Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Sunshine Boys

Ask the average Briton over the age of forty what they were doing on any given Christmas Day between the late 1960s and the early 1980s and, chances are, their reply will be 'watching Eric and Ernie on telly, the same as everybody else.' Such was the impact of The Morecambe & Wise Show that, even now - almost seven decades after their career started, fifty years after their first TV appearance and over twenty years since it ended - episodes are still, regularly, brought out of cold storage for a seasonal repeat to find a whole new audience along with those of us sad old gits who can chant along with entire episodes just as if we were at a rock concert.

Most TV comedy formats are one of three, very distinct, types: stand-up, sitcom or sketch-based. The genius of The Morecambe & Wise Show was that it was, simultaneously, all three of these with a variety show template wrapped around it. Other comedians – specifically a succession of comedy duos - spent their entire careers trying to replicate the magic of what Eric and Ernie and their writers created and never even came close. (The Two Ronnies …? Pfft. Mention them not!)

John Eric Bartholomew - the tall one with the glasses - was born in Morecambe in 1926. His mother, Sadie, was determined that her son would get the opportunity to use his natural talent for humour and mimicry on the stage and took work as a waitress to raise funds for dancing lessons for the boy. Eric didn't enjoy these and was somewhat resentful about having to gowhenhe could have been out playing with his friends, though they were to form a basis for his subsequent music hall career. Ernest Wiseman – with his 'short, fat hairy legs' - had been born in Bramley in Leeds a few months before Eric and, by the time the pair first crossed paths as teenagers, in 1940, Wise was already a familiar voice to the nation from Arthur Askey's popular radio series Band Waggon where Ernie was billed as 'England's answer to Mickey Rooney.' They met whilst auditioning for Jack Hylton's touring stage-show, Youth Takes a Bow. Eric (already using a stage-name based on his birthplace – he would later note with impeccable timing that it could have been far worse, he could have been born in Ashby-De-La-Zouch) was doing comic impressions of the likes of Bud Flanagan and Fred Astaire (so, those dancing lessons his mum made him go to had clearly paid off). The more experienced Wise watched Morecambe from the wings, having already signed up for the show on the strength of a clog dancing act he'd been performing in the Northern variety halls with his father, Harry.

Big Eric and Little Ern began working as a duo in Hylton's show early the following year but the war intervened just as they were starting to develop an act – Ernie served in the Merchant Navy for eighteen months whilst Eric became a Bevin Boy, hewing coal in Accrington. The pair didn't work together again until two years after the war ended when they toured in Lord George Sanger's Variety Circus. Morecambe and Wise then became a popular stage act - particularly in Northern England - during the early 1950s and first appeared on television on the weekly The Youth Parade as early as September 1951. Three years later, perhaps too quickly, they were given their own fortnightly series, Running Wild, on the BBC. A sketch-based variety show featuring Alma Cogan as the musical interlude, it was a critically slaughtered disaster. 'How dare they put such mediocre talent on television?' frothed one critic. Another review was even more damning: 'Definition of the week: "TV set" - the box in which they buried Morecambe and Wise.' Eric, apparently, carried around this clipping (from the Sunday People) in his wallet for most of the rest of his life as a reminder of just how vicious the business could get if you let someone else control your destiny. From then onward, Eric and Ernie kept a tight control over their material and where they performed it. The duo went back to the theatre to develop their act and, in 1956, they were offered a semi-regular spot on Winifred Atwell's ITV show with material written for them by the young Johnny Speight. This was well-received, as were frequent appearances on variety shows like Sunday Night At The London Palladium. They were getting it back together, supplementing a punishing live schedule - often as many as three hundred performances a year - with selected radio and TV work to boost their profile.

But, they wanted another shot at a series of their own and, in 1961, they got it when they were offered Two Of A Kind by ATV boss Lew Grade. Producer Colin Clews supervised a variety show with music from Jack Parnell & His Orchestra, trad bands like Kenny Ball's Jazzmen and popular artistes of the day - including, on one memorable occasion in late 1963, The Beatles dueting with Ernie on 'Moonlight Bay', while Eric had a go at 'Twist and Shout' ('All right, Bongo?!') Eric and Ernie's writers at the time were Sid Green and Dick Hills and many of the running jokes from this period are similar in tone, if not in exact detail, to what viewers would later become used to at the BBC. Eric (or, one of the guests – John Lennon in the case of The Beatles episode) would always be trying to finish the (presumably very rude) joke about two old men in deck chairs and, at the end of each show the comedians would attempt to leave the stage by a side door only to find something different and surreal - such as a train or a custard pie - behind it. The theme song at ATV was different, too. Johnny Mercer's 'Two Of A Kind'.

