Can you believe it was thirty years ago that Eric Morecambe died? I remember it so clearly, along with the deaths of John Lennon and Marc Bolan, as being one of those really momentous losses to the world of entertainment. Ernie Wise’s death is somehow not so memorable to me – that was in 1999. I never saw Eric Morecambe live on stage, but I did see Ernie Wise, in 1988 when Mrs Chrisparkle and I took the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle to see The Mystery of Edwin Droooooood (those extra o’s will mean something to you if you saw the show). That’s where the name Chrisparkle comes from – I told you about that four years ago but you’ve probably forgotten.
Thirty years – that’s virtually two generations of fans who never had the chance to see the UK’s favourite double act in person. Yes, there have been other double acts of course. The Two Ronnies; Mike and Bernie Winters; Cannon and Ball; The Chuckle Brothers… yes I know I’m drifting wildly. But make no mistake, Morecambe and Wise were THE number one entertainers of the 1960s and 70s. In those pre video and internet days, my schoolfriends and I could not wait to watch their regular comedy shows on TV. If you missed it – you missed it. Particularly at Christmas, where it would be the highlight of everyone’s festivities, the jewel in the crown of BBC1’s Christmas night schedule. We would get back to school and instantly start talking about how brilliant the sketches were, how wonderfully they took the rise out of their guests, and how pythonesque were the appearances of “not now Arthur” Tolcher on his harmonica, or Janet Webb closing the programme in her own special fabulously diva way.
But now you can see the closest thing possible to the real deal – the performances of Ian Ashpitel and Jonty Stephens in their Edinburgh Fringe hit, Eric and Little Ern, currently playing odd dates at London’s Vaudeville Theatre whilst also touring round England until March. This is a most affectionate look back at the lads, created with a warmth and care that honours and respects their memory. The only similar show I’ve seen before was Clive Mantle as Tommy Cooper in “Jus’ Like That”, where the impersonation was very good but never more than an impersonation. Messrs Ashpitel and Stephens, however, do such a good impersonation of Morecambe and Wise that it is sometimes really easy to forget that they aren’t the originals. It’s most apparent when they look at each other in profile; as Eric would say, you can’t see the join. Perhaps they’re not quite so convincing when they sing, because the vocal nuances that really strengthen the characters’ identities get slightly lost, but that’s a really minor point.
The scene is Ernie’s hospital room, presumably in his final days, as his dicky heart is getting progressively weaker. He is suffering in bed, when Eric enters, dressed as a doctor; then Eric starts checking his notes, playing with his machine that goes beep, making prank calls on the telephone and misbehaving exactly like you would expect him to in a hospital. It’s a surreal meeting, as Eric is obviously long dead; whether he’s a ghost, or the embodiment of Ernie’s memories coming back in a tangible way, or just pure poetic licence (I favour the latter), it makes no difference. It gives you an opportunity to see an imaginary conversation between them where they reminisce about their early career, where Eric larks about like a naughty schoolboy, where Ernie pompously tries to write another one of his plays, where they re-enact a few of their greatest sketches, where they squabble in bed together like they used to, where they sit on the settee together in their imaginary flat, where they talk about how they miss each other. It’s very touching and very believable.
For the second act, the stage is set for the full-on Morecambe and Wise routine in front of the traditional front of house curtains, including talking to people in the wings (“can he say fracas? No, fracas. He’s looking it up”), a recitation of “To Be or not To Be”, slapping Ernie on the chops and rearranging his wig, throwing the imaginary ball into the paper bag, and ending up with “Bring Me Sunshine”. It makes an audience full of Morecambe and Wise fans deliriously happy. A hilarious surprise (but not unkind) heckle from the dress circle near the end absolutely threw the guys as we all fell about laughing, so much so that they decided to go off and come on again – a great way to deal with it.
If you’re a Morecambe and Wise fan you will love it. If you’re non-committal towards them (or just too young to remember them) a lot of it might go over your head and you might wonder what the hell we’re all laughing at. If you’re actively not a fan, I’d recommend going to see something else. But our packed-out audience at the Royal in Northampton absolutely loved it.