Simply Eric and Ernie - part 2
By 1961 they had their own show again. ‘Two of a Kind’ for ATV teamed Eric and Ernie with Dick Hills and Sid Green, two talented writers who, along with the boys, began fashioning Morecambe and Wise into something more than just a British version of Abbot & Costello. The template for future programmes, the opening patter, the sketches, the guest stars all began on this successful programme that by the second series became ‘The Morecambe and Wise Show.’
Further series followed, as did theatre and club appearances, overseas tours and three films. Morecambe and Wise had never been so busy. It was what they wanted, but there was going to be a price to pay.
A falling out with the legendary head of ATV, Lew Grade, the offer of more money and a series in colour on BBC 2, saw Eric and Ernie, and their writers change channels in 1968 and embark on a climb to the peak of their popularity.
With producer John Ammonds at the helm, it appeared to be success all the way, but in the November of the same year, Eric had his first heart attack.
All appearances were shelved while Eric recovered, no one really knowing if he would ever return to work again. Ernie remained optimistic whereas Hill and Green were pessimistic. With no show to write for they had to look elsewhere and with ATV offering them their own show, they left.
Eric duly recovered and in August 1969 at the Winter Garden Theatre in Bournemouth, Morecambe and Wise returned to the stage and then television aided by Eddie Braben, a Liverpudlian writer who was to help transform Morecambe and Wise into a national institution. One of Braben’s many contributions was the development of Ernie from the ‘straight’ man into a more rounded character with his own foibles and plays ‘wot he wrote’. No longer was it a funny man and feed, but a funny man with an even funnier friend.
Accolades, awards and OBE’s followed and the shows went from strength to strength. Guest stars of a calibre never seen before on a light entertainment show, clamoured to be part of the fun and the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show, became an integral part of the festive season.
In 1974 John Ammonds stepped down as producer and made way for song and dance man Ernest Maxim and when people thought the shows couldn’t get any better, they did. Angela Rippon showed her legs, Ernie did ‘Singing in the Rain’, the boys made breakfast to the tune of ‘The Stripper’ and on that Christmas night in 1977 Morecambe and Wise had reached the very top of their profession.
The following year, after a decade with the BBC they moved to Thames Television and although remaining immensely popular, their shows never had the same impact and originality as those BBC shows. It wasn't as much as a sad decline as a slowing down, although at times it was difficult to watch these comedy greats struggle with weak scripts, lazy rehashes of old ideas and in Eric’s case, failing health after his second heart attack in 1979.
The move to Thames was prompted by the offer to make another film, something both Eric and Ernie yearned to do. The three films they made in the Sixties, The Intelligence Men, That Riviera Touch and The Magnificent Two weren’t roaring successes, but were better than most television comedians big screen attempts both then and now.
Their dreams of an international ‘buddy’ movie directed by the likes of Billy Wilder never materialised and it was five years before the very disappointing Night Train to Murder slunk onto TV. Poorly produced and surprisingly unfunny; it was as far from the cinematic aspirations of Eric and Ernie as was creatively possible and was such a shame that it was to be the swan song of Morecambe and Wise.
Transmitted on ITV on the 3rd of January 1985, 6 months after Eric had had his third heart attack and died on stage at The Roses Theatre in Tewkesbury, it was a sorry epitaph for a partnership of forty-five years that brought sunshine and laughter into so many lives.
Ernie passed away in 1999, but with many of their series and films now available on DVD, along with books about the boys being regularly published and clips on You Tube, the legacy of Morecambe and Wise remains. A testament to the popularity of a comedy duo that remain as admired and loved today as they did back on that Christmas night in 1977.
We would like to thank both Terry Adlam and Best Of British magazine for allowing us to use this article. You can order your own copy of the magazine from their website: Best Of British.
© Best Of British and Terry Adlam 2009