It's been nearly thirty years since Morecambe and Wise's last TV series and yet they still remain the benchmark for any light entertainment teams on TV. We spoke to Joan, Eric's wife, about Eric and Ern's career, which is celebrated in Bring Me Morecambe and Wise on Gold, starting Wednesday, November 21 at 9pm.
This new series has uncovered rare and never before broadcast material of the comedy kings, which is accompanied by insight from a range of comedians on why their work is so timeless. One person who saw them grow from music hall turns into superstars is Joan Morecambe, and she told us why the duo were able to make the leap from stage to TV.
How did Eric and Ernie meet?
They were only boys, about 13 years of age, when they met at discovery shows. People used to hold these events whereby they were discovering new talent and that was really how they met. In that era it was very popular to do competitions, where you won competitions and the competition would lead you on to an audition, which is what I think happened with both Eric and Ernie. Certainly with Eric.
When they first met they were doing their own solo spots and it wasn't until later on, by which time they were very good friends, that Sadie, Eric’s mum, said, "Why don't you do a double act?". That was how it all began. They were still just lads when they first started working and I think Sadie kept them under control a bit!
Did you think the first time you saw them in action as a double act that they would go on to become such a success?
I did, actually. I happened to watch them from the side of the stage and I thought then that they really had a lot to offer. Of course, television wasn't big back then, because it was all about variety and touring. They were so good on stage and they did so well with the audience, they used to bring the house down.
They used to steal the show even when they did 'second spots', which was always the thing that comics hated doing because second spots were like the warm-up act. Somehow they always did very well from the moment they went on stage. They were very likeable, slightly unprofessional in a way, and they were still very young. They didn't become polished until later on. And of course television changed things a lot.
How did they find the transition from stage to screen?
They were born for television. But the difference was that on the stage you had your act, you could tour around, do a summer season, and perform the same material without changing it. That was why so many acts simply folded up when television came along. Variety died.
A lot of people found that very difficult and were without jobs as television took over, but Eric and Ernie were naturals at adapting. Obviously they fell flat on their face to begin with. They took all the advice and the first show, Running Wild, was a complete flop. It was very old fashioned. At the time, they were learning. Everyone was learning. It was all brand new. People should make allowances for that.
How did they take that initial criticism after the first show?
Eric always took it very much to heart. People always ask me if it was true that he kept the newspaper cutting that had a picture of a television captioned with, "This is the box they buried Morecambe and Wise in". It is true. He kept it all his life as a little reminder of what can happen to you.
I think that they were very responsive to helpful criticism, because they were learning. What they thought was terribly hurtful was the negative way that the show was treated and given headlines as if it was the be all and end all that this show flopped.
That doesn't do you any good at all. They got their confidence back when they appeared on stage a few days later and absolutely brought the house down.
Some comics are well known for being sombre and serious away from their work. Was Eric like that at all?
Oh, he had his serious side. He loved his books, he loved his music, and he loved his little office which he didn't have until the last few years of his life, which is rather a shame because he got so much fun out of it. It was like having a den as a little boy! He had all his fishing rods up there and he used to sit and make flies for his fishing.
He very much enjoyed all the normal things in life; his family, watching television, and us all sitting down to Sunday lunch together. He was very much a family man. We had three children – Gail, then Gary, and then we adopted Steven – and having a home and a family meant an awful lot to him. I think when you've toured so much and you've been in so many digs, you really appreciate a home and a family that loves you so much.
Did he ever practice any of his routines at home?
He didn't like to do any of the material in front of me at home and he always liked me to be at the recording when he had the audience in the studio. He liked it to be fresh for me, and then he would like your comments. That was especially the case with the Christmas show, which we would all watch together. He’d then rather like your comments.
What's your favourite sketch of theirs?
Ha! Well, I'm afraid I have to keep on going along with the great British public, who always vote for the André Previn sketch! You can't get away from that sketch because it was so unique and has become a classic.
Eric and Ernie loved doing Singing in the Rain and that doesn't get mentioned so often. Ernie loved it because he got to do all the Gene Kelly dancing and it was just the two of them.
What made Eric laugh?
He loved other comics. He loved Tommy Cooper and he was a great admirer of Ronnie Barker – he loved The Two Ronnies. He loved all the things that we loved, like Dad's Army and all those sorts of shows.
Are there any comics around today that you think he might be a fan of?
I think he'd have to have a laugh at Miranda, wouldn't he, because she's very visual. Miranda is such a fan anyway – you can't stop her talking about Eric Morecambe. I think it was Eric who inspired Miranda to be a comic.
We understand that Eric and Ernie never had a formal contract. Is that true?
Yes. They never did. They never signed a contract with an agent. They were gentlemen, I feel, the agents and them. They shook hands and that was it.
We have to know, Joan, did Eric ever prepare breakfast whilst humming 'The Stripper'?
Ha! No! Eric never did anything in the kitchen – cooking was not one of his hobbies!
Eric and Ernie were naturals at adapting