Fenella Fielding seduced Ernie Wise. She was one of hundreds of major celebrities who would subject themselves to the ritual humiliation and a slap in the face from Eric Morecambe. And these were celebrities, major celebrities, not the half-baked desperadoes who go by the name of celebrity in the 21st Century. A roll call of names would be a cross section of the great and the good from film, television and the arts.
Glenda Jackson, Gordon Jackson, Vanessa Redgrave, Sir Lawrence Olivier, Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey, Sir John Mills, Peter Cushing, Eric Porter, Ian Carmichael, Elton John, The Beatles (yes, the Beatles) and Andre Previn.
Ah, Andre Previn, conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra and that sketch. There can be few people who haven’t heard the exchange:
Previn: “What were you playing just then?”
Morecambe: “Grieg Piano Concerto.”
Previn: “But you’re playing all the wrong notes.”
Morecambe (grabbing Previn by the lapels): “I’m playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order.”
Few people will know that the exchange was originally between Morecambe and Wise in an earlier sketch in 1963 when the duo were on ITV, attracted there by Lew Grade and a promise that the writing and the show would be better than M&W’s disasterous screen debut on the BBC in 1954: a sketch show called Running Wild. The show on ITV wasn’t much better until an actors strike forced Eric and Ern to appear with just their writing team, Dick Hills and Sid Green.
It’s hard to imagine how Morecambe and Wise could have doubts about themselves and their television shows, but they were consumed by a need to be perfect, even their haphazard on stage antics were, like Frankie Howerd’s ‘oohs’ and ‘eres’ and ‘no, no,’ scripted and rehearsed until they sounded naturally haphazard. Throwaway.
Eric Morecambe didn’t think Andre Previn was a good choice, that he wouldn’t be funny, and was nervous right up to the point where Previn, suspicious he’s been booked under false pretences, relents and says he’ll go and get his baton. “It’s in Chicago,” he says with perfect comic timing. At that point Morecambe could relax, the audience laughter proving his concerns unfounded, and the sketch went on to become part of television folklore.
Perhaps it’s not unkind to say behind every great comedian there’s a legion of writers and influences and Morecambe and Wise were no exception. After the friction working with Hills and Green they were teamed up with Ken Dodd’s former writing partner Eddie Braben who went on to pen most of M&W’s material at the BBC. But the help didn’t stop there. A range of ideas and comedy elements were brought in from Billy Bennet, big names of the music hall world from which Ernie Wise had emerged. Wise had started on the stage at the age of 8 in a double act with his father: Bert Carson and his Little Wonder. Morecambe, real name Eric Bartholemew, began professionally at the age of 14, managed and encouraged by his mother Sadie. Both men were stage veterans before their twenty first birthdays.
When Running Wild bombed they naturally returned to the stage and began to rebuild their careers from the bottom up before returning to television. As their success at ITV levelled off they moved to the BBC and with Braben’s help made decisions that would change everything. Gone were the disembodied sketches and in came the persona of Ernie Wise playright, co-habiting with his daft friend Eric Morecambe. From their home they would ring the stars, play host to the great and good before coercing them to appear in Little Ern’s latest masterpiece.
Coupled to the new personas was the decision to build a stage in a studio, an elevated stage with a stage curtain, in front of which many an ego was deflated, including Ernie’s! The shows’ success skyrocketed, peaking in 1977 when their Christmas show was watched by over 28 million people, that’s nearly half the population of the UK. The success couldn’t last.
Braben collapsed from exhaustion and Morecambe was constantly bothered by the need to top the last Christmas special with something even more extraordinary. Eventually, he took a break and in 1984 appeared in a small show hosted by Stan Stennet in Tewkesbury and suffered a heart attack. Eric Morecambe died at the age of 58. Ernie Wise had been part of a double act for over sixty years. Losing Eric Morecambe was like losing a vital organ. His career continued up to his own death in 1999 at the age of 74.
But successful and popular comedians don’t die. They’re immortal. The sketches come and go, the punchlines endlessly repeated, the memories living on. If anyone were to compile a list of the greatest comedy moments Morecambe and Wise would have numerous entries.
“For another £4 we could have got Ted Heath.”