- Morecambe and Wise by Graham McCann
Fourth Estate, 416 pp, £16.99, October 1998, ISBN 1 85702 735 3
Nearly 29 million people watched Morecambe and Wise’s Christmas Special in 1977 – over six and a half million more than had watched the Queen’s Speech earlier in the day. Graham McCann proposes that this popular endorsement of Morecambe and Wise as de facto national comics is also a vindication of what were then the public service ideals of the BBC. As national broadcasting fragments under the narrowing commercial stresses of satellite and digital, and as political devolution threatens national news programming, this is an attractive argument, suggesting that it is more than an exercise in nostalgia to recall a recent past in which large parts of the nation sat down together. What McCann is trying to account for is not just the careers of two excellent funny men, but the culture – both national and televisual – that made them possible.
To accept (and extend to Celtic Britain) Richard Hoggart’s assertion, in The Way We Live Now, that the English are ‘most characteristic of their collective selves when being irreverent, vulgar, nutty rather than when brought together in deference or respect for occasions invented by their betters’ is to grasp something of the extraordinary national appeal of Morecambe and Wise in the Seventies, and to see why the British might prefer the unworldly wisdom of a tall, balding man in a string vest and khaki shorts and his short fat friend to the official sentiments of their monarch.
Irreverence and nuttiness were the critical components that insinuated Morecambe and Wise into the national mind; they were particularly noticeable in the way they subjected grand international reputations to their own provincial inanity. Rudolf Nureyev was told that he was getting his big chance on the show because Lionel Blair was indisposed; Yehudi Menuhin was told to turn up with his banjo; Alec Guinness was mistaken for ‘Mr Wise’s’ taxi-driver; the exotic and much fêted André Previn was plain ‘Mr Preview’ – the name by which, he told McCann, he is still known to many London cab-drivers more than twenty-five years after appearing on the show.
This is the levelling down on which the British like to pride themselves, that sometimes aggressive way in which egalitarianism is asserted by the business of taking down a peg or two, shrinking a big head, insisting that a particular boot-size will really have to do. In this case it was both the charm and the cheek of the levelling that was to be admired. It was impossible, short of looking like a complete fool, for a guest star to be angry or pompous around Morecambe and Wise. Their only fault lay in believing that everyone else was just as fallible and idiotic and likeable as they were – and, as Morecambe would winningly say, ‘there’s no answer to that.’
Eric was once asked what Ernie and he might have become had they not been comedians. His reply: Mike and Bernie Winters. Eric and Ernie were a double act, and so were Mike and Bernie. But that’s where the similarities end. The route from the generation of double acts that preceded them, comics like Murray and Mooney and Sid Field and Jerry Desmonde, through their near-contemporaries, Jewel and Warriss and Mike and Bernie Winters, to their successors, Cannon and Ball and Little and Large, is undeviating in its reliance on the sparring partnership of an unctuous straight man and a sly, grotesque clown. This is the mode in which Morecambe and Wise began, mimicking the hard-edged wise-guy contentiousness of Abbott and Costello and writing it small on the British variety stage. Very small. Their partnership was established in 1940 when both, already seasoned entertainers, were in their mid-teens. As Morecambe would later recall, they were at this point ‘two boys of 14 with spots telling jokes about their wives’. That their material was formulaic and derivative is understandable.