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.
What’s harder to understand, especially in the light of their later success, is that they were well into adulthood before this looked like changing. In fact, it wasn’t until the early Sixties, when they already had a failed television series behind them – one reviewer was prompted on seeing it to redefine television as ‘the box in which they buried Morecambe and Wise’ – that they began to look like more than just another Mike and Bernie Winters. What helped effect the change was television. Or, more precisely, their sudden realisation on returning to Britain after a six-month absence in Australia that variety was in its death throes, and that if they wanted to make it in TV, they would have to sharpen-up their act.
Working for Lew Grade’s ATV with the writers Dick Hills and Sid Green, they subtly altered the relationship between the stage personae of Eric and Ern. Over the course of six series between 1961 and 1968 something developed between the pair that made them look less like an act and more like a relationship. Bruce Forsyth noticed it in 1964, when he watched them from the wings of the London Palladium: ‘you could tell, as soon as they came out at the beginning of the show, that something was happening.’ Their act was moving away from the antagonistic mismatch of Abbott and Costello and closer to the exasperated camaraderie of Laurel and Hardy; as Kenneth Tynan put it, they were ‘no longer comic and stooge, but egoists in more or less equal competition’. They still told jokes and performed in sketches that required only caricature-acting, but now their roles were blurring to the point at which they could, on occasion, become interchangeable. In one sketch, a burlesque flamenco, they decided in rehearsal to swop the parts assigned to them by Hills and Green, showing a flexibility that was already putting them beyond the range of most double acts. Eric was still the funnier of the pair, but he was getting laughs from changing his angle of attack, from playing against the roles normally earmarked for the clown.
It was the ATV shows that positioned Morecambe and Wise as national comedians, picking up awards, starring in feature films, gaining American exposure on The Ed Sullivan Show. But it is their shows for the BBC in the Seventies that will be remembered. In his influential Observer profile in 1973, Tynan likened the two to a classic sports car developing through three distinct phases. From the Mark I of the variety stage, a serviceable but clunky number, there evolved the Mark II of ATV, a breezier twin-cam job. Then, with the move to the BBC in 1968, so Tynan argued, the double act underwent a decisive change. No longer straight man and comic, or even funny man and funnier man, they had become an even more intriguingly ill-assorted pairing of unfunny comic and hilarious straightman. It was Ernie, taking on the roles conventionally played by the clown, who became the dim-witted sophisticate dreaming of an entrée into high culture with ‘the plays what he wrote’, the toupéed grotesque with the short fat hairy legs. And as Ernie’s fatuous aspirations mounted it was left to Eric to be the pipe-smoking pragmatist, the indulgent protector of his little fat friend – a benevolent brother charged with bringing the egotistical Ernie back to earth by reminding him that ‘life isn’t Hollywood, it’s Cricklewood.’
As McCann convincingly tells it, this phase of their career owed much to a sympathetic, pre-Birtian BBC establishment. The Head of Variety at the BBC, Bill Cotton Jr, had enticed the pair away from Lew Grade, and offered them what is by modern standards an astonishing latitude to experiment and refine their ideas. After Eric’s first heart attack in 1968, he allowed them an unprecedented three weeks to rehearse, and two days to record, each show – at ATV they had had one week to rehearse a show which was then recorded live. The kind of rehearsal period more often seen in the theatre was, according to McCann, the key to their success; they moved their base of operations from the studio to a spartan rehearsal room near Wormwood Scrubs, where the Rolls-Royces of their guest stars would turn up (they always insisted that guests were thoroughly rehearsed). Here, warmed by the pea and ham soup from Eric’s vacuum flask and accompanied by muffled singalongs from the adjacent old people’s club, they would take the spit and polish to their material, reworking every gag and every movement until it shone with the gloss of apparent spontaneity.
