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Eric Morecambe

John Eric Bartholomew OBE (14 May 192628 May 1984), better known by his stage name Eric Morecambe, was an English comedian who together with Ernie Wise formed the award-winning double act Morecambe and Wise. The partnership lasted from 1941 until Morecambe's death of a heart attack in 1984. Eric took his stage name from his home town, the seaside resort of Morecambe in Lancashire, England.

He is best remembered for the television series The Morecambe & Wise Show, which for its Christmas episodes gained UK viewing figures of over twenty-eight million people. The duo's reputation enabled them to have a number of prestigious guests on the show, including Angela Rippon, Princess Anne, Cliff Richard, Laurence Olivier, John Mills, the Dad's Army cast, Glenda Jackson, Tom Jones, Elton John, The Beatles and even former Prime Minister Harold Wilson.

Early life & childhood career

Eric Morecambe was born to George and Sadie Bartholomew. Sadie was determined to see her only child make a success of his life, and took work as a waitress to raise funds for his dancing lessons. Eric did not enjoy these lessons at the time, although they were to come in handy during his later life. In 1940 Morecambe left school at the age of 14. During this period, Eric Bartholomew won numerous talent contests, most notably in Hoylake in 1939, the prize for which was an audition with Jack Hylton. Also present was another young talent named Ernest Wiseman, already a familiar voice from Arthur Askey's radio series Band Waggon. This was the first meeting of what was to become one of the United Kingdom's most loved comedy partnerships, although it was to be a further two years before they would team up. Three months after the audition, Hylton invited Eric to join a revue called Youth Takes A Bow at the Nottingham Empire, where once more he encountered Ernie. The two soon became close friends, and with Sadie's encouragement started to develop a double act. When the two were eventually allowed to perform their double act on stage (in addition to their solo spots), Hylton was impressed enough to make it a regular feature in the revue. However, the duo split when they began their National Service during World War II. Wise went in the Merchant Navy. The younger Morecambe was a Bevin Boy: conscripted to work in a coal mine in Accrington. He was later invalided out due to a heart defect.

"Bartholomew & Wiseman"

After the war – and a chance reunion in London, where Sadie once again encouraged them to work together – Morecambe and Wise began to make a name for themselves on stage and radio, before managing to secure a contract with the BBC to make a television show. However, Running Wild (1954), their first series, was a critical failure. One reviewer gave a definition of television as "the box they buried Morecambe and Wise in". Morecambe was particularly upset by this, and carried a clipping of that review in his wallet for the rest of his life. It was several years before the pair would work on television again. They returned to the stage to hone their act, and eventually made well-received appearances on Sunday Night at the London Palladium and Double Six, raising their profile and increasing their popularity.

Two Of A Kind (1961-1968)

On the back of their success on stage and on screen, in 1961 Lew Grade offered them a series for the London-based ITV station ATV. Paired with writers Sid Green and Dick Hills, the series fared poorly to start with. Early episodes saw Hills and Green writing for the comedians as if Morecambe and Wise were alter egos of the writers. There was an argument between the writers and the talent. This was ended by an Equity strike which left the autumn television schedules in tatters. Green commented to Morecambe "You're done for", to which Morecambe replied "Not at all, we belong to VAF" - a reference to The Variety Artists' Federation, then a separate trade union unaffiliated with Equity. Morecambe and Wise were not bound to participate in the strike.

From then on, Morecambe and Wise got their way. The sketches began to reflect their stage work and series became a success. Indeed, Hills and Green even appeared in the series as "Sid and Dick" - two all purpose stooges. The series introduced several popular catchphrases (such as "Get out of that!"; "That's not nice"; "I'll smash your face in"; and "More tea Ern?") which would stay with them throughout their careers. Also introduced was Morecambe's famous paper bag trick - as well as an original opening segment which saw the pair parody other series such as The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Dixon of Dock Green and Take Your Pick.

It also attracted special guests such as Pearl Carr, Teddy Johnson and The Beatles. The celebrities were generally teased by the pair, and especially by Morecambe's playful insults. Guests were not offended, however, recognising that the joke was not so much on them as on Morecambe's supposed failure to recognise them, or inability to get their names right - for example, during the Beatles' appearance he persistently addressed Ringo Starr as "Bongo".

The sixth Morecambe and Wise series for ATV was planned from the start to be aired in the United Kingdom as well as exported to the United States and Canada. It was taped in colour and starred international guests, often American. Prior to its British run, it was broadcast in North America by ABC network as a summer replacement for re-runs of The Hollywood Palace under the title The Piccadilly Palace from 20 May to 9 September 1967.