There had been some initial arguments with Hills and Green over the style of the show – the writers having, at first, written Eric and Ernie as, essentially, Sid and Dick with masks. Morecambe, in particular, felt this was a mistake and matters came to a head during the long Equity strike of the winter of 1961-62. Because of their theatre background, Eric and Ernie belonged to a different union (the Variety Artists Federation) and, thus, their show was largely unaffected. Indeed, in a roundabout way it actually benefited from the industrial action as, because of the lack of actors available for supporting parts, Hills and Green were forced to appear themselves in many of the sketches they wrote. This enabled the writers to work farmore closely with the duo than previously and the material began to reflect Morecambe and Wise's stage characterisation. On the back of this, the series became a huge success. A number of popular catchphrases began to appear ('Get out of that!' – usually said by Eric but, memorably, used by George Harrison to Eric's obvious amusement when The Beatles appeared - 'That's not nice', 'I'll smash your face in' and, of course, the legendary 'Fancy another cup of tea, Ern?') some of which would stay with them throughout their careers. Also introduced was Morecambe's 'catching a peddle in a paper bag' trick - as well as an opening segment each week which parodied other TV shows like Dixon Of Dock Green and The Man From U.N.C.L.E

In their time at ITV, Morecambe and Wise also attempted (largely unsuccessfully) to break into movies, with The Intelligence Men and That Riviera Touch (both 1965), and The Magnificent Two (1967). They're not - contrary to perceived wisdom - bad films and, indeed, particularly, the latter two have many great comedy moments in them. But, a bit like their main BBC double act rivals of the era, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, it was a medium that Eric and Ernie weren't really suited to. They needed the quick-fire turnover of material that television presented them with. In the longer format they look, frankly, bored. It could have been worse - if you want to look at a film career that never got off the ground at all, check out Mike and Bernie Winters.

In late 1967 Eric and Ernie fell out with Lew Grade - allegedly over money - and quit ATV, taking Hills and Green with them. Bill Cotton, the then Head of Light Entertainment at the BBC, made the team a vast offer. Changing channels, the first BBC series of what was now The Morecambe & Wise Show was broadcast in September of that year on BBC2. Unfortunately Eric suffered a heart attack two months later. In his 2003 book, Life's Not Hollywood, It's Cricklewood, Gary Morecambe reveals that his father had mentioned sporadically throughout 1967 and 1968 that he was suffering from chest pains. In one diary entry - from August 1967 when Eric and Ernie were appearing in a summer season at Great Yarmouth - Morecambe noted, 'Have had pains in my arms. Had them off and on for some weeks now. Hell of a long time for indigestion.' These may have been early warning signs of impending heart problems though, possibly it was an inevitable consequence. In addition to the duo's fast-paced working schedule, Morecambe was regularly smoking sixty fags a day. Combined with stress, this led him to suffer a massive coronary in November 1968. The duo were appearing at Batley Variety Club. Eric had complained of pains in his arm from the beginning of the week's residency but, as a self-acknowledged hypochondriac, he thought little of it. Driving back to his hotel in Leeds, Morecombe was striken. He later recalled, in a remarkable TV interview with Michael Parkinson in 1972 that, unable to drive any further, he had been helped by a man named Walter Butterworth ('That wasn't his real name, but I'll never forget him!') When Morecambe asked him to drive the car, Butterworth replied 'I'm in the Territorial Army – I've only driven a tank!' Arriving at hospital, Eric thanked Walter who, in return, asked for an autograph saying 'before you go, can you sign this piece of paper? My mates will never believe me about this.' Eric left hospital two weeks later and gave up cigarettes immediately, switching to what became a trademark pipe instead. Upon his release, Morecambe learned that his friend Des O'Connor had been appearing in concert on the evening that the news of Eric's heart-attack broke and had, reportedly, asked his audience to pray for Morecambe's speedy recovery. 'Tell him those six or seven people probably made all the difference,' noted Eric, dryly.

