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Eric Morecambe (born Eric Bartholomew – the tall one with the glasses) and Ernie Wise (Real name, Ernest Wiseman – the straight-man with the short fat hairy legs) first appeared together in 1941.
Arguably Britain’s most popular TV comedy team, they absolutely ruled British small screen comedy variety for almost a quarter of a century on both ITV and BBC.
In the early 1960’s they appeared in a series of comedy music shows. Eric would be striding around singing “Boom Oo Yatta Ta Ta” off-key and grabbing Ernie by the throat demanding “get outta that!”.
The Morecambe and Wise Show first ran on BBC2 on 2 September 1968. It marked the return of Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise from ITV. The BBC screened Morecambe and Wise in colour and used their return to push the relatively new colour television service, making them Radio Times cover stars.
Recurring jokes throughout their career involved (randomly) Des O’Connor; Luton Town FC (Eric was a director of the club); Ern’s hair (“you can’t see the join”); Ern’s plays (“wot I wrote”); Eric wobbling his glasses and saying “what do you think of it so far? – Rubbish!”; The fat lady (“I love you all”), and a running gag at the end of the show, where Ernie would get Eric to leave, pretending the show was over, and then sneak back to do a closing number with the special guest.
We all knew that Eric would walk along the back of the set in his mac with his carrier bag, but the repetition never ruined the appeal of the joke. In fact, if anything, it heightened it.
Unusually for the sixties, in the series, Eric and Ern were supposed to share a flat together (unusual for two adult single men). Even more questionable for the era, they shared a bed together.
The regular segment of the show (and the one which came closest to the sitcom format) featured Eric and Ernie at home where Eric would alleviate his boredom by sabotaging Ernie’s attempts to dash off a couple of plays before lunch.
Sometimes he played with a child’s toy or spied on neighbour Ada Bailey – whose underwear was forever being hung on the line – or slid in a few irreverent one-liners: “Where’s the tea, Ern?”.
And he never failed to prick Ernie’s pomposity.
Ernie: My mother has a Whistler.
Eric: Now there’s a novelty.
But Eric and Ern are probably best remembered for their spectacular Christmas shows from the 1970s and 1980s.
The first Christmas special was shown on Christmas Day 1969 with special guest stars Kenny Ball, Sacha Distel, Frankie Vaughan, Fenella Fielding, The Patersons and Nina. By the time the series was into its tenth year, the Christmas special had grown into a huge production with a list of guest stars including Arthur Lowe, Penelope Keith, James Hunt, Elton John, and a full cast of newsreaders and presenters in the infamous Nothing Like A Dame routine.
Also in that show was Angela Rippon, newscaster supreme and former dancer.
Other Christmas guests over the years included Glenda Jackson, Andre Previn – who Eric called Andrew Preview in the famous sketch where Eric was playing “all the right notes but not necessarily in the right order”, Vanessa Redgrave, Alec Guinness, Laurence Olivier, Diana Rigg, Cliff Richard, Des O’Connor, Tom Jones, Frank Finlay, former Prime Minister Harold Wilson (pictured below) and Diana Dors.
Eric and Ernie went back to ITV in 1978, but never recaptured the glory of their BBC years. Boxing Day 1983 saw the last Christmas show. The guests included Gemma Craven, Nigel Hawthorne, Derek Jacobi, Fulton Mackay, Nanette Newman, Peter Skellern, Burt Kwouk and Patrick Mower.
The duo last worked on TV together in a 90-minute comedy thriller in 1985 called Night Train to Murder. They were truly comic geniuses and they will always be missed dearly.
Eric Morecambe collapsed and died on 29 May 1984 after appearing in a Sunday concert in Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire. He was 58 years old.
Ernie Wise died on 21 March 1999 having recently undergone emergency heart by-pass surgery in the USA. He was 73 years old.
Bring me sunshine in your smile
Bring me laughter all the while
In this world where we live
There should be more happiness
So much joy you can give
To each brand new bright tomorrow
Make me happy through the years
Never bring me any tears
Let your arms be as warm
As the sun from up above
Bring me fun, Bring me sunshine, Bring me love