The duo had appeared in the US on The Ed Sullivan Show and hoped to become stars there, but negotiations for a longer run broke down when the show's ratings were strong in Canada but weak in the US. Lew Grade, who represented the comedians in the negotiations, said in his autobiography that the disappointing American ratings were a result of the comedians' refusal to slow down their fast-paced act. In 1968, as a result of problems with contract negotiations with Lew Grade (they were not offered enough money or allowed to continue making their shows in colour), Morecambe and Wise left ATV to return to BBC.

First heart attack

In his book 2003 Life's Not Hollywood, It's Cricklewood, Gary Morecambe reveals that Eric Morecambe mentioned sporadically that he was suffering from chest pains in both 1967 and 1968. In one diary entry from 17 August 1967, when they were appearing in Great Yarmouth as part of a summer season, Morecambe noted, "Have had pains in my arms. Had them off and on for some weeks now. Hell of a long time for indigestion." He also made references to pains in his arm and back throughout 1967. These may have been the early warning signs of the heart attack he was to suffer the following year. Morecambe was smoking 60 cigarettes a day and drinking more than he should have. Combined with stress and overwork, this led him on 7 November 1968 to suffer a heart attack at just 42, outside Leeds whilst driving to his hotel.

Morecambe had been appearing with Wise during a week of midnight performances at the Variety Club in Batley, Yorkshire. He had complained of pains in his right arm from the beginning of that week but as a self-confessed hypochondriac he thought little of it, thinking it was perhaps tennis elbow or rheumatism.

Morecambe recounted in an interview with Michael Parkinson in November 1972 that, unable to drive to hospital, he had been rescued by a man named Walter Butterworth ("I'll never forget him," said Morecambe. "That wasn't his real name, but I'll never forget him"). When Morecambe asked him to drive the car, Butterworth replied "I'm in the Territorials – I've only ever driven a tank!" Arriving at hospital, a heart attack was immediately diagnosed. Morecambe thanked Butterworth, who in return asked for an autograph saying "before you go, can you sign this piece of paper? My mates will never believe me about this." Morecambe scribbled away, convinced it was the final autograph he would ever sign. He left hospital two weeks later and gave up his cigarette habit to start smoking a pipe.

Upon his release from hospital, Morecambe learned that Des O'Connor had told his audience to pray for Morecambe's recovery as he was fighting for his life. When told, Morecambe's reply was "Tell him that those six or seven people made all the difference."

With the BBC (1968-1978)

The first series of The Morecambe and Wise Show was a success before Morecambe's heart attack. Though now a popular television star, Morecambe felt himself to be placed under a great deal of pressure. As Wise was, at that stage, very much a basic straight man, Morecambe felt the job of making Hills' and Green's writing sparkle was firmly on his shoulders.

However, whilst Morecambe was recuperating Hills and Green, who believed that Morecambe would probably never work again, quit as writers. Morecambe and Wise were in Barbados at the time and only learned of their writers' departure from the steward on the plane. John Ammonds, the show's producer, replaced Hills and Green with Eddie Braben, who had just parted from Ken Dodd. With Braben as chief writer, Morecambe and Wise became the most successful comedy duo the country had ever seen. The humour had always been largely derived from their on-stage relationship, but whereas Hills and Green had cast Morecambe as the comic and Wise as the straight man, Braben inverted the relationship; as theatre critic Kenneth Tynan noted, Braben made Wise's character a comic who wasn't funny, while Morecambe became a straight man who was funny. Braben made them less hostile to one another, even depicting them as sharing a bed. Originally Morecambe and Wise objected to sharing a bed (which would become one their most popular and fondly remembered character traits), but Braben countered that if it was good enough for Laurel and Hardy it was surely good enough for Morecambe and Wise. Morecambe was appeased and congratulated Braben, saying "It stays!"

Morecambe and Wise became so popular that their annual BBC Christmas shows were almost mandatory viewing in the United Kingdom from 1968 to 1978. Despite his heart condition, he and Ernie still managed energetic song and dance routines and superbly timed visual comedy. So much effort was placed into their 1977 Christmas show that Eric and Ernie did not even do a television series that year. An estimated 28,385,000 viewers watched it. Des O'Connor was frequently the butt of their humour, often because of his allegedly awful singing.

If you want me to be a goner, get me an LP by Des O'Connor

O'Connor once asked Morecambe and Wise whilst appearing as a guest, if he could sing on their show. Morecambe replied "Sing on our show? You can't even sing on your own show!". In reality, O'Connor was a close friend of both Morecambe and Wise and would meet them in later years to devise jokes about himself.

With Thames Television (1978-1983)

In 1978, the pair left the BBC for ITV signing a contract with the London station Thames Television, which made front page news. Reasons given were a higher salary but crucially the clincher was the opportunity to make another movie, something Thames could offer through their Euston Films subsidiary.