As Ernie was, at that stage, very much the straight man of the partnership, Eric is often reported to have believed the job of making Hills and Green's writing sparkle largely rested on his own shoulders. However, whilst Morecambe was recuperating, Hills and Green - who believed that Morecambe would probably never work again - returned to ATV where they had been offered their own show, These Two Fellahs. Ernie was in Barbados at the time and only learned of his writers' defection from the stewardess on the plane on his way home. Yet, ironically, this was to be the best thing that could possibly have happened to Eric and Ernie. 1969 to 1977 are, generally, recognised as the golden years of Morecambe and Wise. The catalyst for this was the recruitment of Ken Dodd's former gag-man Eddie Braben as a replaced for Sid and Dick. Aided by producer John Ammonds, Braben shaped a partnership of child-like characters, with Ernie always aspiring to be taken seriously (via 'the plays wot he wrote') and Eric always there to inject a note of anarchy – and occasionally unwelcome reality - into Ernie's highfalutin vainglorious schemes and bring his old friend back down to Earth with a muffled crunch. One got the feeling that this was because if the Ernie character ever got so elevated as to leave their comfortable domesticity (the two were often depicted, quite innocently, in bed together in a sitcom-like flat-share), Eric would feel very alone. This theme would be brought to the fore again, quite brilliantly, in the end sequences of their last years with Thames where, having thought the show was over Eric would wander off home, with his overcoat, cloth cap and carrier bag in hand, as Ernie slyly sang the closing song either in a duet with one of the guests or with the help of a brass band. The startled look on Eric's face as he wandered through the back of the set seemed to say 'Hey, I thought we were mates?!'

The opening episode of the 1969 series provides a key to understanding why Morecambe and Wise were so popular. After a moment of jocular back-and-forth between the pair and a couple of quick shots to the audience Morecambe, full of his traditional nervous energy, pulled open his suit jacket and shouted 'Keep going, y'fool!' to his fragile heart. It was typical of his humour and brought not a gasp from the audience as another comedian may have achieved but, rather, a huge and welcome laugh. 'Thank God Eric doesn't take it seriously, I was really worried for a bit there' was the message that rang out across the country. Everything was going to be all right. And then the recurring jokes started to appear. There was a little old man originally billed as 'Frankie Vaughan's son', who cropped up regularly in the earlier series and was played by Rex Rashley. Vaughan – who had actually guest-starred in a couple of episodes – became the butt of numerous jokes like this. With a spectacular underestimation of the value of such weekly publicity, the singer took exception and had his lawyers threaten the BBC with legal action if this malarkey continued. The answer to this turned out to be stunningly simple; the premise of the comedy was simply transferred to Morecambe's friend Des O’Connor whose singing career for the next few years appeared to exist entirely as the punchline to a vast number of Eric and Ernie's jokes ('If you want me to be a goner, buy me a record by Des O'Connor!') Des, of course, took such slagging in tremendously good spirit – memorably appearing on the 1975, 1976 and 1979 Christmas episodes and sending himself up something rotten on each occasions.

In the BBC shows we learned that 'you can't see the join' between Ernie's supposed toupee and his head, found that 'there's no answer to that', and watched as Eric put his specs askew on his face, patted Little Ern's face or strangled himself from behind the opening sketch's ever-present curtains with their M&W logo. There were numerous jokes at the expense of the town of Peterborough (near England), Ernie's alleged birth-place. All of these were brilliant attention-getting devices, designed to lure the semi-mature Ern back into the child-like Eric's cartoonish world, and the more ancient they were, the better. It was hardly surprising that Morecambe - a very thoughtful clown, though by no means a sad one – was to became an author in the later years of his life, producing the children's books Mr Lonely (1981), The Reluctant Vampire (1982), and The Vampire's Revenge (1983). Children could identify with the outsider figures that he created both in his books and, even more memorably, in his stage persona.

A typical Morecambe & Wise Show was, effectively, a sketch-comedy hour with elements of a sitcom (the 'Eric and Ernie at home' stuff) added in at regular intervals, although show's cold-open would also include the duo performing straight stand-up routines (as would the introduction of guests). Morecambe and Wise's comic style varied subtly throughout their career, depending on their writers. Hills and Green had taken a relatively straightforward approach, depicting the 'Eric' character as an aggressive, knockabout physical clown and 'Ernie' as an essentially conventional, somewhat disapproving and far smarter, straight man. When Eddie Braben took over, he made the relationship considerably deeper and much more complex reflecting Eric and Ernie's real-life close friendship and partnership. The TV critic Kenneth Tynan noted in 1970 that, with Braben as writer, Morecambe and Wise had an utterly unique dynamic among comedy duos - 'Ernie' was a comedian who, actually, wasn't especially funny, while 'Eric' was a straight man who very much was. The 'Ernie' persona became, simultaneously, more egotistical and yet also more naïve as the series progressed whilst Eric was becoming the world-wise one. Morecambe pointed out in interviews that Braben had specifically written his character as 'tougher, less gormless, harder towards Ern.'

