Arguably the most prolific and important comedy act in the history of British Light Entertainment, Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise occupy a significant part in the story of popular culture. Nearly forty years since the death of Eric Morecambe, the popularity and legacy of Britain’s best double act remains stronger than ever as new generations of comedy fans continue to discover their magic. With a formidable partnership spanning over forty years, Morecambe and Wise remain the absolute epitome of the quintessential British sense of humour and their comedy repertoire has helped form part of our collective cultural identity.
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Child star Ernie entered into entertainment at the tender age of eight as a singer and entertainer on the music hall circuit. This was the era where bandleaders and theatrical impresarios ruled entertainment and rising star Ernest Wiseman was right at the centre of mid twentieth century vaudevillian theatrical variety. In 1938 on recommendation of the junior talent agent Bryan Michie, the young Ernie auditioned for the legendary Jack Hylton who liked what he saw and instantly offered him a contract. By 1940 Ernie was one of the most promising performers in the country and with this experience he was ready to take his career to the next level. Hylton wasn’t only one of the twentieth century’s greatest bandleaders but also a visionary of all round entertainment. Embracing the modern world of theatrical variety, Hylton realised the huge financial opportunity that entertainment was now developing and aimed to exploit it further.
Under Hylton, Ernie’s career went from strength to strength with regular appearances in Arthur Askey’s radio show Band Waggon billed as the “British Mickey Rooney” in 1940. A regular in the theatres and variety halls, Ernie blossomed as an all round entertainer but with little family support, he was struggling to decipher where his true talents lay. Meanwhile in the northern town of Morecambe in Lancashire, waitress Sadie Bartholomew worked long hours to pay for her son Eric’s dance lessons to fulfil her ambition for him to one day enter the glamorous world of showbiz. Sadie was a formidable character who loved family and would sacrifice anything to see them shine. As an only child, Eric had grown up in a safe and loving environment which encouraged him to think anything was possible. Although he wasn’t the greatest tap dancer, with Sadie’s unconditional encouragement, he started to believe that fame was a possibility.
Eric then secured an audition for Jack Hylton who invited him to attend a revue at the Nottingham Empire entitled Youth Takes a Bow where he and Ernie met for the very first time. At first the pair didn’t quite know what to make of each other as coming from different entertainment backgrounds with differing showbiz experience, they lacked common ground. Encouraged by Sadie who felt sympathetic for Ernie’s lack of support, the pair begrudgingly developed a friendship and rapport which would prove vital in the years to come. Beyond the bravado, it didn’t take long for Eric and Ernie to realise that they had the ability to counteract each other’s utterances as if they were telepathic. This chemistry was nurtured and perfected by Sadie in the coming years who, by this stage, had taken Ernie under her wing, meaning that Eric and Ernie lived more like brothers than friends. This was to have a dominant effect on the next stage of their career.
Variety theatres and music halls were the bedrock of entertainment before the television revolution of the mid fifties and like all industries, everyone was required to work through the ranks. Bartholomew and Wise as they were then known, made their theatrical debut at the Liverpool Empire in August 1941 but Eric could tell that something wasn’t quite right. As a tribute to his beloved northern hometown just outside Blackpool, Eric promptly changed his surname from Bartholomew to the more aptly sounding Morecambe and the now infamous partnership of Morecambe and Wise was born. In the era before monopoly laws, Jack Hylton took advantage of the naive attitude that entertainers had towards the business side of the industry. He realised that he had the ability to produce, promote and package shows together, taking care of representational responsibilities relating to each of his performers. Essentially, this was the start of entertainment being treated like a commodity and Eric and Ernie were sure to make the most of it.
Their reputation as a stage act brought Morecambe and Wise to the attention of BBC senior management who were experimenting with the relatively new medium of television. Head of Light Entertainment Ronnie Waldman seeked to bring the thrill of the variety stage to TV and Eric and Ernie were selected to pave the way. On the 21st April 1954 Running Wild starring Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise was broadcast live with guests Alma Cogan and Amanda Barrie. Directed by future Morecambe and Wise producer and choreographer; the now legendary Ernest Maxim, the show had all the elements for a successful series yet a lack of format and televisual experience led to the show’s premature demise. This climaxed in the famous damming newspaper review which read “the definition of a television: the box they buried Morecambe and Wise in’. This cut deep with Eric, and for the rest of his life, he carried this article in his back pocket of his trousers as a reminder of the fickle nature of fame. A gauntlet had been laid down for Eric to uphold and he was certain to do everything in his power to reverse this trajectory.
Feeling damaged from their unsuccessful brush with television, Morecambe and Wise returned to the stage where they triumphed during the late forties. This was the era which saw a boom in theatrical variety which gave birth to a new generation of performers. The Windmill Theatre had gained cult status as the only London entertainment venue never to close its doors during the Second World War and was known for its crop of highly acclaimed nude models but now it was becoming popular for different reasons. Impresario Vivian Van-Damn was tasked with the difficult job of providing light interludes in between the nude routines and took inspiration from the blossoming variety scene which Britain now boasted. A whole generation of entertainers including Bruce Forsyth, Tommy Cooper, Bob Monkhouse and Barry Cryer gathered at The Windmill hoping to launch their careers. Surrounded by such a class of comic talent spurred Eric and Ernie on to the next chapter of their career.
