Keep a Straight Face.. It’s the Intelligence Men
There haven’t been many great comedy teams in films. Looking back over the years, Laurel and Hardy have, perhaps, been the most famous and successful. Quirt and Flagg weren’t so popular; neither were Wheeler and Woolsey or Cohen and Kelly. Abbott and Costello did well. So did Martin and Lewis – until they split up. But Laurel and Hardy.. they were the greatest.
As far as this country is concerned it’s difficult to think of a comedy double act that has achieved fame on the screen. On stage, TV and radio there have been several, but they have never gone on to greater heights in pictures. It is for this reason the new Morecambe and Wise film, The Intelligence Men, is so interesting. They have been together for 25 years, and on stage and TV they are a knock-out – but, until now, in films they had not been tried.
Therefore, The Intelligence Men couldn’t be more important to them.
Ernie Wise: “We worked hard for the opportunity to make a film, but we didn’t want to accept any old script. It’s easy to ruin a lot of good work with one bad picture. Being a funny man is a serious business. That’s one of the troubles with being a comedian; people expect you to be funny all the time. It’s impossible and it’s also a great strain.”
Eric Morecambe: “When we’re not expected to be funny we are funny, but when we walk into a room and people say, ‘Here they are – they’ll make us laugh,’ all we do is disappear.”
They are natural comedians
Even so, if you give them a chance, Morecambe and Wise are natural comedians. One minute they can be discussing their careers in a deadly serious manner, and the next the conversation takes on a more light-hearted flavour.
Ernie: “We’ve had other film offers. We turned one down last year.”
Eric: “But that was in 8mm. And they wanted us to develop it ourselves.”
Ernie: “One company offered us a film... a jolly good one – Sophia Loren, Liz Taylor...”
Eric: “Yes, they offered it to us – not to star in mind you – just to run through at home.”
Ernie: “Anyway, we got The Intelligence Men. We chatted over the idea with our writers Sid Green and Dick Hills. We said what we’d like to do and they gave us something completely different.”
Eric: “That’s been the basis of our success. We say what we’d like and they give us something completely different.”
Ernie: “We play spies in the film. Everyone sees us as spies.”
Eric: “At Christmas we’re working in the Mint.. a couple of mint-spies.”
Ernie: “That’s one of our better gags.”
Eric: “They wouldn’t have it in the film.”
Ernie and Eric have come a long way since they started together, touring in a stage ‘discoveries’ show in 1939. Eric was billed as the ‘droll comedian’ in those days. Ernie was a song-and-dance man.
Ernie: “Eric’s real name was Bartholomew, but Adelaide Hall’s husband, Bert Hicks, advised him to change it. He suggested Morecambe because Eric was born there. I had already changed my name from Wiseman to Wise because Jack Hylton told me that shortening it was more marketable. Actually, I was born in Leeds and at one time, we thought of calling ourselves Morecambe and Leeds, but it sounded too much like a travelogue.”
Eric: “More like a cheap-day return.”
Although they stuck to their new names, they didn’t stick to the same act. They changed it week after week as they toured the music halls and theatres of Britain. They spent any spare time they had at the cinema.
Ernie: “We modelled ourselves on screen entertainers more than stage acts. We thought we were better than Abbott and Costello. We liked Laurel and Hardy and they’re still our favourites. We prefer to be two distinct characters like they were. In our case Eric is the funny one; there’s no doubt about that. But I’m not a straight man or a feed. I am also a character.”
Eric: “Laurel and Hardy were the first of the screen’s new-type comedians. They didn’t have funny clothes, red noses and big eyebrows. They didn’t have to rely on things like that for their laughs although of course, there was plenty of slapstick.”
Although most of the double acts are now a thing of the past, Eric and Ernie have stayed together for the 25 years without a contract between them.
Ernie: “What good are contracts? They don’t really hold anybody. We don’t believe in them and not only have we never had one between us, but neither have we had one with any of the big managements. We have only the usual current contract for film, TV, or summer show. But a contract that lasts a long time? Never!”
As far as work is concerned, Ernie and Eric are never parted. In their private lives, however, they are; Ernie lives in Peterborough, his wife’s home-town, and Eric and his family live in Harpenden, Hertfordshire.
While they are not ending their TV and stage careers, both realise the importance of making a success in films.
Ernie: “You can do so much more on the big screen. It offers wonderful opportunities. However, whatever we do, our basic ambition is still the same; we want to make people laugh.”
Eric: “This is all it is with us. We’re still stage-struck. If we walk into a dark room and someone turns on the light we go straight into our act. But the people must laugh, or we have failed. I hope they laugh at our film. If it make money we’ll do another, no matter how good or bad we are considered to be in it. A film may be artistic and well made but if it doesn’t make money, you don’t get another chance for a long time. Also you lose enthusiasm.”
Ernie: “It’s the same with TV. We did a series about ten years ago which wasn’t a hit and we lost enthusiasm and confidence. They wanted us back, but we didn’t return for some time.”
Having got to the top in this country the boys are now out to conquer the world – and they know that the film medium is the best way to do it.
Ernie: “A lot depends on The Intelligence Men. We just hope people like our spy yarn.”
Eric: “You can say that again. We stand a good chance. As spies we’ve got something James Bond never had.”
Ernie: “Oh yes.. And what’s that?”
Eric: “Each other!”
© Showtime Magazine 1965