A central conceit of the show was that the duo lived together as they had done, near enough, all their lives (there were many references to a childhood friendship for instance). They shared not merely a flat but also a bed. Morecambe was initially very uncomfortable with this idea, but changed his mind upon being reminded that his comedy heroes Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy had also done this in several of their films. However, he still insisted on smoking his pipe in the bed sketches 'for the masculinity.' The front room of their flat as well as the bedroom were used frequently as settings for brilliant comedy moments. Who, for instance, can forget Eric getting out of bed and crossing to the window at the sound of a fire engine siren speeding by? 'He's not going to sell much ice cream going at that speed.' Braben, however, would also transplant the duo into various external situations, such as a sketches set in banks, in the park (Eric as a newspaper vendor unable to pronounce 'Morning Standard' only for Ern to subsequently discover that's not,actually, the name of the paper he's selling) or a maternity supply shop, for example. Many references were also made to another bit of characterisation - Ernie's supposed meanness with money.

Another element of the shows during the Braben era was Ernie's utterly confident presentation of the amateurishly inept plays what he wrote. This allowed for another kind of sketch: the staged 'historical drama', which usually parodied genuine historical television plays or movies (prisoner of war films like The Great Escape, Mutiny on the Bounty, Cleopatra, First World War movies such as Aces High, Napoleon etc). Ernie's character would script each play with tremendous confidence, complete with cheap props and appallingly clunky dialogue, which would then be acted out by the duo and their guest star(s). Those who participated included many serious actors like Flora Robson, Eric Porter, Vanessa Redgrave, Francis Matthews, Edward Woodward, Frank Finlay and, of course, dear old Peter Cushing. Who never did get paid that five pounds he was owed from 1968 – one of the best running jokes that a TV series has ever attempted and one that went on and on and on for the best part of a decade or more. As well as Glenda Jackson (as Cleopatra: 'All men are fools. And what makes them so is having beauty … like what I have got!'). Jackson, who had not previously done much comedy, ended up with an Oscar-winning role in A Touch of Class after producer Melvin Frank saw her appearance as Cleopatra in a 1971 Morecambe & Wise Show episode and realised her potential if she had quality comedy material. She became a regular guest on the show - appearing on two successive Christmas specials despite the duo seeming to get ideas above their station and climing the refused to work with her at one point because she didn't have a title and 'she hasn't won an Oscar for four weeks!'

Eric (and occasionally, though less often, Ernie) would sometimes pretend not to have heard of their guest, or would appear to confuse them with someone else. The former Prime Minister Harold Wilson sent this idea up wonderfully when appearing at the duo's flat, referring to Eric as 'Mr Mor-e-cam-be' - a joke based upon a mispronunciation of Eric's name that Ed Sullivan had infamously made during the duo's first American TV appearance in 1964. Eddie Braben later said that a large amount of the duo's humour was based on a general irreverence - to each other, to the 'status' of their guests, in short, to pretty much everything. A running gag in a number of shows were cameos by well-known artists in close-up saying 'I appeared in The Morecambe & Wise Show … and look what happened to me.' The camera shot would then widen and show the former guest now doing some stereotypical low-paid job such as being a dustman (Eric Porter), selling newspapers (Ian Carmichael) or working on the buses (André Previn). However, in reality, any celebrity worth their salt felt that they had received one of the highest possible accolades in showbusiness by being invited to appear in 'an Ernest Wide play' as Ernie once mispronounced it during an introduction involving 'Miss Vanilla Redgrave.'

But whilst Ernie was tackling the cream of the theatre world, it was Eric’s catchphrases that caught on in the playgrounds across the country. 'What do you think of it so far?' he would often ask a prop, such as a statue, a bust or a stuffed toy, and then answer, in mock-ventriloquism, 'Ruggish!' Morecambe said that whenever his beloved Luton Town - of whom he was a proud director for many years - were playing away from home and he happened to be in the crowd, if Luton were losing at half-time the opposition fans would invariably ask 'What do you think of it so far, Eric?' There were loads of football jokes on the show - often about Luton and their lack of success. One of Peter Cushing's appearances included a historical sketch in which his character pleaded '... and what of Carlisle?' 'They won, two-nil!' replied Eric. 'Arsenal!' was another football-related catchphrase. This dated from a sketch in which Eric played an incompetent Memory Man-type act, unable to remember anything without some highly unsubtle prompting from Ernie. It developed into another long-running joke – particularly in a memorable Mastermind sketch featuring Magnuss Magnusson. Whenever Ernie coughed, for any reason, Eric would immediately shout 'Arsenal!' as a reflex action.

