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June 1, 2008 / thatsarahdean

Icon of the month: Morecambe and Wise

First published in Third Way magazine, Summer 2008

Hey TV execs! Here’s the pitch: two blokes in their 50s, one egotistical but naive, the other child-like and cocky. They gently insult one another; perform big song and dance numbers and badly written theatre. They deliberately get the names of their celebrity guests wrong, gurn and waggle their glasses like a tipsy uncle entertaining his nieces and nephews on Christmas afternoon. Doesn’t sound too promising as a ratings winner does it, but Morecambe and Wise’s 1977 Christmas show pulled in a record 28 million viewers. This record remains unbroken today.

The BBC has recently commissioned James Corden and his Gavin & Stacey co-star Mathew Horne to write “a traditional comedy entertainment show in the style of Morecambe and Wise.”   It isn’t surprising that the BBC are looking for a new Eric and Ern, as thirty years on, their work is still very funny. Watching a Morecambe and Wise boxed set carries no risk of nostalgia induced disappointment -“it’s not as funny as I remember it”, or the bitter revelation that a family favourite is actually racist, sexist, homophobic or badly written, or in the case of ‘It Ain’t Half Hot Mum’, all of the above.

The comedy double act – the uneven relationship between two partners, one reasonable and serious, the other funny and unintelligent can be traced back to commedia del arte and mediaeval mystery plays.  Just as we can only truly understand good in relation to evil, or fully appreciate light having experienced darkness, we need a straight man in order for the funny man to be funny. However throughout his career Wise insisted that he was not the straight man, but “the song and dance man”. Eric’s comment was “Ern? A straight man? Not with legs like that.” What Eric and Ernie did was to cleverly manipulate and play with the traditional double act roles, and in so doing secured the audience’s affection for both partners. Making the straight man likeable is a difficult trick to pull off.   Despite their popularity Laurel and Hardy suffered from the fact that Ollie was often just bullying Stan.

Eric and Ernie always refused to settle for the easiest joke and their rigorous attention to detail meant that even the smallest aside had it’s timing and physical performance carefully considered and rehearsed, in order to guarantee the biggest possible laugh. In the case of the musical numbers, such as making breakfast in time to ‘The Stripper’, they put in days of rehearsal to perfect the physical comedy. The pair never missed an opportunity to put in a joke, no matter how far off course it would take their narrative. And most importantly, whilst they were clearly enjoying themselves, they were neither smug nor self-satisfied, only eager to share their enjoyment with the audience.

The twosome was never cruel or malicious to other people in their humour, aside from Eric’s ongoing derision of Des O’Connor, who sportingly guested on the show. In 1968 when Eric had a heart attack, Des asked his audience to pray for him. Once recovered Eric wrote to thank Des saying” those 6 or 7 people made all the difference.”

Morecambe and Wise had been performing live for 15 years before they got their first TV show, Running Wild, which was panned by the critics., Eric kept a review of this show in his wallet throughout his career, in case he became complacent. It read, “Definition of a TV set: the box they buried Morecambe and Wise in.”

The third member of the double act was their writer Eddie Braben, who suggested it would be funny if Eric and Ernie shared not only a flat but also a double bed. There were never any complaints from viewers about this as the pair’s child-like silliness reassured their audience of their innocence. (Eric apparently said he was fine with this idea provided he could smoke his pipe in bed “for the masculinity.”)

So Smithy and Gavin, the message is clear: to be the next Morecambe and Wise, aside from comic talent, you need to work hard, be humble, joyfully child-like, enjoy yourself and get Des O’Connor to pray for you….That’s a life lesson for everyone really.

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