Britain's Most Loved and Best Comedy Double Act

Desert Island Discs – Ernie Wise

1990 Article

First broadcast: Sun 21 Oct 1990 - edited and re-composed 2021.

In 1990 Ernie Wise was the guest on the BBC's Desert Island Discs. If you are not familiar with this long running series, celebrities are invited to share their memories and pick out records that mean something to them. Here is the edited transcript of the show.

How are the short fat hairy legs?
As good as ever. I comb them in the morning of course. I always wear shorts. That was a wonderful joke you know, about the wig and join. What happened was we were in some digs in Chiswick. There was a guy staying there with us and he was an acrobat called Paul Cafca. He used to wear a wig – an obvious wig with a top piece. You could see all the glue at the front. We used to walk around saying, out of the corner of our mouths, "You can't see the join." and that developed from there. Eventually Eric said it to me. Of course it was jealously really.

An interesting fact I didn't know was that when you and Eric met, you were taller than him.
Yes I was. It's funny that isn't it. We met at Swansea but I saw him in Manchester when he did his audition. He came onto the stage and sang a song called I'm Not All There. He had a beret, and he wore a cut down evening dress suite with a very big safety pin in the front. He had a big lollipop too.

Were you worried by the competition, was yours a similar act?
Well yes. All the band were there and they said "Well Ern, nice knowing you. We've found a replacement." That was a standing joke. I didn't think it was funny at all.
After that I didn't see him because it was a competition and he just went. He did his audition in front of Jack Hylton and that was it. Later on we met briefly at Crew before joining together in Swansea. We just became mates.

Back to the desert Island, would you be in the song and dance clothes, the straw hat and suit?
No. I would wear a hat. I am one of those people who must have a hat. I would wear my straw hat. I won't go in the sun without a hat on. I wouldn't wear anything else, I'd be in the nude!
The first record I have chosen is the one that would wake me up every morning. It's Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds, Good Morning from Singing In The Rain. I just love it.

Let's talk about your beginnings. You are the oldest of five children of a Leeds railway porter.
Yes. My father worked on the railway in a place called East Ardsley in Yorkshire and we lived in a railway cottage nearby. So there were seven of us earning two pounds per week and my mother had just 30 shillings to feed us all. But, we had this added income, which was going around the clubs with my father. We could earn three pounds fifty, which was more than his proper job.

Did you like performing?
I didn't question it. I used to go round the clubs with my father Saturday and Sunday. I'd get home very late, sometimes midnight and I had to be at school in the morning. I was a very tired boy but I never questioned it. I'm instinctively a worker and an earner. I pay my way and I don't owe money and I pay my bills on time. A typical Yorkshire man. I have always been careful with money, it comes from insecurity. My mother was a very careful person and I was brought up on "your best friend is your bank book".

They say you and Eric were in show business. Eric was the show and you were the business?
Absolutely. I always have been. People don't realise that. The show business side is really nice, you get some wonderful treats and special treatment, but the business side is terribly important.

It's 1932 and you’re seven years old and you are in the Wakefield Labour club and Carson and Kid, which is what your act was called..
Yes we were called Carson and Kid and we played all around the Leeds clubs and in Wakefield and all around there until we got found out. The education authorities found out my father was taking me round the clubs and exploiting me. They told him he to stop immediately. So we moved to Bradford and worked Bradford and never worked Leeds again.

Record number two is?
Well, while I'm on this island, before I go for a swim, I will get out of bed and slowly take my clothes off to the tune of The Stripper. That has special memories because of the famous routine we did.

Back to your life then. You started of in an amateur fashion, but as you say, doubling the family income. At what point did the young master Wiseman think he could do this for a living?
My father was always trying to get me away from the working men's clubs into some sort of professional situation. I went and gave this audition to Bryan Michie at Leeds Empire and didn't hear anything. Then later we got a telegram. Obviously Bryan Michie had gone to London and had a conversation with Jack Hylton. He must have said "I saw this kid up in Leeds and he was funny and he was a cheeky devil."
I think Jack thought I would make a good publicity gimmick so he brought me down to London and I auditioned for him that afternoon in his office and he put me on stage that night at the Princes Theatre. That was in January 1939.

You must have been terrified.
No. Not for one minute. I'd be terrified now, but I wasn't terrified then.

Was your dad in the audience?
Yes. He had tears in his eyes. I went onto that stage and the following morning I was headlines all over the country. "Railway porters son success overnight."
They said to me father, would you stay on with him? and he said no. He had to go back home and look after the family. He was never the same since that. When I left, it broke his heart. My mother told me on many occasions. We were so close, and even to this day, he's with me.