And there were the classic sketches – Monty on the Bonty featuring the cast of Dad’s Army ('Do you think that’s wise, sir?' asks John Le Mesurier at one point. 'Of course not. That one's Morecambe' replies Arthur Lowe) and an Anchor’s Aweigh send-up with Cliff Richard. The 1970 series was notable for the introduction of the - largely silent - Monk sketches which became a weekly feature for the next couple of years. By this time, long-term collaborator Ann Hamilton had joined the team. She would go on to provide her services for the remainder of Eric and Ernie’s career as any female character needed. Tom Jones' got to sing 'Exactly Like You' with Eric and Ernie as his backing singers (an idea that then became something of a regular feature with the week's musical guests gaining unwanted 'help' from their hosts), John Mills starred in prisoner of war saga with Eric advising him 'we've got your mother on this week' referring to the popular pianist Mrs Mills who was also appearing. Yehudi Menuhin, Rudolph Nureyev and Laurence Olivier all appeared in the 1972 Christmas special to offer excuses as to why all could not appear, most notably Olivier pretending to be a Chinese laundry attendant over the telephone ('Velly solly, long number!') Vanessa Redgrave got her maracas out for the lads in a Latin American extravaganza and poor Hannah Gordon's attempts to sing 'The Windmills of Your Mind' forced her into a fight to the death with a wind machine. And there was the supposed appearance of Frank Sinatra in an episode which, of course, turned out to be wishful thinking of everyone's part ('He’s not coming…!')

As a carry-over from their days on the variety hall circuit, Eric and Ernie sang and danced at the end of each show, though they were forced to tone down this practice when Morecambe's heart condition prevented him from doing all but very basic dance moves. Their peculiar skipping hornpipe dance, devised by John Ammonds, was a modified form of something they'd first seen Groucho Marx doing. Their signature tune was, of course, 'Bring Me Sunshine' which they usually sang at the end (although in some shows – including some of the well-remembered Christmas extravaganzas - they opted for other songs, notably 'Positive Thinking' and 'Don't You Agree?'). At the climax, the large lady (Janet Webb) would come down the stairs and thank the audience for watching 'my little show' or, later, the little man with his harmonica (Arthur Tolcher) would sprint out to try and grab a moment of glory only for the screen to go black. Other well-remembered sketches of these years include the breakfast routine, where Eric and Ernie prepared their meal to the tune of 'The Stripper' on the radio and the pitch-perfect Singing in the Rain parody. With the exception of 1974, the show always had an end-of-year Christmas special, which became such a genuine British institution during the 1970s. Eddie Braben once commented that many people judged the quality of their entire Christmas on whether The Morecambe & Wise Show had been good or just merely average. They were usually good, though. And sometimes far better than good.

In 1971, in addition to Glenda Jackson's Busby Berkeley-style production number with a bunch of the BBC newsreaders - including Eddie Waring, Robert Dougal and the duo's good friend Michael Parkinson - there was the appearance of Shirley Bassey (who managed to sing 'Smoke Gets in your Eyes' whilst Eric and Ern pulled her foot through a hole in the stage and replaced her elegant shoe with an army boot) and André Previn watching, open-mouthed, as Eric played 'Grieg’s piano concerto … by Grieg' with all the notes present if not, necessarily, in the correct order. Other guests included, in 1975 when Ern had a go at adapting Nell Gwynne, Diana Rigg and Gordon Jackson. Not to mention political interviewer Robin Day whose supposed gentle chat with Ernie turned into a full-scale brawl. The 1976 Christmas show featured John Thaw and Dennis Waterman from The Sweeney (a favour Eric and Ernie would repay on the ITV show two years later) as well as Angela Rippon stepping out from behind her newsdesk to high-kick her way through 'Let's Face The Music and Dance' and into TV immortality. The audience spent the entire show being told that 'He Is Coming' from various hoardings, only to find at the end of the episode that 'He Has Gone'. The 1977 Christmas show, their last for the BBC, was watched by a staggering 28.5 million people (or, approximately forty five per cent of the entire population of Great Britain at the time). There was a parade of familiar faces, including Barry Norman and Michael Aspel, jumping around to 'There Is Nothing Like A Dame' in South Pacific sailor suits (a visual conceit which had been Morecambe's idea). There was the classic opening Starsky & Hutch parody, Penelope Keith mistaking Ernie for Kermit the Frog and Elton John – who'd also featured the previous year - trying, in vain, to find the studio and play his latest single, which he ended up doing to the BBC cleaners (Eric and Ernie in drag, of course). The audience remains a record for a light entertainment broadcast in Great Britain and one that is, in this multi-channel world, unlikely ever to be beaten.

