John Eric Bartholomew OBE
– May 28
), better known by his stage name, Eric Morecambe
was a British comedian
who together with Ernie Wise
, formed the double act Morecambe and Wise
. In the United Kingdom
he is widely considered a comic genius.
Eric took his stage name from the seaside resort
– his home town.
Of all the comedy acts produced by the United Kingdom
, Morecambe and Wise
are arguably the best loved and most fondly remembered. They were perhaps the first truly great double act
in the United Kingdom. Many have highlighted the genuine affection Eric and Ernie had for one other. Their enjoyment of their work was picked up by the audience who regarded them as friends as well as entertainers.
He and Wise were well-regarded and their reputation enabled them to garner a number of prestigious guests including Angela Rippon
, Princess Anne
, Cliff Richard
, Glenda Jackson
, Tom Jones
, Elton John
and even former Prime Minister Harold Wilson
was frequently the butt of their humour, such as his allegedly awful singing. O'Connor once asked Morecambe if he could sing on their show. Morecambe replied "Sing on our show? You can't even sing on your own show!". When Morecambe had his first heart attack in 1968, he learned that O'Connor had told his audience to send their best wishes to Morecambe, who replied "Tell him that those 12 people made all the difference".
In reality, O'Connor was very close friends of both Morecambe and Wise and in later years would meet them to devise jokes about himself!
Early life and childhood career
Eric 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.
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
series "Bandwagon". 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 Navy
. Morecambe was a Bevin Boy
: conscripted to work in a coal mine in Accrington
. He was later invalided out due to a heart defect.
Eric and Ernie left|thumb|300px|Eric with [Ernie Wise
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 arriving on television in 1955. However, their first television series for the BBC
– Running Wild
– was a failure. One critic gave a definition of televison 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 some time.
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 ATV
. Paired with writers Sid Green
and Dick Hills
, the series did 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 The Variety Artists' Federation, then a separate trade union, since incorporated into Equity
". The tables turned and 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 - as well as 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 UNCLE
, 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 humiliated by the pair, and especially by Morecambe's playful insults, undermining the status of the celebrities, joking that they were "Rubbish" and pretending not to recognise them. Generally, the higher the status of the celebrities, the greater the humiliation.
The sixth Morecambe and Wise series for ITV 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 May 20 to September 9, 1967
. The duo had appeared in the U.S 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 U.S. 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 contact negortiations with Lew Grade (they were not offered enough money or the chance to appear in colour), Morecambe and Wise left ATV to return to BBC.
With the BBC (1968-1978)right|150 px|thumb|Eric and Ernie perform their famous dance
The first series of The Morecambe and Wise Show
was a success. Though now a popular television star, Morecambe felt he was 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. The stress and overworking finally took its toll and on 7 November 1968
, he suffered a massive heart attack
at the age of 42.
He had been appearing with Wise at a week of midnight performances at the Variety Club in Batley
. He had complained of a pain in his right arm, but as a self-confessed hypochondriac
, he though little of it. His diaries revealed later that he had been getting pains in his arm and back from as early as August 1967
. This could have been the early warning signs of the Heart attack.
Driving home from the Thursday night performance he had a heart attack just outside Leeds
. Morecambe recounted in an interview with Michael Parkinson
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, the heart attack was immediately diagnosed. Morecambe thanked Butterworth, who in return asked for an autograph "before you go as 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. Morecambe give up his 50-a-day cigarette
] habit and started smoking a pipe
The heart attack stalled the careers of Morecambe and Wise. While Morecambe was recuperating, Hills and Green left them – feeling that they were finished. Morecambe and Wise were in Barbados
at the time and only learned of their writers' departure from the steward on the plane. They were replaced by Eddie Braben
, who had just parted from Ken Dodd
. With Braben, Morecambe and Wise saw their career reach new heights, becoming the most successful comedy act the country had ever seen and a national institution.
The humour was always largely derived from their on-stage relationship, but Braben really used this to their advantage, even placing them in bed together. 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 greatly appeased and congratulated Braben, saying "It stays!"
So enormous became Morecambe and Wise's popularity 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.