Eddie Braben, however, opted to remain at the BBC (signing an exclusive contract with the corporation shortly thereafter); Barry Cryer and John Junkin were brought in to contribute to the early Thames shows (Braben eventually made the switch when his BBC contract expired). Their Christmas Specials were still popular but nowhere near the dizzying heights of 1977.

However, once more the stress of being such a popular entertainer got to Morecambe. His wife Joan recalled that he would start worrying about the Christmas Special in June. He would frequently worry himself about how a certain routine would work. As a result, he suffered a second heart attack at home in Harpenden, Herts in January 1979, which led to a heart bypass operation by Magdi Yacoub in June 1979.

Morecambe increasingly wanted to move away from the double act, but feared that Wise would not be able to cope without him. In 1980 he played the Funny Uncle in a dramatisation of the John Betjeman poem "Indoor Games Near Newbury", part of an ITV special titled Betjeman's Britain that also starred Peter Cook and Susannah York. That saw the start of a relationship with producer/director Charles Wallace that led to a follow-up in 1981 for Paramount Pictures titled Late Flowering Love that saw Eric play an WWII major. The film was released in the UK with Raiders of the Lost Ark and many others, becoming the most successful UK short film ever. The project spawned two more solo performances. In 1981 Morecambe published Mr Lonely, a tragicomic novel about a stand-up comedian. He focused more on writing in the coming years, which were to be the final years of Morecambe's life. They made a series in the Autumn of 1980, 1981, 1982 and 1983. They appeared together recalling their music hall days in a one hour special on ITV on 2 March 1983, Eric & Ernie's Variety Days. During this time Morcambe published two other novels: The Reluctant Vampire (1982) and its sequel The Vampire's Revenge (1983)

Morecambe and Wise's final show together was the 1983 Christmas special for ITV. By this time Eric Morecambe was tired of the double act, and many believe had he lived longer, he would never have recorded another series. Morecambe was now developing as a writer, and enjoyed appearing on chat shows and as a panellist on shows such as What's My Line. About two months before he died, Morecambe told his wife "If I have another heart attack it will kill me, and if I do another Morecambe and Wise series, I will have another heart attack.

In 1983, they worked later work on a television movie, Night Train To Murder, with which both were unhappy. It was released in January 1985. The final piece that Eric did (without Ernie) was a short comedy called The Passionate Pilgrim in which he was joined by Tom Baker and Madelaine Smith. Again produced by Charles Wallace for MGM/UA, it was released in the cinema with the James Bond film Octopussy and later Wargames. Wallace and Eric were half way through filming a fourth film when Eric died. It was never completed.

Death

Five months after the Christmas special, Morecambe took part in a show hosted by close friend and comedian Stan Stennett at the Roses Theatre in Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire on a Sunday evening. His wife Joan, who was in the audience, recalled Morecambe was "on top form". He recounted and joked to the audience about the tales of his childhood, his career, the influence of his mother Sadie, his time as a Bevin Boy, about Tommy Cooper and the tragic way he had died Ironically Morecambe said he would hate to die like that, in what were the final hours of his own life. He even discussed his open heart surgery five years earlier, a topic from which he would often derive humour.

After the show had ended and Morecambe had left the stage, the musicians returned and picked up their instruments. He rushed back onto the stage to join them and energetically played various instruments. He then left the stage only to return moments later. All in all, he made six curtain calls. Finally, he said "That's your lot!", waved to the audience left the stage. He walked into the wings and joked "Thank goodness that's over." He then collapsed, suffering a third and final heart attack. Eric Morecambe died in Cheltenham General Hospital at 4am, aged 58.

Reaction & tributes

The nation was stunned by the death of one of its most popular comics. The Daily Telegraph described him as a "master comic" comparing him to Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Stan Laurel. They also repeated the widely held feeling that Morecambe "could be funny just by being there. The Sun claimed he represented "one of the good things in life and The Times hailed him as "a comedian of genius". Wise, who was notified by Joan immediately, was in a state of shock. However, within an hour or so of learning of his partner's death he conducted an interview for TV-am, saying that "He was a natural comedian, I am very, very proud to have been his partner and people will realise how great he was." He also referred to Morecambe as a "partner and a brother" and claimed "it's the saddest day of my life ... I feel like I've lost a limb. That evening, Thames Television broadcast Bring Me Sunshine, a tribute hosted by Michael Parkinson, with Ernie Wise, Des O'Connor, Hannah Gordon and Robert Hardy reminiscing about Eric Morecambe's career.