In 1961 it was all change for the now veterans of the Variety circuit. Jack Hylton had been integral to the early success of Morecambe and Wise in the theatre but following the grave disappointment of Running Wild, the pair seeked some much needed consolidation and that ultimately resulted in a change of management. Since the mid forties, the Grade Organisation had built a reputation for making stars which was further proven due to their obvious links with the newly formed independent television. The head of the entertainment division; Billy Marsh had his roots firmly set in the magic and power of theatrical variety which Morecambe and Wise were bred upon. Marsh and the boys spoke each other’s language and discovered a lot in common, most notably their love for traditional entertainment. This was the modern age of television and with Marsh’s modern outlook, the boys were ready to give it another go and Lew Grade offered them an opportunity too good to turn down.
Two of a Kind offered the opportunity for Morecambe and Wise to transfer their successful theatrical act to TV in a more comfortable way than before. Lew Grade understood the essential theatrical elements to their act and aimed to preserve them for a larger audience. First broadcast on 12th October 1961 Two of a Kind promptly laid the foundations of Eric and Ernie’s TV act which they were able to refine for the next quarter of a century but arguably it gave them something more significant. Writers Dick Hills and Syd Green had previously been on the writing team for Dave King’s BBC radio variety show, becoming one of the most promising creative partnerships in comedy. Like Morecambe and Wise, the pair had known each other since childhood and enjoyed a symbiotic relationship which transcended their work, to the extent where Hills and Green were regularly involved in on screen banter with the boys similar to the rivalry between Abbott and Costello and their writers. This transatlantic attitude was somewhat alien to British audiences as it was extremely seldom to see members of production crew take centre stage but the unique chemistry between these two supremely talented performers warranted the opportunity to showcase their unique relationship. It was this dynamic which helped to put Morecambe and Wise on the comedy map.
Such a robust production team around them aided Eric and Ernie in their quest to become kings of Light Entertainment. Many of the sketches which became synonymous with the golden era of their BBC tenure began life on Two Of a Kind in a more primitive and rustic form. The Grieg piano concerto routine which is now synonymous with a flawless career defining performance by the award winning Andre Previn began life as a two hander between Morecambe and Wise on Two Of a Kind. This wasn’t the only routine that enjoyed an early TV outing as many of the sketches were adapted from their successful stage act. This obviously had its disadvantages especially when the pair were still heavily demanded on the theatrical circuit and were at risk of allowing television to eat up much of their act. Such a hurdle was ending the careers of many of their variety peers whom Eric and Ernie had grown up with. Yet with Hills and Green providing them with visual material which was tailored for this new medium, together with their unique, natural interactions between each other, Morecambe and Wise flourished into kings of TV comedy.
In 1968, while Billy Marsh was taking a much needed holiday, junior talent agent Michael Grade received a phone call from his childhood friend Bill Cotton inviting him to lunch with the intention of enquiring about Eric and Ernie’s tenure at ATV. By the end of the lunch Morecambe and Wise’s fate had been sealed and they were BBC bound which unbeknown to all involved was the beginning of a golden era for the boys and indeed the nation. With writers Hills and Green still on board, this was set to be a seamless transition from Lew Grade’s ATV to the unequivocal jewel in Bill Cotton’s formidable BBC Light Entertainment department. On the 2nd September 1968 The Morecambe and Wise Show hit our screens for the very first time and gave the BBC an overnight hit. Yet while Eric and Ernie were enjoying their status as the kings of Saturday night, Hills and Green were about to make a shock decision which would ultimately put their career in jeopardy.
After nearly ten years of writing exclusively for Eric and Ernie which had included three feature films, Hills and Green signed a deal to return to ATV to try to break into the US TV market contributing material to the talk show host Johnny Carson. This left a huge void in the successful formula of Morecambe and Wise as without the writers who had been so instrumental in making them who they were, how could they continue to be the same Morecambe and Wise? With such a substantial question mark over the future of the show, it fell to Bill Cotton to source a suitable replacement to provide material as successfully as Hills and Green. Liverpudlian Variety stalwart Eddie Braben had enjoyed a long association with the legendary Ken Dodd and Cotton saw something in him which encouraged him to believe that he could fit in with Eric and Ernie. However, this vision wasn’t shared by the three others who were less than complimentary about each others’ work. Ultimately it fell to Bill Cotton to pull rank and the decision to premier the series on BBC2 seemed a suitable compromise.
The show was broadcast on the 27th July 1969 with guests Peter Cushing, Bobby Genty and Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen. Directed by John Ammonds who had been on the production team for Running Wild, Eric and Ernie liked the feeling of familiarity to their work. Indeed, the success of their BBC tenure was partially down to a small nucleus of highly talented individuals who allowed them to shine: Bill Cotton had often seen their stage act which was popular during their days on the theatrical circuit of the 1950’s. Choreographer Ernest Maxim who had been on the production team of Running Wild, recognised Eric and Ernie’s Hollywood influences and used this to make the shows as vibrant and technicoloured as possible. All these elements were complimented by the genial material of Eddie Braben who realised that their act needed to be more suited to their off screen relationship. The first change that Braben made in this was to adjust Ernie’s character from the straight man to the failed writer. This added to the show and introduced a theme which ran through the succeeding series. Despite a difficult start, the Braben effect was a significant key to the longevity of Morecambe and Wise and both performers were grateful for it.