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 in March 1979
, which lead to a heart bypass
, the pair left BBC for ITV
, making front page news. However, Braben was contractually obliged to remain with the BBC and without him the pair did not have the same success, even having to re-use old Braben routines though writers Barry Cryer and John Junkin were brought in to contribute to the early Thames shows. Their Christmas Specials were still popular but nowhere near the dizzying heights of 1977
when an estimated 28,385,000 viewers watched their Christmas Show - so much effort was placed into the 1977 show that Eric and Ernie didn't even do a television series that year.
Morecambe increasingly wanted to move away from the double act, but feared that Wise would not be able to cope without him. In 1981
Morecambe published Mr Lonely
, a tragicomic novel
about a stand-up comedian. He focussed more on writing in the coming years and what were to be the final years of Morecambe's life.
They made a series in the Autumn
of 1981, 1982
. They appeared together recalling their music hall days in a one hour special on ITV on 2 March
1983. Morecambe and Wise's final show together was the 1983
Christmas special for ITV. They would later work on a television movie, Night Train to Murder
, which both were unhappy with. It was subsequently shown in early January 1985
. The final television piece that Eric did (without Ernie) was a short comedy called "The Passionate Pilgrim."
Five months after the Christmas special, Morecambe made a solo stage performance, at the Roses Theatre
on a Sunday evening. His wife Joan, who was in the audience, recalled Morecambe was "on top form".
[Joan Morecambe, Morecambe and Wife, pg.180]
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 with hours to live himself) and even his open heart surgery (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. Morecambe 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 and left the stage. He walked into the wings and joked "Thank goodness that's over", before collapsing with a third and final heart attack. He died in Cheltenham
General Hospital at 4am, aged 58 .
[Morecambe & Wise, Graham McGann, (1999), pg.300]
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".
[Robin Stringer, Daily Telegraph, 29 May 1984, pg.3] The Sun
claimed he represented "one of the good things in life"
[The Sun's leader, 29 May 1984, pg.6]
and The Times
hailed him as "a comedian of genius".
[The Times, 29 May 1984, pg.32]
Wise, who was notified by Joan immediately, was in a state of shock. However, he carried on with work and within an hour or so of learning of his partner's death he conducted an interview for TV-AM
. Wise said 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".
[Quoted by Liz Phillips, Daily Star, 29 May 1984, pg.14]
On June 4
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. Afterwards Morecambe was cremated.
Morecambe married Joan Bartlett on 11 December 1952
. They had three children - Gail born 13 September 1953
; Gary born 21 April 1956
and Steven born 1970
, adopted 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.
. Morecambe 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 thumb|Statue of Eric Morecambe in [Morecambe
A larger-than-life statue of Eric was unveiled by the Queen
at Morecambe in 1999
In the British town of Harpenden
(near to where Eric lived), the town hall is named after him, with a portrait of the great man to go with it.
Eric Morecambe was voted the funniest person of the 20th Century in a British internet poll. Eric pulled in 26% of the votes, beating Tommy Cooper
and John Cleese
to the coveted position.
A West End
show, The Play What I Wrote
, appeared in 2001
as a tribute to the duo. Directed by Kenneth Branagh
, each performance featured a different guest celebrity, including Kylie Minogue
, who was said to be particularly keen to participate. Bizarrely, the show later transferred, with some success, to Broadway
, only moderately rewritten to allow for the fact that Eric & Ernie were virtually unknown in the US. The show toured the UK 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 overworking.
In a 2005
poll The Comedian's Comedian
, he was voted the 4th greatest comedy act ever by fellow comedians and comedy insiders.Kenilworth Road
stadium, home of Luton Town FC
, has a suite named after Eric also.
*Eric and Ernie
*Morecambe & Wise
- Graham McGann
*Life's not Hollywood, it's Cricklewood
- Gary Morecambe (2003
) ISBN 0563521864
*http://ericandernie.homestead.com/ The Morecambe & Wise Tribute Site
*http://www.morecambeandwise.co.uk/ The Morecambe & Wise homepage
*http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=21638&pt=Eric%20Morecambe Eric Morecambe's page at FindaGrave.com, with biography and pictures of plaqueMorecambe, EricMorecambe, EricMorecambe, EricMorecambe, EricMorecambe, EricMorecambe, Ericcy:Eric Morecambede:Eric Morecambesv:Eric Morecambe