In a sense, you were fulfilling his dream.
Yes. But unfortunately that meant he had to release me. I got six pounds a week. Now that's good money. Three pounds was sent home and I lived of the other three.

For record number three, I have such good memories of the Jack Hylton orchestra because he really looked after me. He was like a father. I'd like a number from the Jack Hylton Orchestra to remind me of those days. About a quarter to nine – Sam Brown & the Jack Hylton Orchestra.

Jack Hylton came from the North as well didn't he?
Yes, he was from Bolton. He started the hard way like me. I think he was a piano player and used to play in pubs and things. I think he saw something in me. He did have a good eye for talent and found a lot of good people.

Was it he who suggested changing your name Wise?
Yes he did. He said we'll change your name to Ernie Wise and he made me more sophisticated. Originally I used to wear the sort of Charlie Chaplinish bowler hat and little black tash. I had a little cut down evening dress suit exactly like what Eric wore, with a big pin in the front. That was an interesting coincidence. I had red clogs too. Jack put me into evening dress. White coat and straw hat. I became like Maurice Chavalier.

By the time you met Eric, you were probably the smarter of the two.
Oh yes. I was the bigger star in a sense because I had been around longer and I knew Jack Hylton personally.

So you were taller, you were smarter, you were more professional and you met up with this fellow called Eric. He didn't really want to be the funny man did he?
I don't think so. I always struck me that the was very self-conscious. When his mum used to make him up in these comedy clothes and whiten his face a bit and put make up on, he was always self-conscious about being the dopey one. I think he would have been much happier as the smart, debonair type.

He took to it in the end though. When you became the feed and he became the comic.
Yes. We were based very much on Abbot and Castello. We copied them and their material. Even to this day we do a routine with Peter Cushing and bank managers – a money routine that we did all those years ago – pinched from Abbot and Castello.

Was he insecure do you think?
Yes, I think so. We did a show that flopped quite badly called Running Wild and that upset him very much. It was a critical time of our career and he was very upset. I wouldn't give up, I'm tenacious and I kept him going.
If you were in company he would be the life and soul of the party. People used to say to him "why don't you switch off somtimes?" because he was always full of life.That was partly insecurity. I think he felt they would stop laughing.

All this meant of course was that you had to put up with people saying that Eric was the funny one.
Yes. What happens is the public sees a double act and they think they are good. As time goes on they look a bit closer and say that one is funny and the other doesn't seem to do much. They say the funny one can do well without the other one. But of course it's wrong.

My next record.. When I lay in that lagoon on my back and want something to relax with I love the piano. My mother played the piano. I'd like Erroll Garner playing Misty.

Together you and Eric played them all really.
Yes, the Clapham Grand, the Liverpool Empire, the Glasgow Empire. They didn't like English comedians at Glasgow. It was a very well run theatre with a very nice stage manager and we had a good orchestra but you couldn't get any laughs. We used to go out there and we would do the whole act in silence.

Let's have the next record.
Well. I have a special relationship with Gene Kelly and Singing In The Rain because it's one of my big solo moments if you remember we did it on the TV show. I did the whole of the dance routine and I was quite amazed that I got through it.

It was in 1968 that Eric had is first heart attack. He was 43 wasn't he?
Well, something like that. When he was down the mine during the war, they discharged him with a weak heart then. So the trouble went all those years back. It still came as a surprise. We didn't know. We were appearing at Batley and suddenly the phone rang. That's why I hate the phone ringing. If it rings at 1 o'clock in the morning then I know it's bad news.
The phone rang about 1 o'clock and is was told he was in hospital. I was in Wakefield at the time. He was going back to his hotel, we weren't in the same one, and he suddenly felt terrible. He got this guy to drive his Jensen for him. This guy said he wasn't used to driving cars, he’d only ever driven a tank.
Eric talks about when he got to hospital and he was laid out ready out ready to go in, this feller came up to him and said "Excuse Mr Morecambe, before you go, can I have your autograph."

He got a lot of material from that didn't he?
He did. The classic one I think was the one about Des O'Conner when he was appearing in a theatre and he asked the audience to pray for him. Eric later thanked Des and said those 16 or 17 people didn't seem to make any difference.

The other very good line of course, was that he said it was nature's way of telling Ernie he needs a rest.

You carried on after that to do some of your best work really.
Yes. The thing is, from then on, he had to take it easy and we had to stop touring in the pantomimes and the summer seasons and concentrate on television.

Eric after that, did start to talk about giving up.
Towards the end, like in 1981, 82, he began to say he didn't really want to do any more shows. But of course when we got on the show, the adrenalin was going and he was marvellous.

