped the nation, a Morecambe And Wise special was a central feature of the Christmas Eve scheduling. For modern viewers, gone now are all the stresses the duo endured, the heartbreaks and disappointments. What remains is the sunshine they keep on bringing us: the laughter and love, the sense of continuity, the comfort.
Maybe in our uncertain world we need Morecambe and Wise – the act that nearly didn’t happen – more than we ever have.
© Louis Barfe, 2021
- Sunshine And Laughter: The Story Of Morecambe And Wise, by Louis Barfe, is published by Apollo on July 8 at £25. To pre-order a copy for £21.25, with free UK delivery, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193 before July 11.