By Aaron Brown (comedy historian and fan, and Editor of British Comedy Guide, promoting British comedy of all varieties to audiences across the globe)
Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise are rightly celebrated as the greatest comedy double-act Britain – if not the western world – has yet produced. Their status is legendary, despite a near-total absence from TV screens: shows do not pop up on Dave or Gold, nor are their ratings-winning programmes “doing numbers” on iPlayer or Netflix; but a flurry of celebratory documentaries keeps their memory alive, with at least one such new special (and occasionally entire series) airing every calendar year.
Owing to its nature as a single organisation as opposed to the fragmented regional franchise history of ITV, Morecambe and Wise’s BBC programmes have long been their most celebrated and iconic television work, and it’s certainly true that those years – 1968 to 1977 – saw the creative pinnacle of their output, but this period was sandwiched between two similarly successful runs with ITV broadcasters, now liberated from those dark, dusty archives by Network.
First, however, it’s wise to wind back further: to 1954 and Eric & Ernie’s first starring TV series, Running Wild. Made by the BBC (and now entirely missing, believed wiped), it came as the duo were already stars of the live circuit (particularly in northern England) and had enjoyed great success on BBC radio. This was the era of one-channel television in Britain – ITV would not launch until the following year, and BBC Two a full decade later – and so they were guaranteed an 100% viewership share.
Alas, success could no more be guaranteed then than it can today and, paired with a production team that did not understand their own unique charisma as a double-act and did not allow them any writing or other creative input of their own, the series was a flop. Eric and Ernie themselves long suspected a mix of anti-Northern self-sabotage by the stuffy BBC executives of the time, and similar anti-Northern bias amongst critics for this failure – one famously raged that television was “the box they buried Morecambe & Wise in”. Eric’s wife Joan, “usually a very good judge of their comedy”, later recalled “I didn’t think it was that bad”, but the die was cast.
Come 1961 and the pair were, finally, ready to be lured back to the small screen. They had enjoyed continued acclaim in TV guest spots in the intervening years, as well as ever-growing popularity on radio and Britain’s theatres, but this was the big return with their very own series, this time courtesy of ATV, the ITV broadcaster in London across the weekends and in the Midlands during the week.
The Morecambe And Wise Show first aired at 8pm on Thursday 12th October 1961, opening a nine-part series. Much to the relief of all concerned, the Running Wild experience was not repeated and the programme proved, if not yet a smash hit, then certainly a popular success, and a second series was swiftly ordered.
This second ATV series, however, is where things really began to get interesting for our bespectacled chum and his mate with the short, fat, hairy legs. Airing from Summer 1962, it coincided with a strike called by the all-powerful actors’ union, Equity. This spelled disaster for many productions – and perhaps helped funnel viewers towards Eric & Ernie’s programme, for, as members of a separate variety artists’ union, they were free to continue working.
Whilst not the failure of Running Wild, neither man had felt entirely at ease with the 1961 series. Written by Sid Green and Dick Hills, and now also sadly entirely missing, believed wiped, it saw them not as we now recognise, leading sketches and comic interludes as a beloved duo, but simply the most prominent amidst a wider array of performers: Eric would say of one spy spoof that “there were so many people in that sketch that I couldn’t even find Ernie”.
The Equity strike was a killer blow at the time, but it would be the making of Morecambe & Wise on television.
Forced back to basics, the series they ended up making was reformatted and retitled – simply Two Of A Kind – in recognition of the restrictions placed upon them. They were joined by a small selection of guest performers, notably iconic pop trio The Beverley Sisters, but no star names, and no ensemble cast: save for the regular, often silent back-up appearances of Green and Hills themselves.
Free to shine in their own spotlight, this is where Eric and Ernie really became the Morecambe & Wise television act that we know and love today. The series was an instant smash hit, returning in 1963 in the same format and attracting around 20 million viewers, rivalling only Coronation Street for audience numbers.
By 1964, they were ready to return and, now fully understanding their strengths as the stand-out star performers, the boys returned under the banner of The Morecambe & Wise Show, formatted somewhere between that original run and the Two Of A Kind success: no longer were they alone on stage, but nor were they competing with others as they had evidently felt in 1961.
Two further series followed – totalling six under ATV – with the last also filmed in colour (by a separate set of cameras) for broadcast in America under the title Piccadilly Palace. Sadly, this final run, which aired in ten episodes from October 1967 to March 1968, is mostly wiped. Just two episodes are known to survive today, and both are included in Network’s excellent box set.
Now megastars the BBC would come calling once more, poaching the duo with its promise of colour on BBC Two. The next decade at the corporation is well-documented: Sid and Dick departed ways with Eric and Ernie after just one series, leaving producers to pair them with Scouse scribe Eddie Braben, whose vision and talent as their lead writer saw the boys achieve the status of true all-time legends. The ATV years had been hugely successful, no doubt – and had even originated routines including the Grieg Piano Concerto sketch, later perfected at the BBC with the involvement of André Previn – but the 70s saw them achieve a whole new level of fame.
It came as a shock to many, therefore, when, in January 1978, Morecambe and Wise announced that they would be departing the BBC for London’s weekday ITV broadcaster, Thames Television. This was not a move made for cold, hard cash; nor was it for the promise of some lofty new televisual tickbox, but because Thames offered them the one thing in their careers that they truly craved and had yet to achieve: film stardom – particularly the dream of something approaching the international success of Peter Sellers and the Pink Panther series. They had made three features with Rank in the late 60s before their move to the BBC, but these had been only mildly successful even in Britain, never mind overseas.
Alas, the dream would never come to fruition and only one feature came from their partnership with Thames, the limp horror/thriller spoof Night Train To Murder, released after Eric’s death. But the TV shows continued apace. Originally made without the involvement of either Braben or genius producer John Ammonds due to their own BBC contracts, the four series were in much the same vein as those BBC years: big name guests, glitzy productions, top gags, song-and-dance routines, and plenty of very silly costumes.
However, from 1978 until Eric’s sudden death in 1984, there was a sense of decline felt even by the duo themselves. The Thames years are still packed with laughter, and ooze with Eric and Ernie’s signature wit, warmth and charm, but in the analysis of Gary Morecambe, his father’s second heart attack early in 1979 and declining health thereafter took its toll on the act.
That’s not to imply the programmes are better avoided and merely collectors’ items for the Eric & Ernie completist – far from it. These are still 34 Morecambe & Wise programmes to revel in, with both men giving their all and delivering an abundance of laughs for any viewer, and a range brilliant sketches that deserve far wider recognition than they have yet achieved. Guests range from comedy and acting favourites like Deryck Guyler, Alec Guinness and Judi Dench, to Alvin Stardust, Suzanne Dannielle and Bonnie Langford: a cornucopia of delights just waiting to be enjoyed once more.
With only an initial run of specials and the first series with Thames released in the past, the new DVD box sets are therefore as overdue as they are welcome. Many of these later ITV programmes have not been seen in any form since their original broadcasts in the early 80s, and none – including the previously released ATV years – have been properly appreciated as the landmark works of comedy they are. Whichever of these three phases of the Sunshine Boys’ work tickles your fancy the most, this opportunity to own every surviving programme made for ITV is one to be revelled in.
All together now: Bring me sunshine, in your smile…