What’s it like being married to a comedy man? Part 2ERIC …I never doubted he would get to the top…
In the large, beautifully furnished Harpenden house that comedian Eric Morecambe calls home, his tall, trim and attractive wife, Joan, is on her knees dabbing desperately at the best part of a cup of coffee that has just cascaded over her recently cleaned oatmeal-coloured carpet . . . My coffee !
Eric, who had been given a day off from filming The Magnificent Two, is grinning from ear to ear as he reclines full length in sweater and blue denims on the couch.
“I'll bet the air will be blue when I leave," I remark, red-faced to Eric.
“What d'ya mean, when you leave ?" he comes back. "I can read her thoughts, and it's blue now . . ."
And after 14 years' experience of reading his wife's mind, Eric is probably right, but for the moment she is the imperturbable hostess, solicitous about a drop of coffee that landed on my jacket and doing her best to put me back at ease.
It is a Friday afternoon and we are sitting in an expansive living room, furnished traditionally with several beautiful oil paintings on the walls. The children, Gail (13) and Gary (10) are at school and the family pet, Chips, the Border Terrier, who loves to chase Mrs. Morecambe's car up the street, is convalescing at the vet's after catching it !
Their home, designed themselves, is in a rural, out-of-the-way part of Harpenden that is handy for Eric's work at the studios and also for visiting Joan's family in North
Finchley. And from the living room we look out to the patio and a garden with a large lawn.
Eric's hobby, he says, is hobbies, and on the patio he indulges in painting, photography and looking through a telescope at the moon. In the garden Eric tried his hand at archery until he became such a bad shot that his wife put a stop to it.
“Deadly things, arrows,” quips Eric, adjusting his specs, “I thought some time I might want to get rid of Joan. Zoom ! It's good that you don't wake the kids up either !”
His marriage to Joan, he claims, was another hobby. "But this one I didn't get rid of so easily. I had a week out from the theatre and nothing to do, so I thought I'd get married."
Joan's version is somewhat different.
Lew and Leslie Grade asked her to take over from a showgirl taken ill in a variety show in Scotland and while she was there, one of her girl friends introduced her to Eric.
“I didn't know anything about Morecambe and Wise at the time,” says Joan. "I'd vaguely heard their names and I guess I thought they were a couple of pianists or something.”
“Then when I met Eric I didn't take any notice of him at all. He didn't impress me in the least." Her deep blue eyes looked thoughtful. "Funny, isn't it, and then I marry him.
“He was sent to Margate to do a week's variety and my mother had a hotel there so I gave him the address. In the end, half of Billy Cotton's band were staying there as well. And then I had a week out and was near Morecambe, so Eric wrote and told me to go and stay with his mother.
“I suppose he just grew on me." She smiled affectionately at Eric and a strong bond was apparent.
"I often think we must have been crazy." she went on, "because we decided to get married before the actual engagement announcement was printed in the local paper. We were engaged just half an hour. I don't think my mother-in-law will ever forgive me."
Because of the great friendliness between Eric and Ernie, audiences tend to think of them as inseparables, but in fact they rarely meet socially.
"I go to work on Monday at eight o'clock," says Eric, "and Ernie will be there with me till 6.20 at night, five days a week. It's almost like being married, but it's easier to get away from a partner in the evening than a wife. Anyway, he's not as pretty as she is - he's got short, fat, hairy legs."
The first few years of Joan and Eric's marriage were difficult ones. Eric and Ernie had yet to hit it big and they were working a seven-day week, writing their own scripts and appearing all over the country.
“When Gail was a baby," recalls Joan. “she doesn't remember, of course, but she toured all over England and what with her pram and cot we travelled around more in a van than a car.”
"That was O.K. until Gary came along. Then I had to take roots while Eric carried on working all over the country. There were long periods of being by myself with two babies and very little help, which is lonely when you are young. But as the children have got older it has become easier and easier.”
“But do you know, I never doubted that he would get to the top. It never even crossed my mind that he wouldn't. I took it for granted. I just couldn't see anything else for them."
And Eric chimes in : "It shook me when we made it. It really did, because we were quite reconciled to going on just as we were. I don't know why it should have happened. It could have been the growth of television, but I always say that it was just our turn and that was it."
The telephone rings, and while Eric is answering it Joan talks about the changes fame has wrought in him.
"He used to be far more erratic and couldn't relax. But now he has a variety of hobbies and can go fishing or shut himself in a room and paint all day. I suppose it could be because he has less worries about the future, or that he is getting older. At one time, particularly before they met Sid Green and Dick Hills, they used to have to work all day on their scripts. Now it's much easier. I think the secret of their success in television is not because Eric and Ernie did it, not because Sid and Dick did, but because the four of them did it. They work well together.”
"As for the films, well, they still haven't quite sorted out the success formula. Eric tends to think that in films you've got to have a strong story, while Ernie thinks they should keep it similar to television. In their new film The Magnificent Two, they do both - they get caught up in a revolution. I prefer not to know too much about Eric's films though, so I will see them as a member of the public and give him my opinion as a member of the public. He usually agrees with what I think.”
"Anyway, the important thing is that now he gets plenty of time off. I'm sure it wouldn't bother him if he never went out of the house. He enjoys just pottering about. I suppose it's because he's always led such a nomadic life. On the whole he is a fairly quiet person. I know people imagine that when he is at home he runs around cracking jokes all the time but, of course, he doesn't. Perhaps that's because he's not treated as though he is famous - he seems to get slapped down as soon as he comes home …"
"I'm just a husband at home," confirms Eric coming back into the room. "When I'm at home I try to get away from the celebrity bit. We don't even use the name of Morecambe, it's Bartholomew. That's the name our milk is delivered to and that's the name the children use at school. Our neighbours treat us quite normally and we seem to live here in complete anonymity, except that when the children's friends come round they are a bit curious to see me."
"Eric was always terribly afraid that he would have precocious children, because of being in show business." laughed Joan. "In fact they are completely unspoiled and the fact that he is Eric Morecambe doesn't mean a thing in their lives.”
"Of course, when he is on television we let them stay up late to watch, unless he is on terribly late and they have to go to school next day. They find him funny, but then they have quite a sense of humour and find lots of people funny.”
"We went up to Morecambe a few weeks ago to see Eric's parents and while we were there we went to Blackpool to see a show. During the interval we went round to meet the whole company and Gary was tremendously impressed with Frank Berry. Frank asked Gary who his favourite comedian was, so Gary remained terribly loyal and said ‘ Daddy is.’ But later he told me ‘It wasn't true. Mummy. Really it was him, but I didn't like to tell him'."
Would Eric like his children to go into show business ?
"Well they've got nothing to do with show business at all, except that when I've got a summer season and they're on their summer holidays they come down to wherever I am. Basically I don't think I want them to be connected, although I wouldn't stop them if they really wanted to go into the business."
It was time for me to leave and Eric drove me to the station.
As we got on to the main road a labourer mending the road spotted Eric and gave him a friendly grin.
Eric Morecambe may be an anonymous Mr. Bartholomew in his own backyard, but as soon as he gets a little bit further away from home the mantle of fame is hard to shrug off..
© Photoplay 1967