Morecambe and Wise, Eric and Ernie. However you describe them they remain our greatest ever comedy duo. But the man who has penned an absorbing new drama about them would add a little bit of qualification to that description. “Most people think they wrote the shows themselves, or made it up as they went along. In fact, this was a triple act, not a double act,” says Neil Forsyth. “It was Eddie Braben who made them famous – and who paid the price.”
Forsyth, who read Braben’s autobiography last Christmas, says, “I was struck by the conflict between the life-affirming comedy he wrote and the tortuous writing process he put himself through on a daily basis to create it,” he explains. The result is Eric, Ernie and Me, a biopic about Braben who’s played by Stephen Tompkinson, with Eric played by Mark Bonnar and Ernie by Neil Maskell. It shows how, after national service in the RAF, Braben worked on a fruit and veg stall in St John’s market, Liverpool, writing jokes in his spare time and sending them to local comedians like Ken Dodd. He ended up writing for Dodd for 12 years before Bill Cotton, BBC head of light entertainment, invited him to meet Morecambe and Wise. They were looking for new writers; Cotton wanted a new hit comedy. The seminal Morecambe and Wise Show was the result.
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The key scene in the drama is an almost literal version of that first meeting in 1969. Having professed himself not a fan, Braben watched the childhood friends riff and joke, finishing each other’s stories and take warm swipes at each other. “Boys,” Tompkinson’s Braben observes, “why isn’t this the act?”
“It was an epiphany,” Forsyth explains. “Eddie saw the humanity and their real-life warmth and innate understanding. That shorthand wasn’t being portrayed in their act – which was still very music-hall. They had lots of ticks and tricks that worked very well on the stage. His argument was that on television they should be connecting with viewers back home.”
Perhaps Braben’s greatest achievement was to persuade the comedians to do something that must have seemed unthinkable at the time: to act out their comedy routine in pyjamas beside each other in bed. “They were very reluctant and it became a bit of a battle,” says Forsyth. In the end, Braben pretended to give in, adding, “although it was good enough for Laurel and Hardy…” The shared bed became an enduring Morecambe and Wise image.
Barry Cryer, who wrote for the duo and was friends with Braben, confirms, “Eddie made Morecambe and Wise. He was the third member of the double act. They’d been a bit like Abbott and Costello. Eddie got them to stop being Morecambe and Wise and start being Eric and Ernie.”
Braben’s ideas, from script to performance, made them household names. But with success came pressure for even greater success. “If there was friction, it was about the script,” says Cryer (who’s played by Jon Culshaw in a scene in the drama). “They were three workaholics, so there’s going to be sparks flying however well you get on. They’d regularly pull in 20 million viewers on Christmas Day. The pressures on Eddie were huge: ‘Match the last Christmas show, make it even bigger.’ Eric and Ernie were always sending the script back to him to get it punched up. Eric once claimed in an interview that they created the ideas and Eddie wrote them up. Eddie promptly sent them six pages of blank paper, and enclosed a note saying, ‘All right lads, get on with it.’”
Joking aside, Braben struggled to keep rewriting the script to Eric and Ernie’s demands. “Although Eddie rarely spoke about it, in his obituaries it’s generally agreed that he stepped away from the show twice for the sake of his health,” says Forsyth. “He put himself under a lot of pressure. His wife Dee would tell him, ‘Take the day off ’ and he’d be bewildered.”
To help convey Braben’s struggle, the film uses what seems to be a director’s device: Eddie draws a TV set on his writing room wall and stares at it for hours until sketches “appear” to him. Forsyth says this is true. “In the book, he specifically talks about the giant ventriloquist’s dummy sketch as something that came out of that.”
The film ends with the 1977 Christmas show – their last for the BBC and one that pulled in 28 million (half the UK population). They switched channels to ITV but Braben didn’t go with them. “The ITV shows weren’t necessarily well regarded at the time,” says Cryer, who wrote for the boys from 1972 until Eric became ill in 1983. “At one point, John Junkin and I resigned because we were getting the flak. In the end, of course, we came back. As did Eddie. I’m glad to see a programme that’s a tribute to a writer and recognises everything he did for them. Eddie was a genius and I have a feeling that he’s the spirit of Christmas television.”
Eric, Ernie and Me Friday 29 December 9.00pm BBC4