Working on this material with them was their producer, John Ammonds, the man who persuaded Morecambe to trust the camera, to play to it with his asides and use it as a mirror for his idiot grin. The other member of the team, their new writer Eddie Braben, was only rarely present. While Hills and Green had entered rehearsal with nothing much more than improvisatory ideas, Braben would send finished scripts from Liverpool. These would be subject to alteration and refinement – Morecambe and Wise eventually claimed a writing credit for the additional material – but remained the essence of the shows.
The great American radio and television shows – Jack Benny in the Forties, Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows in the Fifties – relied on whole teams of writers, many of whom went on to be stars in their own right. With a few rare exceptions, Morecambe and Wise had only Braben working in isolation two hundred miles away. This achievement is all the more remarkable because Braben, who was also Ken Dodd’s writer, single-handedly altered the basis of their act and gave it many of the signatures for which they would be remembered. Braben refined the act’s linguistic content and marked it with the characteristic absurd non-sequiturs: ‘Are you prepared to ratify my proposals?’ ‘Certainly. Put them on the table and pass me that mallet’; ‘My auntie’s got a Whistler.’ ‘Now, there’s a novelty.’ He took a Scouse relish in subjecting the most exalted reputations to a very Northern piss-take; delighting, for example, in making Glenda Jackson’s Cleopatra utter the immortal words: ‘I can feel your heart pounding like a whippet inside a bowler hat.’
Braben introduced an entirely new sense of partnership. Approached by Cotton to write for the pair, he had hesitated, reminding them that he wrote jokes rather than sketches. As it turned out, he underrated himself. For what he brought with him was a new level of characterisation. This began with his idea of having Eric and Ernie share a flat – making their presence in an enclosed space, as he put it, the ‘equivalent of being inside a music-hall horse-skin’. He took the process one stage further and had them sharing a bed (if it was good enough for Laurel and Hardy, he told them, it was good enough for Morecambe and Wise). Enforced domestic proximity gave them a Pinteresque appreciation of the dramatic and comic potential of the confined space and the long pause. Braben also deepened Wise’s character. According to Morecambe, ‘what Eddie Braben did for Ernie was to make him into a person. Before, anybody could have played his part.’
It is often said that Jimmy James became the best stage drunk ever seen in British variety by recognising that drunks don’t act drunk: that a defining characteristic of drunkenness is the strained, and therefore inadvertently funny, attempt to appear sober. Morecambe understood the importance of a similar strain in the relationship between the two hosts and their celebrity guests. He briefed André Previn before his appearance on the show in 1971: ‘We must never think this is funny, on camera; never think it’s funny: we’re doing it for straight.’ This awareness – the difference, perhaps, between a comedian and a comic – helped Morecambe and Wise turn into something more complex than a couple of retailers of funny material.
Their complexity makes it difficult to place them in the double act tradition. Great stage acts like Sid Field and Jerry Desmonde played roles in delightfully funny sketches – their golfer sketch was a celebrated example, in which the clowning Field would exasperate the urbane Desmonde by taking literally his instructions to address the ball, square up to the ball etc. But their role-playing remained just that, and rarely strayed beyond caricature. There was no back story. This is the case, too, with younger acts like Cannon and Ball or Hale and Pace, even Smith and Jones, which are driven by material rather than by character. The imperative to get laughs is stronger and more immediate than the desire to explore the situations and character dispositions that make laughter happen. French and Saunders, whose range, from shared flat to Hollywood burlesque, owes much to Eric and Ernie, are to some extent an exception. Others, like Reeves and Mortimer, who are the inheritors of the spirit, if not the style, of Morecambe and Wise carry the double act into new territory by mixing it with a range of cinematic, theatrical and televisual influences from Jacques Tati, through the Cabaret Voltaire, to Tom and Jerry. The jokes are new, the comic situations are different, but there is something in the relationship – the odd pairing of minds adrift in their own skewed universe – that immediately suggests Eric and Ernie.