Before the 1970’s, television was still primitive in its approach to Light Entertainment’s relationship with other areas of the TV landscape. In the days before the modern concept of celebrity, it was extremely seldom for newsreaders to appear on any programmes other than regular bulletins. It was always assumed that newsreaders and factual broadcasters were totally unrelated to the world of Light Entertainment and never interacted with each other. Yet in 1976 this was all about to change as BBC News anchor Angela Rippon appeared in what originally seemed a continuity news announcement. Sitting behind a substantial desk with the dark brown BBC backdrop created the illusion of a serious news flash but as soon as Rippon began reading the opening lyrics to Irving Berlin’s Let’s Face The Music and Dance, everyone knew that this was anything but a piece of serious journalism. A trained dancer herself, Angela embraced both the choreography and opportunity to let the public see a different side to the straight talking journalist who presented the nightly news. This was a complete revolution in terms of the ability for figures to cross the Light Entertainment border and helped to bring around a sense of synergy to the whole broadcasting landscape.
The pressure to maintain this high standard of comedy and entertainment was taking its toll on Eric. Following his first heart attack in 1968, despite making light of it, Eric was advised to take things slightly slower which was almost impossible when you’re one of the most prolific comedians in Britain. Opting to do less series gave Eric the opportunity to both take life easier and concentrate on delivering a bumper Christmas show which they always delivered. However, the 1977 Christmas special featuring Elton John would prove significant in the story of Morecambe and Wise for this would be the last Morecambe and Wise Show on the BBC which many saw as the end of an era for TV Variety. Despite Bill Cotton’s many attempts to extend their contract, Eric and Ernie had signed for Thames which came as a bitter blow for everyone involved most notably Cotton who saw it as a divorce and something that deeply affected him for the rest of his career. As for Morecambe and Wise, they had a bigger budget, more guest stars and full control over the execution of the show. It was clear that their domination of Light Entertainment wasn’t over yet.
Despite Thames having the financial power to throw almost everything at the show, there was just one aspect which was thought unattainable. Eddie Braben was still under contract with the BBC and Bill Cotton was sure to put up the strongest of fights to keep hold of him. In the meantime Barry Cryer and John Junkin provided the majority of the material as a result working closely with them at the BBC. Cryer in particular, had been their warm up man at TV Centre so knew their style and the detailed way in which they worked. Unfortunately this was cut short when Eric suffered a second heart attack in 1978 which forced them to take a year long hiatus for him to recover. During this time Eddie Braben had been released from his BBC contract and was free to join the new look Morecambe and Wise Show in 1980. Despite this reunion, the show never really equalled its former glory despite memorable appearances from the great Leonard Rossiter and Judi Dench. Comedy was changing and even Eric and Ernie couldn’t stop the fickle nature of senior TV management.
Eric continued to work despite ill health which was now of great national concern. On the 28th May 1984 he was invited by his friend and fellow comedian Stan Stennett to join him for a live conversational show at The Roses Theatre in Tewkesbury. The night was full of laughter, showbiz anecdotes and songs as the pair swapped stories from a lifetime in entertainment. As always, Morecambe stole the show with his innate ability to entertain and audience members commented that he was on top form. However, following taking his last bow, he exited the stage and promptly collapsed from yet another heart attack. He later passed away in hospital aged 58.
Ernie survived Eric for the next fifteen years making special appearances on selected TV shows where he treated audiences to his unique singing voice. Yet rather surprisingly on the 1st January 1985 the telecommunications company Vodafone selected him to make the first ever call via a mobile phone. In 1996 Ernie made his last ever television appearance on the BBC special Aunties All Time Greats presented by Michael Parkinson and featuring some of the defining stars from the corporation’s past. Respected by his contemporaries and adored by the next generation of comedians, this was the ultimate accolade of professional affection and the perfect way for Ernie to end his career which had spanned over half a century. Ernie Wise died from heart failure on the 21st March 1999 surrounded by his family at the Nuffield Hospital in Wrexham. He was 73.
The legacy of Morecambe and Wise is one of the most enduring in entertainment. Eric’s son Gary; a former theatrical agent himself, has continued to maintain the Eric Morecambe estate and is overwhelmed by the continued love and interest for his dad who died nearly forty years ago. In 2022 The Eric Morecambe Centre in Harpenden opened its doors for the very first time and celebrated with a star studded celebration. It’s very clear that the lure and appeal of Morecambe and Wise is everlasting and wherever there are archived video tapes, new audiences will be able to discover the magic of the two men who never failed to bring us sunshine. It was a great honour to celebrate Morecambe and Wise with Gary Morecambe and may they forever keep Britain smiling!