As a tribute, the following night, an edited edition of Morecambe and Wise's 1971 Christmas show, featuring Glenda Jackson, Andre Previn and Shirley Bassey was aired on BBC1.

On 4 June 1984 more than a thousand people gathered outside the Church of St. Nicholas in Harpenden for his funeral. The service was relayed by loudspeakers to those outside. Ernie Wise and Dickie Henderson spoke during the service. Wise recited the lines to Bring me sunshine (their signature tune). Afterwards Morecambe was cremated in a private ceremony.

On 9 November 1984 Des O'Connor spoke at the Eric Morecambe tribute concert, televised by ITV on Christmas Day and said that "there will be one less light on the Christmas Tree this year."

Personal life

Eric Morecambe married Joan Bartlett on 11 December 1952. They had three children - Gail born 14 September 1953; Gary born 21 April 1956 and Steven born 1969, who was adopted in 1973. In his leisure time, Morecambe was a keen birdwatcher, and the statue of him at Morecambe shows him wearing his binoculars.

He was also an enthusiastic football fan and a director of Luton Town F.C. Shortly after becoming a director of Luton, Morecambe briefly grew a rather sparse moustache of only about two dozen hairs, which he explained to his fans was "a football moustache: eleven a side!". He would often fondly tell the story of how once, when 2-0 down at half time, the Luton fans chanted, 'What do you think of it so far' to which Eric replied, 'Rubbish'. He also had a love of Long John Silver impressions, which never left him through his life (one can be seen in the 'Monty on the Bonty' sketch with Arthur Lowe).

Legacy

  • A larger-than-life statue of Eric, created by sculptor Graham Ibbeson, was unveiled by the Queen at Morecambe in 1999 and is surrounded by inscriptions of many of his favourite catchphrases and an exhaustive list of guest stars who appeared on the show; it is one of the most visited attractions in the north-west and stands proudly in the centre of the promenade of the resort.
  • In the English town of Harpenden where Eric and his family lived from the 1960s until his untimely death, the town hall is named after him, with a portrait of the great man hanging in the foyer. Eric often referred to Harpenden in his comedy, with a band once appearing on the show named The Harpenden Hot-Shots and in a Casanova sketch he introduced himself as Lord Eric, Fourth Duke Of Harpenden - and certain parts of Birkenhead!
  • In 1999 Eric Morecambe was voted the funniest person of the 20th century in a British internet poll; Eric pulled in 26% of the votes, beating his contemporary performer Tommy Cooper and Monty Python member John Cleese to the coveted position. Other popular comedians cited in the list included Les Dawson, Benny Hill, Milton Berle, Jack Benny and many other legendary performers.
  • A West End Show, The Play What I Wrote, appeared in 2001 as a tribute to the duo. Directed by Kenneth Brannagh, each performance featured a different guest celebrity, including Kylie Minogue, who was said to be particularly keen to participate. Guest stars have since included Roger Moore, Nigel Havers and most notably Prince Charles who was a fan of the duo.
  • The Play What I Wrote later transferred, with some success, to Broadway, and was only moderately rewritten to allow for the fact that Eric and Ernie were virtually unknown in the U.S. save for a handful of performances on The Ed Sullivan Show in the 1960s, prior to their big success. The show toured the UK in 2003.
  • In 2003, Eric's eldest son Gary released "Life's Not Hollywood, It's Cricklewood", a biography of his father from the point of view of his family, using family photos and extracts from previously unseen diaries. The book revealed Morecambe as a toned down version of his on-screen persona, prone to occasional bouts of mild depression and overwork.
  • In a 2005 poll to find the The Comedian's Comedian, he was voted as the fourth greatest comedy act ever by fellow comedians and comedy insiders.
  • Kenilworth Road Stadium, the home of Luton Town F.C., has a suite named after Eric also; he was a vociferous supporter and one-time president of the club and voiced his enthusiasm on the television, often shouting Luton For The Cup! and once brandishing a sign mid-way through a sketch with Glenda Jackson to much applause and cheers. He once appeared wearing a Luton rosette on the show.
  • In 2007 the author William Cook produced the book Morecambe & Wise Unseen which charts many of the early career moves of both Eric and Ernie Wise. It focusses largely on their time struggling to make a living prior to their break into television in the 1960s and is illustrated with many personal family photographs and previous unseen views of the act.
  • At the Roses Theatre in Tewkesbury, the Eric Morecambe Room is used by local and national companies for conferences and meetings.

References

Further reading

  • Mister Lonely (Novel) by Eric Morecambe (1981) ISBN 0413481700
  • Morecambe & Wise - Graham McGann (1999)
  • Life's Not Hollywood, It's Cricklewood - Gary Morecambe (2003) ISBN 0-563-52186-4

External links

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