Feature from 2009
Eric and Ernie were big names in the 50’s, for there packed out theatre shows, radio shows and numerous guest appearances on other television programmes.
Rare still from the show
They had made their very first television appearance on 28th September 1951, with a guest spot on a show called Parade of Youth. At this time Eric would have been just 27 and Ernie 26, yet they were rapidly increasing their radio air time with shows such as Youth Must Have Its Swing and Workers Playtime.
More radio work followed including forty five appearances on Variety Fanfare, by which time they were beginning to look at having their own television show.
Despite being warned by several of their theatre colleagues that television would ‘eat up’ their material, they took the plunge and accepted an offer from the BBC to appear in a series of six shows called Running Wild.
Running Wild was not the only suggestion for the name, others included.. Hi There, Side by Side and Running Riot.
The script would be written by several people, a whole bunch of average comedy writers, later described by the producer as ‘fourth rate writers’, with little inclination to write to the particular strengths of any given comedian.
Credit for Director was given to a young, at the time trainee, called Ernest Maxin. This person would later become their choreographer, director and producer and take them to over 28 million viewers, but in 1954, they were all just getting their television ‘legs’.
On Wednesday 21st April 1954 at 9.40pm, Running Wild was broadcast live to the nation, with subsequent shows to follow every fortnight.
Being new to television, Eric and Ern was understandably nervous, but in interviews at the time they didn’t seem overly worried. Eric, in an interview just days before the show went on air said; “TV has come to stay and we’ve been given our big opportunity. We’d be daft if we didn’t take it with both hands. You see, we’ve got everything to gain and nothing to lose.”
Being new to the game was a double edged sword. Their radio fans wanted to see the faces behind the voices, but Eric and Ern had no control over the show, or even any input into ideas or scripts.
They were given the script and told to follow it. Feeling that it was not their place to question it or make suggestions, they did what was asked.
Despite its reputation, from what people have told us, it was not actually all that bad. It was just that it wasn’t all that good either. It had nothing to make it stand out from the other similar shows of the time, and none of that Eric and Ern magic we associate with Morecambe and Wise.
The Evening Standard summed it up with;
“After watching their Running Wild show last night I was relieved – and disappointed. Relieved because in their way they are amusing. Disappointed because they are not more so. Theirs is the humour of the music hall sketch – a sketch we have seen a thousand times before.”
Old fashioned and corny are words used to describe it from the few people who can remember it, but still enjoyable for what it was. A collection of sketches and situations just like any other comedy show before and since.
Sadly we cannot decide for ourselves as there are no known tapes of the show. It was broadcast live and it seems no one knows if there even were tapes made. There are certainly no records of the BBC holding copies in its vast archive. The only record we have are personal clippings from the Morecambe family, and that now famous and abrupt review; “Definition of the week:- TV Set: The box they buried Morecambe and Wise in.”
Other reviews at the time included; “Alma Cogan stands out like a rose in a garden of weeds”, “For adults it is an affront to the intelligence.” and more to the point, “Get Em Off”.
The press, it seems, were eager to pounce on something, unluckily Running Wild was an ideal candidate. A new show featuring Northern comedians who were big in radio and that had been built up by themselves. A chance to knock something before it had a chance to get started, and as we know, they had a field day.
Eric, in particular, was very upset by the criticism to the point where for the rest of his life, he carried around that definition from The People newspaper. His own confidence had also taken a huge dive, but they had to work on.
Their agent at the time, Frank Pope, wrote to the BBC demanding the series be cancelled. He felt that his clients were being badly portrayed which could only have a negative effect on their careers.
The BBC refused, and continued with the series as planned, broadcasting the remaining episodes much to the distaste of Eric and Ern. With no input, they were stuck with plodding on through the bad scripts, waiting for the thing to end.
Despite bad reviews, the actual viewing and rating figures from the BBC, slowly grew throughout the series, although getting nowhere near the current average for a show of that type.
Straight after the last episode, and still reeling from the press attack, they were booked to do more theatre work in Manchester. Like all professionals they pushed on and went back on stage doing their own routines and gags.
It was a nervous time, but on the very first show after Running Wild, and subsequently for the rest of the run, they got standing ovations every time.
This was a huge moral boosters for both of them, and gave them hope and determination to continue. More radio work followed and a tour of Australia with the Winifred Atwell show allowed them to get away from the public eye for a few months.
By 1961, some 7 years after Running Wild, they decided the time was right to try again. This time, with many many one-off appearances under their belt, they were much better prepared. ATV gave them their new start in Television, and from there the only way was up.
© morecambeandwise.com 2009