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FLASHBACK: BBC’s Morecambe and Wise

Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise were a popular comedy duo in Britain from the 1950s through the ’70s. I’ve recently been exploring retro British Television, and I discovered their hilarious show, a variety program much like its cousins in the US (Rowan & Martin) and Canada (Wayne & Schuster) .

The show is a half hour sketch comedy featuring skits, musical interludes by popular or up-and-coming acts, and numerous guest appearances from top British actors of the day. Morecambe is the funny, foolish character who plays off Wise’s straight and slightly more serious persona. Wise does have his funny moments, but most of the laughs come from Morecambe as he sheepishly raises his eyebrows and playfully slaps Wise on the cheeks, which are two of his signature moves on the show. While male comedy duos were common on TV during the 1960s and 70s, programs like Morecambe and Wise, in retrospect, seem to have a homosexual undertone to many of their skits. The pair were not gay, but routines featuring them sharing a bed together, Morecambe heckling Wise while he’s in the bath (3.03) as well as a heavy helpings of innuedo, seemed to suggest something beyond a close friendship. The root of the comedy does lie in the duo’s closeness, and while today their actions might appear gay, such connotations likely would have gone unnoticed by audiences in the 70s. Their skits, no matter how you look at them, are hilarious, and the undertones in many ways add to the comedy.

A little history: The pair, Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise, started their act on stage and later went to radio where they were well received, but their first foray into television was a flop. Running Wild was their first show together, starting on the BBC in 1954. It was a disaster principally because of an overcrowded and chaotic cast causing Eric and Ern to lose focus. Following that, Morecambe and Wise returned to the stage for a period, before coming back to TV as a pair in 1961 with Two of a Kind on the ATV network. Early on the show struggled, but an actors strike at the time successfully thinned out the show’s cast allowing Morecambe and Wise to perfect their pair routine. The show was a success, establishing the model for the duo’s later and more popular work in TV, Morecambe and Wise. In the 70s, the show would switch networks, going to Thames Television, but their vaudeville style remained relatively intact.

Some of the recurring musical acts on the show, in its BBC days, were Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen, the Pattersons, and Herman’s Hermits. Kenny Ball is a great musician and his Jazzmen created an unstoppable rhythm coupled with fast paced entertaining lyrics. The show also had cameos by famous British stars Ian Carmichael, Diane Cilento and later Judi Dench and Laurence Olivier.

Morecambe and Wise did make a few appearances across the pond, even making it onto the Ed Sullivan show in the ‘60s. But, they would forever leave a greater impression on the British audience, receiving awards and praise for their comedy, and today Morecambe and Wise is still listed as one of the top comedies in British TV history.

Special thanks to Gideon of Eric & Ern for all the corrections and tidbits. Cheers!

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