It’s been a good year for Morecambe and Wise fans. July saw the broadcast of a rediscovered episode of their BBC series and the release of Louis Barfe’s definitive biography Sunshine and Laughter. Nearly forty years on from Morecambe’s death, Eric and Ernie remain unstuck as Britain’s best-loved comedy duo. Repeats, documentaries and compilation programmes usually focus on their ten-year period with the BBC but their television career was bookended by successful stints with ITV networks. They cut their primetime teeth in the 1960s with ATV, while a controversial defection to Thames Television in 1978 yielded five years of their final TV work. Every existing episode from both runs is now available in Network’s Morecambe and Wise at ITV, a 14-disc set containing all 48 editions of their ATV series and all 33 editions of their Thames Television series, plus a wealth of special features comprising some of the duo’s earliest TV appearances.
“Definition of the Week: TV set: the box in which they buried Morecambe and Wise” so bitched critic Kenneth Bailey after the duo made their poorly received television debut in 1954. Their BBC sketch show Running Wild went out live with no recorded copies made so we’ll never be able to judge for ourselves, but they refined their act and built a bridge back to stardom with guest spots on others’ shows. In this set’s earliest footage – a 1957 appearance on Val Parnell’s show hosted by crooning chart-botherer David Whitfield – the Morecambe and Wise dynamic is already fully formed as Whitfield is subject to the pair’s devastating symbiosis. After Ernie tell Whitfield he loved his last record, Eric quips “a lot of people said it should’ve been”. Just three years on from a television debut widely deemed a disaster and with light entertainment domination (and Des O’Connor) far in the horizon, the boys here are hilariously sharp and assertive.
It might be hasty, though, to suggest Eric and Ernie had it down to a fine art from the get-go. Their first starring show for ATV, The Morecambe and Wise Show (sometimes titled Two of a Kind) [1961-1968], zips along with fluency if not consistency. The 30-minute variety format sees the duo navigate skits and songs joined by a cavalcade of well-behaved stars. Scriptwriters Dick Hills and Sid Green were fresh from a collaboration with Anthony Newley on the excellent surreal comedy The Strange World of Gurney Slade; their eye for the madcap yields great reward in classic routines such as “Boom Oo Yatta-Ta-Ta”. However, their style isn’t always in tune with what you’d expect from Eric and Ernie. Often in the early shows, the duo seems more like a typical double act than anything world-beating and their roles are malleable. When things coalesce, the results are delightful. Particularly fun are the parodies of popular television programmes including The Flintstones and Dixon of Dock Green.
Perhaps the show’s most famous moment comes in an edition from April 1964, when Eric and Ernie come face-to-face with four delegates from the next generation of pithy Northerners. The Beatles had been tickled by Ken Dodd on Granada’s Late Scene and gently prodded by Mike and Bernie Winters on ABC’s Big Night Out but this collision is their greatest light entertainment encounter. Hills and Green must have studied the Beatles’ press conference quips because they nail the humour like few did (Morecambe: “What it’s like being famous? Lennon: “Well it’s not like in your day, y’know”). It is easy to forget this is scripted, even.
By 1966, many of the hallmarks of Morecambe and Wise’s 1970s act are present. Ernie’s pompous persona gets a trial run when he plays a humourless art critic in one sketch, while Eric has settled into his role as a manic master of disruption. Still, the format seems to constrain them. In 1968, the boys were wooed away from ATV by the BBC, who offered a higher budget and colour production.
When we next meet them on this boxset, Morecambe and Wise are a fully-formed television phenomenon. In January 1978, the duo announced they’d signed with Thames Television to return to ITV after a record-breaking decade with the BBC. Their final Christmas special with the corporation, broadcast only a month previous, was a light entertainment banquet boasting guests including Elton John, broadcasters Michael Parkinson, Michael Aspel and Barry Norman, sports presenters Eddie Waring and Frank Bough, newsreaders Angela Rippon, Richard Baker and Kenneth Kendall, F1 superstar James Hunt and members of the respective casts of Dad’s Army and The Good Life. It is perhaps to be expected, then, that their first couple of specials for Thames seem a little tentative in comparison. There are plenty of laughs as the duo make light of their controversial defection, but they sign off without their signature tune Bring Me Sunshine – an experiment that wouldn’t last – and writer Eddie Braben, a vital accomplice throughout the BBC years, is absent due to contractual restrictions. His replacements – Barry Cryer and John Junkin – build nicely upon Braben’s achievements, however, and the first special features a memorable skit in which Eric and Ernie (in costume as Baloo and King Louie, respectively) dance and mime to I Wan’na Be Like You.
Dance routines like the Jungle Book spoof were soon off the menu. Eric Morecambe suffered a heart attack, his second, in March 1979. With his health at risk, the remaining Thames shows betray a shift away from strenuous routines in favour of outlandish costumes and quirky props. The importance of such measures is borne out by the lopsided exceptions; a classroom sketch with Bonnie Langford, for example, finds Ernie bouncing off the walls as a toe-tapping schoolboy while Eric moves in a different time-scale as a languid schoolmaster. The 1979 Christmas special is a particular, brilliant oddity; though still a well-oiled show with some guest stars, it largely takes the form of a genuine interview conducted by David Frost. Morecambe & Wise are – of course – just as funny off-script, especially when giving the late Ed Sullivan a kicking. A health scare and a change of pace can’t wilt two comics at the top of their game.
The 1980s saw Eddie Braben return to the fold and the boys settle into a great rhythm. There are fine guest turns from Richard Briers (Briers: “Do you know what I did once?” Morecambe: “Only once? I’m at that age now”) and a scene-stealing Peter Vaughan (“Who do you think you’re talking to? If it suits me, I’ll stand on your funny little head!”). There is, however, an undeniable whiff of winding down. The regular Des O’Connor gags continue after Des himself seems to stop turning up. A piano sketch that featured Elton John in the BBC show is reprised note-for-note with the hugely talented but rather less famous Peter Skellern in his place. Still, a swanky custom Thames jingle (“Here they are now; Morecambe and Wise”) helps maintain the glamour. In one 1983 sketch, we see the boys ruminate on their status as an increasingly furrowed institution; “Do you realise we’ve been going longer now than the Archers?” says Eric “What’s more frightening, they’re still getting more laughs than we are”.
Eric Morecambe’s death in 1984, from a third heart attack, drew the curtain on a partnership that lasted over 40 years. In the decades since, Morecambe and Wise have never lost their appeal. Repeated viewing cannot dim them. The many clip shows and compilations work because the duo were funny whatever they did and however they did it. That’s what makes all of these shows so charming – beneath everything else, you have the spectacle of two brilliant talents who’ve found their own kind of magic. This mammoth boxset is a delight and provides an essential overview of two crucial chunks of their television career. “Just watch it, that’s all.”