Barry Cryer on writing for comedy icons Morecambe and Wise

"They had a quality you can't quite define. You don't know what it is. You don't want to know."

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Eric Morecambe was very shrewd. The first year I worked on their Christmas show, he said, “I don’t want any Christmas trees and reindeers and cotton wool beards and Father Christmas.” I said, “Why is that Eric?” He said, “We won’t get a repeat.” And sure enough the Christmas show that year was repeated at Easter.

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During the 70s The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show was a highlight of the season, regularly pulling in around 20 million on Christmas Day. But with success came expectation and at the height of their success in the late 1970s (the 1977 show drew up to 28 million viewers) they definitely felt the pressure. Eric used to say his happiest days were when they were number two or number three on the bill in a seaside variety show and people would walk out of the theatre saying they stole the show. 

With the Christmas specials, they always felt pressure to top the last one. It meant that they were very satisfying to work with, but weren’t easy to write for – as I know only too well, having written for them for ten years. But if you wrote something that they took in and accepted, you were just delighted.

I first met them at the ABC Theatre in Blackpool in the 60s when they were really on the rise, a double act in the best traditions of variety. I was a bit of a hybrid – a bit of performing but mainly writing. I was standing in the wings and saw them rush off to enormous applause. Eric’s dresser was waiting with a lit cigarette. Eric had a quick drag before running back on stage for the finale. He lived life like that – always the performer, never wanting to take his final bow. Over the years we got to know each other, bumped into each other a lot, as you do in the business. Then suddenly in 1972 I found myself writing for them.

Of course Eddie Braben was the man – I used to call him the A Team. It’s funny – he wasn’t even a fan of Morecambe and Wise before he started writing for them. They’d been a fairly orthodox double act – like Abbott and Costello. Eddie had parted from Ken Dodd for reasons to do with money and income tax, and the BBC paired them up. He saw them chatting – they’d known each other since they were boys – saw the bond between them and realised the comedy was in their own relationship. Eric defined it superbly: “We’re both idiots. But I’m a bigger idiot than him because I think I’m smarter than him.”

John Junkin and I began by writing sketches when they were at the BBC. With two writers there’s usually a sitter and a walker – one sitting typing, the other wandering about the room. John used to wander about twiddling his glasses being Eric Morecambe (and he did a very good Eric Morecambe) and I’d do Ernie. You have to hear the voices and the way they work while you’re writing, like a tailor making suits.

It would often start with something they said – we wrote a Vera Lynn sketch based on Eric saying: “What would happen if you had a guest on the show and no-one knew what they were supposed to do?” So we had her on, Eric gets her name wrong and she refuses to give them a song. Ernie says, “How can we get her to sing?” Eric says, “I don’t know, short of starting another war…”

We really came into our own when they moved to Thames Television in 1978 because Eddie was tied up at the BBC for two more years. We ended up writing about 12 shows for them. They weren’t necessarily well regarded at the time. The impression was, they weren’t as good on ITV – although I’m still very proud of some of that stuff. 

However, it was one of the Thames TV Christmas shows that led to us resigning. 

It was an issue with the script. Eric learnt every syllable, every word, very quickly. And Ernie was a slow learner, which used to irritate Eddie a bit. Ernie was always still carrying the script around after Eric had learnt it. But Eric could ad-lib – he’d even rehearse ad-libs – but they didn’t claim to write. At least they learnt not to.

Eddie was the writing genius behind Morecambe and Wise, not Eric or Ernie. Legend has it, Eric once made the mistake of claiming in an interview that they created the ideas while Eddie wrote them up. Eddie promptly sent them six pages of paper, entirely blank apart from down the left hand side of each page, it said, Eric:, Ernie:, Eric:, Ernie:, Eric:. He enclosed a note saying, “All right lads, get on with it.” It was a joke between friends, and it all got sorted.

At Thames, without Eddie, it went the other way. One of our Christmas shows was written virtually to order, based on ideas from Eric. It wasn’t a bad Christmas show, but it wasn’t up to their amazing high standard. So John and I took Eric and Ernie to lunch in Berries in Regent Street – we were friends; we’d known them for years. But that’s a delicate relationship. We had a very jolly lunch and laughed a lot – and then I told them we were resigning because the show wasn’t great and John and I would end up taking the flak for it.

We came back, of course. In the end you were just happy doing it. They had a quality you can’t quite define. You don’t know what it is. You don’t want to know. You just go along with it. Mike and Bernie Winters were going at the same time and Bernie Winters, lovely man, said, “An act like Morecambe and Wise happens once in a lifetime. Why did it have to happen in mine?” Which was very generous and very true.

And Christmas… that was the time when comedy ruled Christmas. Filming one Christmas special, Eric was cornered by a man pontificating about showbusiness, telling him, “I always think, to be in showbusiness you need three things…” And Eric cut in: “If you’ve got three things, my friend, you should be in a circus.”

Goodness knows what they would make of the reality shows that dominate Christmas today.

Morecambe and Wise: the Whole Story is on Sunday at 9:00pm on BBC2. 


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