Morecambe and Wise should perhaps be compared to the partnerships of dramatic comedy rather than to other comic double acts. It might be going a little too far to place them alongside Vladimir and Estragon – Eric and Ernie are much funnier – but to put them into the same frame as Albert and Harold of Steptoe and Son, Oscar and Felix of The Odd Couple, or Arthur Wilson and George Mainwaring of Dad’s Army is to see that the comedy is the result of a relationship rather than the brittle patter of variety cross-talk.
Influence in comedy, as in literature, takes some unexpected twists and, like the tradition described by T.S. Eliot, ‘does not at all flow invariably through the most distinguished reputations’. Morecambe and Wise were themselves influenced by solo comedians: Morecambe was a great fan of Buster Keaton and Phil Silvers, and his incompetent ventriloquist act clearly pays a kind of wooden lip-service to Sandy Powell. The pair’s celebrated three-cornered routines with their guests borrowed much from the triangular dialogues of Jimmy James and his two stooges, the beautifully and bizarrely named Bretton Woods and Hutton Conyers. Some of their more absurd moments show the influence of the interwar Liverpudlian monologist Billy Bennett and the surreal braggadocio of Eddie Braben’s particular favourite, Dave Morris, the man who claimed to have successfully defended Crippen for murder only to see him hanged for setting his chimney on fire.
The influence that Morecambe and Wise have exerted is pervasive but unspecific. Many young British comedians and comedy writers cite them as influences – if only because Morecambe and Wise were part of the comic furniture of the homes they grew up in. What modern comedy might hope to learn from them is the warmth of the relationship that they enjoyed with a popular audience – the element that a fan like Ben Elton has perhaps injected into his work with Richard Curtis, and which makes a series like Blackadder, with its own celebrated double act, so appealing.
For McCann this professional warmth is based on a mastery of technique honed through constant rehearsal, but also much more straightforwardly on the pair’s integrity and reciprocity. In making this argument he runs the risk of falling into the rosy memorialising usually associated with variety stars in their anecdotage, the attitude neatly guyed in the reminiscing of The Fast Show’s Tommy Cockles. But while he occasionally peers over the edge he generally skirts this pitfall with a grace worthy of Jack Buchanan – this is a book that carries a hefty weight of research on light feet.
The pair weren’t always wholly true in their private lives to their theme song’s promise of bringing the sunshine. While Wise was straightforward, more generous and modest than his stage persona, Morecambe was a complex and sometimes difficult man. His wife described him tactfully in her book, Morecambe and Wife, as ‘not overblessed with patience’ when it came to dealing with his family. She also said that one of his two favourite sayings was: ‘comedy is based in fear.’ (The other was the less surprising, ‘all of life is based on timing.’) He published a novel in 1981 that detailed the confused life and ironic death of a Northern comedian, entitled Mr Lonely, and there is evidence that he suffered from occasional sub-Hancock neuroses about his worth as a comedian. McCann acknowledges these facts but weighs them against a mass of accumulated material, garnered from interviews and memoirs, that tells of the fondness and personal esteem that both Eric and the perennially generous Ernie enjoyed among those that knew them.
At a time when the notion of cult comedy was only just beginning to bite, Morecambe and Wise showed that national audiences could be held with material that was innovative, sparkling, and as demotically surreal as anything from the universities and metropolitan comedy clubs. They also showed that there could be such a thing as victimless comedy. In explaining and in celebrating this, McCann is an illuminating and generous critic. His argument that the pair are paradigms of the postwar settlement and of a public broadcasting service that set art above accountancy, punchline above bottom line, is suitably elegiac. But in idealising that culture and lamenting its fall he perhaps shuts the door on postlapsarian comics such as Reeves and Mortimer, Eddie Izzard and Harry Hill, who can command national audiences, if not quite on the scale managed by Morecambe and Wise, without selling out to the deadening commercialism of mainstream comedy. His argument, too, tends to turn a blind eye to the massive popularity sustained in American network broadcasting by a range of comedians from Jack Benny to Jerry Seinfeld. Like Laurel and Hardy before them, they have required no public service assistance to capture a national mood and mind.