On Morecambe and Wise

Today, we cast our gaze backward across the Atlantic for a few words of tribute to the popular British comedy team Morecambe and Wise. The team was composed of Ernie Wise, whose birthday it is (Ernest Wiseman, 1925-1999), and Eric Morecambe (John Eric Bartholomew, 1926-1984). Morecambe (the one in glasses) took his stage name from his home town, Morcambe, Lancashire. After they became a major institution, they were sometimes familiarly billed as “Eric and Ernie”.

Though Morecambe and Wise became major television stars in Britain, the phenomenon never quite took hold in the U.S., though their shows were shown for a time on PBS and other American outlets back in the ’70s and ’80s, probably in an attempt to echo the success of Benny Hill and/or Monty Python’s Flying Circus. That’s when and how I originally became aware of the team, though nowadays plenty of their classic clips are available to watch on Youtube. Both members of the team were energetically funny; in their variety shows they did crosstalk routines, more elaborate comedy sketches, song and dance numbers, and improvised interactions with guests. They counted Flanagan and Allen as influences (although their material was very different) and they once did a tribute show to the older team. One of my favorite bits on the show was a closing ritual, when a large, homely woman, whom we had not seen at all during the entirety of the preceding program, would barge onto the stage, push Morecambe and Wise aside, and thank the audience for watching “her” little show.

The pair were only teenagers when they began performing together. Eric had taken dancing lessons and won a number of talent contests. Ernie, at the time they met, was the more polished professional. He’d been onstage since he was eight years old, appearing with his father, a singer, in a music hall act called “Bert Carson and His Little Wonder”. Around the time he was 11, Wise began appearing solo both on the music hall stage and in roles. In 1940 he went on a radio show called Band Waggon, billed as “Britain’s Mickey Rooney“. In 1940 the pair met while performing separately in a Jack Hylton revue called Youth Takes a Bow. They teamed up officially the following year, although this first leg of their career was short-lived as they soon became old enough for war service and WWII was raging at the time. They got back together in 1946, establishing themselves on the variety circuit and on radio, and then on occasional television.

In 1954, they got their first variety TV show for BBC, Running Wild. This one was a bit of a false start, running for only six installments. It wasn’t until 1961 that Sir Lew Grade gave them another shot with a show called Two of a Kind, and from that point they were a television staple for the rest of their days. Two of a Kind ran until 1968; then came The Morecambe and Wise Show (1968-1977, produced by BBC), then another show of the same name produced by Thames television which aired 1978 through 1983.  The team’s annual Christmas specials were some of the highest rated programs of their day in terms of viewership.

The pair also appeared in several films: The Intelligence Men (1965), That Riviera Touch (1966), The Magnificent Two (1968), and Night Train to Murder (1983). In 1984, Morecambe died of a massive heart attack following a live performance; it was his third major heart attack since 1967. Wise soldiered on in solo appearances afterward, mainly as a game show panelist. He, too, died of a heart attack, in 1999.

As I said, Morcambe and Wise tried to conquer America as they had England — they even performed live here occasionally. And their TV programs aired here. I was amused but mostly irritated at this ad I came across in a TV Guide from the 1970s. What an incompetent description! Morecambe and Wise couldn’t be LESS like Abbott and Costello. They had much broader range, they had much better and more intelligent writers, they were musical in addition to being comedians, on and on and on. Clearly the copywriter for the ad knew nothing of their work, or else they were merely trying to communicate the idea of a comedy team, ANY comedy team, and the only one they could come up with was Abbott and Costello, which means they knew nothing of anybody’s work!