In Oceans 13, Eddie Izzard says to George Clooney and Brad Pitt “You’re like the Morecambe and Wise of the thievery world, but even they went off the boil after a while.” – but who were Morecambe and Wise?
The short answer is that they were a comedy double act, popular in the sixties and seventies, but that really doesn’t get close to the importance of Morecambe and Wise to the Brits, they were more than just an comedy act, they were an institution.
Eric Morecambe (real name Eric Bartholomew) and Ernie Wise (Ernest Wiseman) first performed together in 1941, and formed a double act that lasted until Eric Morecambe’s death in 1984, through the forties and fifties they honed their craft in the British working men’s clubs and on radio.
They attempted to break into TV on several occasions, unsuccessfully, but it was in 1968 that their golden area started. Through the seventies they had regular series on the BBC, and their Christmas TV Specials were the cornerstone of many family Christmas nights.
The Christmas Shows are part of British Broadcasting legend, the 1977 Christmas Show attracting around 27 million viewers, one of the largest audiences for light entertainment ever and around 50% of the British population. These were the days before video recorders and satellite broadcasting, Brits enjoyed a choice of just three TV channels.
Such was the popularity of Morecambe and Wise that their shows would often feature guest appearances from classical actors, newsreaders and big stars that would not normally appear on TV variety shows. Famously in 1976 the normally straight laced newsreader Angela Rippon stepped out from behind her newsreaders desk to dance a routine to ‘Let’s face the Music and Dance’.
As Eddie Izzard’s character said, they did indeed go off the boil after a while, in 1978 they moved from the BCC to ITV, the leading commercial channel and the general consensus was that they lost some of their magic.
Eric Morecambe suffered a heart attack in early 1979 and underwent open heart surgery from which he never really recovered. He died in 1984 after another heart attack, in the wings of his local theatre after a charity performance. Ernie Wise continued in show business until shortly before his death in 1999, but the character he had played as pompous straight man to Eric Morecambe’s clown had not endeared him to the British public.
But it is the late sixties and early seventies, and their Christmas specials for which Eric and Ernie will always be remembered. The shows are still regularly aired at Christmas time and still garner respectable viewing figures.