They brought you Angela Rippon's legs

September 18, 1998

And they could teach TV's young Turks a thing or two. Their biographer, Graham McCann, analyses the Eric and Ernie effect

INTERVIEWER: "What exactly do you do for a living?"ERNIE:"We're just entertainers."ERIC: "Just."

A couple of decades ago - before one bold commercial warrior sank his simple sword of truth deep within the leathery underbelly of Reithian paternalism and left us free to feast on such television treats as topless darts from Roehampton - British TV still appeared to appreciate the value of public service broadcasting, of excellence made accessible. A couple of decades ago, British TV still made shows like Morecambe & Wise.

The Morecambe & Wise Show was the kind of show that drew people closer together. None of the now-familiar rigid divisions was evident in its unusually broad audience: the show found its way into dense council estates and leafily discreet country retreats - it was even watched at Windsor Castle, where dinner would never be served until Eric and Ernie had danced off the screen. The 1977 Christmas special attracted an estimated 28,835,000 people - more than half the population of the United Kingdom - which is as close as British television has ever come to realising its potential as a genuine mass medium.

ERNIE:"You're ruining everything! You're making us look like a cheap music-hall act!" ERIC: "But we are a cheap music-hall act!" Whenever Morecambe and Wise appeared together on tour - and they continued to tour until the mid-1970s - they would end each evening's entertainment by wandering back out on stage and declaring to the audience: "You've just seen 30 years go by before your very eyes." It was true: because they had started out together so young - back in 1941, when Morecambe was 15 and Wise 16 - and stayed together so long they represented a unique link between prewar music-hall and postwar television. On the screen - with their use of the raised, theatrical-style stage and plush curtains, and their sharp cross-talk, and their wordy, wireless-like flat and bed sketches, and their playful parodies of fashionable formats, and their MGM-style musical routines - they showed us the happy summation of half a century or more of popular culture.

I did not want to write a conventional biography of Morecambe and Wise: although the evolution of their shared professional life made for a fascinating story, it was one that had been told before. I wanted to write a different kind of book, a book that was as much a biography of a show as it was of its stars: an account of how British TV and Morecambe and Wise came together - despite a disastrous debut series in 1954 that prompted one critic to write: "Definition of a TV set: the box they buried Morecambe and Wise in" - to further refine a show that epitomised the old Reithian ambition "to carry into the greatest possible number of homes everything that is best in every department of human knowledge, endeavour, and achievement."

ERIC: "Remember: this is a family show."

ERNIE:"That's right."

ERIC: "Children watch this show. If they've been naughty during the day."

I knew that I would be able to amass invaluable information by visiting the BBC's Written Archives Centre. I also knew, however, that I would not, in spite of this, be able to piece together a vivid picture of how the show worked without the assistance of the original production team. Much to my surprise, all the members of that team were only too happy to help.

John Ammonds - the producer/director who, more than anyone else, taught Morecambe and Wise how to exploit the television camera's penetrating gaze - recalled the hours of preparation in the BBC's cramped little rehearsal room at the North Kensington Community Centre at the back of Wormwood Scrubs, when every routine, every supposed ad lib, would be triple-tested. Eddie Braben - the show's perceptive scriptwriter - explained how he rewrote the roles of Eric and Ernie so that the double-act was no longer that of conventional comic and straight man but rather that of two comedy characters (one an idiot, the other a bigger idiot). Braben also spoke openly of how the strain of having to write 45 minutes of comic material on a regular basis nearly permanently ruined his health. Ernest Maxin - who devised the show's spectacular musical routines from Shirley Bassey and the size-ten boot to South Pacific's acrobatic newsreaders - re-enacted for me the process whereby, in a single, chaotic night, he developed the idea of Eric and Ernie making breakfast to the tune of The Stripper.

Bill Cotton - who signed Morecambe and Wise to the BBC in 1968 after they had argued with Lew Grade - spoke candidly about the circumstances of that move and of the one, nine years later, that saw them move on to Thames TV. Michael Grade - who wrote them a fan letter every Christmas - recalled his contribution to their bid to build up a following in North America. Ann Hamilton, the show's regular female presence, revealed how she taught herself to ignore the attempts by Eric Morecambe ("a wicked little pixie") to make her laugh during a live recording. Paul McCartney got in touch, as did Cliff Richard, and Andre Previn, Angela Rippon, Diana Rigg, Denis Healey, Ken Dodd, Bruce Forsyth, Barry Norman, Frank Muir ...