However, there were strange stirrings on the other channel, Eric appeared on Christmas Eve 1977 on ITV's World Of Sport, chatting to Dickie Davies. Morecambe and Wise were about to switch sides again, lured to Thames by another huge cash offer – this time from Lew Grade's nephew, Michael. The start of their first show on the other side – a brilliant one-off special in October 1978 - saw Eric and Ernie being thrown out of a BBC van at the gates of the Thames building. The 'Peter Cushing still hasn't been paid' joke also followed them - along with Peter himself - on the first ITV show, although other elements from the BBC series were either dropped entirely or rested for a while. However, Thames didn't really get the run of spectacular Christmas extravaganzas they had anticipated. There was a really good one in 1978 (featuring Leonard Rossiter and their old mate Frank Finlay) but in 1979 Eric had another, albeit milder, heart attack and went into hospital for surgery. That year’s Christmas Show was a relatively quiet interview with David Frost in front of a studio audience, intercut with archive footage from the duo's previous days at ITV and some – limited – new sketches.

Behind the scenes, the Thames move was also a troubled one at first. Eddie Braben had remained with the BBC and various other writers, including Barry Cryer, tried to get to grips with the Morecambe and Wise style and generally failed, despite the aid of impressive guests such as Judi Dench, Donald Sinden and Robert Hardy. It took the arrival of Braben at Thames, in 1980, to get things moving again. At this point, the duo started to sing 'Bring Me Sunshine' again, something they had consciously avoided since leaving the BBC two years earlier. Memorable sketches from this era include two cartoon parodies, Eric and Ernie taking the places of the monkeys from The Jungle Book to perform 'I Wanna Be Like You', and performing as Tom and Jerry.

The four series that the duo made for Thames between 1980 and 1983 were decent enough but the general consensus was then, and remains now, that 'they weren't as good as the BBC shows.' Then, in 1984, Eric Morecambe died after an appearance at show with his friend Stan Stennent in Tewkesbury, his persistent heart problems having finally caught up with him. There has been some speculation that, had he lived, Morecambe was on the verge of breaking up the partnership and concentrating on writing but this had never been confirmed by his family. Ernie decided to try and make a career for himself, declining to take on another partner, a move he could easily have made, considering the skill and timing he'd acquired as television's best straight man. Indeed, in the early days of the act, it had been Wise who dished out the insults and Morecambe who took them. Wise's contribution to the duo's humour and characterisation is still the subject of ongoing debate and is, by some, massively - and ignorantly - under-rated. To the end of his life  (he died in 1999) Ernie would always reject interviewers' suggestions that he was 'the straight man' in, at least, the traditional sense of the term, preferring to describe himself as 'a song-and-dance man.' However, Wise's undoubted timing and ability to set up a punchline for his partner are beyond any reasonable doubt and only the most churlish of naysayers would suggest that Ernie wasn't every bit as essential as Eric to their joint success. In his 1970 review mentioned earlier, Ken Tynan took two paragraphs to praise Ernie's performance as 'unselfish, ebullient and utterly indispensable.'

The memory of Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise lives on today in repeats, DVDs, and in a generation (or two) of new comedians who recognise the childish and immaculate anarchy in their work. Never one to reinforce stereotypes (far too sexless to be sexist, Eric's reaction to a pretty girl like Michele Dotrice or Cilla Black appearing on set would usually be a very defensive 'Good evening, young sir!'), Morecambe's highly-refined body comedy can be seen in full effect in the work of, for example, his postmodern successor Vic Reeves. And, with his pal Little Ern, he helped to brighten all of our lives for a few drab years in the 1970s. To say that they brought us sunshine certainly isn't the most outrageous claim in the world.

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