Eric and Ernie's Public Secret
What is it that makes Morecambe and Wise Kings of Comedy? Why do leading stars allow themselves to be subjected to the treatment Eric and Ern dish out? Scriptwriter Eddie Braben gives his reasons for the enduring popularity of the famous duo you will be meeting again on Wednesday.
The humour of Morecambe and Wise can be summed up in three words: cheek, childishness and warmth. The pricking of pomposity is a vital ingredient of their comedy – Eric and Ernie don’t just prick balloons, they jump all over them.
So long as comedians come over as human, they only have to be reasonably funny to make the British laugh. But if they are cold and clinical they will just make a British audience uncomfortable, however hilarious their material. They have to make themselves vulnerable, so they are down there and the audience feel they are watching from above.
Eric and Ernie’s trick is that they also seem to be looking down on one another. And it’s difficult to say who is being the bigger idiot. When they started out Eric was the dupe, Ernie was the conventional straight man, in the classic Music Hall manner. But somehow over the years the emphasis shifted. Eric is now sharper, slightly sophisticated, while Ernie has become gullible and prudish, which more accurately reflects elements of their real personalities.
What hasn’t changed is the absence of rancor. Beneath the relentless one-downmanship (“This man’s a fool!”), there is affection and the public sense it.
The country’s biggest stars compete with each other to get on the show. The reason they take the chance is that they know there is no malice in the humour. Eric and Ernie could never get away with terrorising or playing juvenile pranks on much-loved national figures like Dame Flora Robson or Sir John Mills without the underlying warmth that is in everything they do.
They get the bi names because they are successful. And the boys are so professional and so charming that the celebrities will do anything asked of them, within reason or not. An appearance is a big attraction for eminent figures who feel they are out of touch with the public. They can try to bridge the gap by allowing Eric and Ernie to run through the hoop and shred every vestige of dignity from them. If they survive, their relationship with the public should become much closer – literally overnight.
When I first saw Eric and Ernie at the Liverpool Empire in 1952 they were so far down the bill that their names were smaller than the printers. The act was raw, but I could feel the audience was taking to them, almost willing them to be funny. Later I heard them on radio in a successful series produced by John Ammonds, the man who became the fourth member of our Eric and Ernie quartet.
They transferred to television and seemed to lose something. At the time I didn’t realise what it was. I just felt that the writers had been unable to establish any depth to their relationship.
Billy Cotton Jnr. Of BBC Television must have felt the same. In 1968, after I had finished working several years for Ken Dodd, he called me in to write some pages of script for them. On the strength of them he employed me for four shows.
The lads and I had a god natter before I started the first one. We discovered that we all loved the Music Hall and that our unquestioned favourite was Jimmy James. Then it hit me – the key to their relationship. Jimmy James got away with ruthless character assassination on his stooges because he was a tremendous warm personality and there was not a drop of malice in him.
And that is how Eric and Ernie developed. The audience now feels that the loyalty and affection between them is so deep that it can’t be shaken, though they chastise one another mercilessly.
Eric can ridicule Ernie… but he won't let anyone else do it.
Eric can ridicule Ernie’s legs and his ‘join’, or tell him that there is only one ‘f’ in Pharaoh, but hw won’t let anyone else do it, and will spring to Ernie’s defence. Audiences love the stability, the feeling that come what may, Eric and Ernie will always be together.
You get the same feeling privately too, though people jump at the fact that they don’t seem to socialise much together, and that when they are at parties, they don’t talk to one another. But how would you feel if you had been in another persons pocket for 40 years? Even when they were solo acts at the age of 13, they shared digs, which their mothers arranged to save touring costs.
It’s no wonder that they seem able to read one another’s minds. And they don’t enjoy going to parties. It’s a strain when people expect them to be funny to order if they are trying to relax and get away from it all.
Ernie and his wife Doreen have no children and live in a large house near Maidenhead. They like going their river cruiser, watching cricket and ballroom dancing. Eric and Joan have three children, one still at home, and they enjoy gardening and fishing. So, not much in common out of working hours.
When we first met we weren’t sure we were going to like one another. It was all a bit tense. To me they were two unassuming chaps who could have been anything other than professional comedians. They were polite and respectful. Ernie said: “If you’re good enough for Ken Dodd, you’re good enough for us.”
But I got the feeling that you couldn’t con them. I had to come up with an approach that was valid and unique and that wouldn’t frighten them off.
And my original idea was a frightener. I recalled the scenes from Laurel and Hardy movies in which they sat in bed together – with their bowler hat on, of course – and it looked perfectly innocent and utterly hilarious. I decided to put these two people into an enclosed space, an intimate environment the equivalent of being inside a Music Hall horse-skin. And that was how the in-bed and at-home situations came about – another important breakthrough.
As always Ernie looked for the snags then laughed. And as always Eric laughed right away, then added his own touch. To make the scene more masculine he suggested that he kept a pipe in his mouth. That worked. Maybe it was his chaste equivalent of those bowlers.
I tried to put what already existed within their relationship under a microscope – then exaggerate the main traits. Nothing was created that didn’t ‘fit’ them. So the Morecambe and Wise we see on screen is a highly exaggerated version of the private Eric and Ernie.
But they still had to spark off one another. So I made Ernie incorrigibly pompous, particularly about the plays what he writes and Eric would bounce off that.
“It says here, in the stop-press column of my newspaper, that you’ve been made Lord Ern.” Says Eric. Ernie manages to smile modestly and at the same time puff out his chest. “Which means,” Eric continues, “that your wife will be a lady, which will be a nice change for her.” It turns out, of course, that Eric had typed the item himself. Another time he entered with a huge silver cup. “Here is an award to little Ernie Wise for Contributions What He Has Made to Literature.” And from the cup he hands Ernie a Luncheon Voucher.
© TV Times 1980