Everyone loves Morecambe & Wise, right? Not necessarily. My dad had a strange dislike of ‘Britain’s best loved duo’, and so their show was never allowed in our house (though we did watch Stanley Baxter, The Two Ronnies, and Les Dawson).
My dad argued that they had sold out; I never understood why until I discovered Eric and Ernie were ardent Tory supporters. Hard to figure why working class comedians gravitate to the right of the political spectrum but at one time it appeared to be fashionable. In the early 80’s, a lot of comics went out to bat for Margaret Thatcher: Bob Monkhouse, Freddie Starr, Jimmy Tarbuck and Kenny Everett included. At a 1983 Young Conservative event the latter, in a sickening display of attention seeking, joked about ‘bombing Russia. Morecambe and Wise were apparently in the audience, and laughed heartily. Even more depressing, Morecambe sent Thatcher a pre-election good luck letter, writing ‘God bless you Mrs T.’ It’s like discovering Santa Claus enjoyed a pen pal correspondence with Rose West.
Okay, an exaggeration. It was another era. Besides, there’s so much public goodwill towards Eric John Bartholomew and Ernest Wiseman that, if they were here today, they’d be instantly forgiven. The level of showbiz popularity they achieved has never been matched. Arguably they drew up the blueprint on how to be a successful double act, inspiring many of those who came after: Cannon & Ball, Reeves and Mortimer, maybe even The Mighty Boosh.
What’s remarkable is how long it took Eric and Ernie to reach the top of the heap. Their first professional performance as a duo was back in 1941. What followed was a long slog apprenticeship, with bottom-of-the-bill appearances in variety shows up and down the country. There were several false dawns: ‘Running Wild’, a mid 50’s BBC series, was a flop. They played second fiddle to boogie-woogie pianist, Winifred Atwell, in her own TV show.
Three films for Rank – ‘The Intelligence Men’, ‘That Riviera Touch’, and ‘The Magnificent Two’ – were hampered by lame scripts, and received with critical indifference. The turning point came in 1968 with a smash summer season at Great Yarmouth, and a move from ATV back to the BBC. This was the start of a 10 year heyday, and the Morecambe & Wise Show quickly became the jewel in the BBC crown, with various celebrities jostling for a guest appearance (the contribution of Scouse scriptwriter Eddie Braben was a big factor in their rise to national treasure status).
Eric Morecambe had a history of heart trouble and died in 1984; Ernie Wise passed away in 1999. A tribute show seems a blindingly obvious idea but it’s taken until now for it to happen. Possibly this is down to estates of Morecambe and Wise, who are protective of the duo’s legacy. It needs the right performers – and Ian Ashpitel and Jonty Stephens were born for this gig. Ashpitel looks like Ernie Wise’s younger brother, whilst Stephens’ resemblance to Eric Morecambe is almost creepy. The clincher is the fact that these two actors have been friends since meeting at drama school in 1983; their natural rapport is something that can’t be faked, and arguably mirrors the long-term friendship that existed between their heroes.
‘Eric and Ern’ takes a pick and mix approach to Morecambe and Wise’s golden years, with many famous routines woven into the two hour running time. There’s Eric’s hopeless attempt to do a soliloquy from Hamlet; a bungled ventriloquist act; a slapping contest that Ernie keeps winning. Some over-excited audience members can’t help shouting out punch lines in advance: a police car with its siren goes past their bedroom window (yes, they do sleep together) and somebody cries ‘He won’t sell many ice creams going at that speed!’ I wasn’t previously aware of Eddie Braben’s fondness for an occasional innuendo: in a post Viz-comic world, the only way to get away with this is by winking at the audience, as if to say ‘Yes, I know it’s obvious, you know it’s obvious but let’s laugh anyway’ (Stephens does a joke about two old men in deckchairs which is so naff, I couldn’t stop laughing).
Ashpitel and Stephens are fans, and must have watched hundreds of hours of clips to polish their performances. Stephens easily captures Eric’s clownish physicality and random screeches of manic energy. But he’s got the flashier, easier role. One day, someone will write an academic reference book on straight men in comedy; a task that requires skill and humility but offers little in the way of kudos. Ashpitel is there to feed lines and react but he embodies the role with total commitment. Occasionally he stares into the middle of the audience with Zen-like focus – it’s pure Ernie, likewise the rising exasperation at the end of a sentence. A lot of the time, Ashpitel appears to be doing nothing but his stillness is mesmerising.
Director Daniel Clarkson keeps things moving at a brisk pace, and the whole thing ends with a song. Yes, that song: ‘Life’s too short to be spent having anything but fun/we can be so content, if we gather little sunbeams’ goes a lesser known verse. It’s hard to argue against the sentiment. You would need to be dead from the neck up (or is it down?) to dislike this funny and touching tribute to two of Britain’s greatest comedians.
Ian Ashpitel & Jonty Stephens as Eric & Ern at Christmas is at The Lowry, Salford from 6-12 December 2021.