Do you think had he lived, that you would have still being together?
Yes I do. I think we would have been doing the Christmas shows.

He died in May 1984 on stage in Tewkesbury. Can you remember how heard the news?
Yes. It was the early morning phone call again. He was doing this one man show, and I was going to do it the following week. More or less a question and answer situation. At that point he hadn't died then, when I got the call, but he had collapsed.
When I got the details later, there was nothing I could have done at the time. They said that he did the questions and answers and then he was messing about, running all over the place and then came off and collapsed and banged his head. I think the danger is banging the head. I understand he died about 5 o'clock in the morning.
Joan, his wife, went up there and I heard afterwards that Dr Yacum said that if he could have got there fast enough, he might have been able to give him another heart, which would have been a saving.
I think he went at 5 or 6 in the morning and I don't think he really properly recovered.

Was it for you, feeling a sense that half of you had died?
We go back to when I first saw him give his audition, when he walked on to that stage as a young boy. With his beret and his lollypop and sang I'm Not All There, There's Something Missing. And that is the song now about me. People expect to see the two of us.
Somebody said the other day, excuse me but was it you or Eric that died? People get confused. I don't get any spirit messages by the way. It's not like my father you know. But I do dream about him. We are always doing the double act.

My next choice for a record. I think by now I've had the rain and I've had a swim and everything so I think I need a laugh. There's one record, and comedy records don't normally make you laugh. You get bored with them. But this one always makes me laugh and that's Spike Jones and his City Slickers with Cocktails For Two. It's the beginning part of it. I immediately laugh.

So after Eric's death you had to pick yourself up and dust yourself off and start all over again – alone.
Well I said to myself I've got to do an act of some description, a bookable act. So I put together about an hour and 20 minutes of all I remembered. The songs, jokes and everything. I went to Australia and did some cabaret in 1985. I went round the cabaret circuit and everyone said I was brave, there are some tough audiences out there. They weren't tough at all. They were English people full of reminiscence and they wanted to talk about Flanagan and Allan and all that.

You did try something brand new on your own in the end. You went into a West End show.
Yes. My greatest achievement next to Singing in the Rain. What happened was that I got this script to do The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which is Charles Dickens. I got the script and a musical score like you've never heard before. A small opera.
I learnt the words and I learnt the music. I can learn music and lyrics easier than words. I spent five weeks rehearsing and we went on at the Savoy Theatre and it came off after ten weeks. I was broken hearted because I never got chance to actually get hold of it.

What about all the other offers. Lots of panto offers..
No, I don't want to do that. I get offered pantomime but I don't want to the straight man to anybody else. I suppose you'd call it. It's pride really. I want to go on working but I want to maintain my position. As I say, it's pride. But I'll tell you this much, if I was broke, I would do it.

The next record. There is a very nostalgic number I always like. It's the sort of thing you would sing at the end of a show and it's called The Party's Over. By Judy Holiday.

What do you think of them these days Ernie, today's comedians?
I think Russ Abbot is the best commercial comedian we've got today. He's good looking, he's got a lot going for him. The other ones, they're just a little bit too rude for me. I mean it's not my generation and they do talk about very personal things that I find a bit embarrassing. I watched Fry and Laurie the other day, now I like them. I think they are very good. And then suddenly they come out with something that frightens the living daylights out of me. When they talk about personal sexual intimate things, I find I don't like that sort of conversation on television.

What about Canon And Ball or Little and Large?
They are much broader. I thought Canon and Ball were actually going to steal our crown. That's what we were all waiting for, for someone to knock us off our perch. But they lost their way a little bit and still haven't conquered television.

So the crown is still up for grabs?
I think it is yes. We were the the fusion of the two identities. I think the personalities were right. I think we were well balanced. I think we shared it. I was very much the song and dance man and Eric was very much the comedian. I think we had an edge on all the people in the fact that we could move well. Eric and I were reasonably good dancers. We could bluff it. We believed it. We were Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. We could kid the people that we were that good.

Have you ever been back to those bare old BBC rehearsal rooms in Acton where you two concocted so much of that terrific material?
Yes. And every time I pass it those memories come back. You get this mixture of the great joy of it and the great sadness of it. It's a shame. But, I’ve got my health and strength and I have to continue and I also have to continue my career at the same time.

Your last record will inevitably bring back all the memories for everybody.
Yes. We have to do the little dance first and then we go into Bring Me Sunshine.

And the final things.
Favourite track: Bring Me Sunshine by Morecombe And Wise
Favourite Book: Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens
Luxury: Yellow Rolls Royce

© BBC 1990

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