Ernie Wise was too ill to participate in the project - he had suffered two strokes during the previous two years - but Joan Morecambe, Eric's widow, could not have been more supportive. It was not, I kept thinking, supposed to be as nice as all this.

ERIC: "Carry on, Ern."

ERNIE:"Carry On Ern? Hey, that would make a good title for a film!" ERIC: "Oh, I prefer 'Carry Off Ern'."

"Creativity in television," said Grace Wyndham Goldie, depends on the building up of teams of individuals whose talents are complementary and who, in combination, are able to make programmes that are more original than any of them can achieve alone. There is no simple recipe," she added, "for the creation of such teams." My book, I hope, illustrates, the truth of this assertion.

In the years to come, as the burgeoning television studies community immerses itself in the dazzling intricacies of all things digital and lazily demotic, one hopes that the practical appeal of what Dennis Potter once termed "the most entrancing of all the many palaces of varieties" is not lost sight of entirely. Television need not, even now, be about producing something to sell; good television is all about producing something to savour.

EMBARRASSING THE STARS

* Morecambe and Wise were notorious for deflating the egos of their star guests. When, for example, Edward Woodward suggested that he might dance, Eric replied, "Good idea - you can't act!"

* John Ammonds recalled Eric Morecambe's reaction to seeing Shirley Bassey emerge from her dressing room wearing a dress covered in sequins: "Christ! You look like a bloody Brillo Pad!'"

* Vanessa Redgrave (pictured) tried to persuade Eric and Ernie to buy a pile of Workers' Revolutionary Party literature: "They just said, 'No thanks, love - we're capitalists'." Undeterred, she then said: "But do you own the BBC?" Ernie replied: "No, but we're willing to make them an offer!" FANS IN THE KGB

Among Morecambe and Wise's most enthusiastic followers were the London-based agents of the Soviet KGB. Several of them had a routine of drinking a few beers at Jack Straw's Castle in Hampstead, then moving on to the Old Bull and Bush for a few glasses of whisky and then going on - a little unsteadily - to their apartments to watch The Morecambe & Wise Show. Two particularly loyal fans, the tall and balding Major-General Yuri Kobaladze and the short, fat Colonel Oleg Tsarev, were dubbed "Morecambe and Wise" by their colleagues.

SURREAL SCRIPTS

Morecambe and Wise's ability to make well-rehearsed lines seem like inspired ad libs caused some viewers to imagine that the show was more or less unscripted. One viewer, in fact, sent in a sample script that read:

"Eric slaps Ernie on the face and says 'My little fat friend.' Ernie says 'There's no answer to that.' Eric then says 'You can't see the join,' and Eric replies, 'What do you think of it so far?'." The would-be scriptwriter then added the note: "You can put the rest in yourselves."

In fact, Eddie Braben rewrote each script several times, with John Ammonds acting as the peacemaker between him and Morecambe and Wise. On one occasion, after receiving an unusual number of suggestions for revisions, Braben sent them a package containing 40 sheets of blank paper along with a covering note that read: "Fill these in - it's easy!"

THE ONES THAT GOT AWAY

Although celebrities queued up to appear on The Morecambe & Wise Show, not everyone accepted the invitation to take part. Michael Caine, for example, felt that it might "damage" his career (and so he went on to make The Swarm instead), and Sir John Gielgud, when Ernie Wise spotted him in the BBC canteen, pretended not to hear and continued to eat his custard.

Union leaders Tom Jackson, Jack Jones, Clive Jenkins and Len Murray did agree to take part in a sketch, but the public protests of an unemployed member of Equity scared them off, and they were replaced by Des O'Connor.

Of those guests who did appear, Sir Ralph Richardson was the most perplexed: after reading the script of the play "what Ernie wrote", he suggested to a producer that it might be a better idea to ask Harold Pinter to write something for him, "about a couple of schoolboys and a fag".

SENSE AND NONSENSE

When a package of old editions of The Morecambe & Wise Show was sold to Time-Life in 1980 for screening in North America, special classes were set up to explain British Rail jokes, association football and clog dancing, and students were shown diagrams of Milverton Street School and Tarryassan Street.

THE END

When Eric Morecambe died inf May 1984, several thousand people lined the streets of Harpenden on the day of his funeral. BBC1 is planning to show a special edition of Omnibus this Christmas to celebrate his life and career.

* Graham McCann is a fellow at King's College, Cambridge. His Morecambe & Wise is published by Fourth Estate, Pounds 16.99.

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