The Wonderful Girls In Our Lives - Part 2
Eric: Then Ernie turned eighteen and got called up. I stayed on in Strike A New Note, but not for long as the show broke up shortly after Ernie left.
One Monday I received a notice in the post telling me to report to the labour exchange. I went down there and took my place in the queue. The doctor passed me Al, and I was sent down a coalmine.
It had been condemned twenty years before, and the conditions were really terrible. I was a non-weight lifter, in delicate health and looking poorly, having to push great big tubs of coal along rails down pitch black tunnels lit only by a swinging Davy safety lamp.
During the week I stayed with a married couple who lived over a shop. At weekends I went home to Morecambe, where Ernie might turn up with a lump of boiling bacon or silverside which he had purloined from his ship’s engineers.
In eleven months I was classified C3 and sent home, with a touch of heart trouble, to my mother’s fussing—which I enjoyed.
When I felt better, my mother cast her eagle eye over the “Wanted” columns in The Stage. “
Look at this,” she said. “The circus owner, Lord John Sanger, has hit on this bright idea of combining variety and circus. A company will tour the country in caravans, stopping in villages and towns. They’ll put up the big top on the green and give a show that will be a combination of the two different forms of entertainment. They’re looking for a comic.”
She took me to London where we met Edward Sanger, Lord John’s brother. “As it happens, we have just engaged a comic,” he said. “But you can be his feed. £10 a week?”
“OK,” we said. “Who’s the comic?” I asked.
He said: “You’ll remember him—Ernie Wise.”
“Ernie Wise!” my mother repeated. “But Ernie has always fed my son.”
“Not in our show,” Edward Sanger said. “Ernie is the comic, Eric is the feed.”
Ernie: We had a tent which covered half an acre, with a stage instead of a ring, and seating for seven hundred.
There was a menagerie that you could walk around for sixpence. For a shilling you could be in it. It consisted of a donkey, a ring-tailed llama, a parrot, some hamsters and a wallaby, and four dancing girls—one of whom was a girl called Doreen, who later became my wife.
I met her at Horley, in Surrey, where we gathered before the tour began. I remember we were all having lunch at a cafe. I was sitting opposite her, being my usual forward cheeky self to cover up the nervousness I felt inside.
We were having soup, and I was trying to make a joke about how you could eat it with a posh or not-so-posh accent. She was eating her soup very quietly indeed but once, only once, she made a very slight sucking noise during a momentary silence. The others laughed but Doreen- only sixteen, reddened to the roots and looked supercilious daggers at me. I think I fancied her from that second.
The show was so bad that there were nights when the tent would rise up like a canvas mushroom and we would be waiting in full evening dress and Wellington boots—because of the mud everywhere—but literally nobody came.
Inevitably came the crunch. We were all invited into Lord John Sanger’s beautiful caravan.
“It’s a simple matter,” he said. “You all know the position, either you take a cut—half the money you’re getting—or we close.”
There was no argument. We were also called upon to help with more manual work, though Eric drew the line when asked to walk the donkey along the sands at Weymouth with placards stuck on its backside.
Eric: When the show closed my mother found digs with a Mrs. Duer at 13, Clifton Gardens, Chiswick.
Ernie moved in with us and we decided to team up once more as a double-act, but we had no luck getting work.
Ernie: We tried again to get into a concert party because we thought it would be a useful experience. We gave auditions to several well-known concert party producers, but we were never quite what they wanted.
Eric: My mother had gone back to Morecambe, so we were without our morale prop, though it must have been a comfort for her, I’m sure, to know that we were in Mrs. Duer’s care.
There were stretches of fourteen to eighteen weeks at a time when we were out of work and Mrs. Duer kept us—”Pay me when you can, love.” The food was always good and for the money she also fed my dog. We stayed with her for fourteen months. We’d be painting too rosy a picture if we claimed we worked for even six weeks of the whole of that time.
Ernie: I survived on my savings from which I drew out perhaps £2 a week, and Sadie would send Eric about the same amount.
I still wrote to Doreen. But at twenty-three, with only six weeks work in fourteen months, and only half of what came in from that as my share, there wasn’t much to offer any girl.
Oddly enough, at no time in that desert of our lives did either of us ever think of earning a spot of money in any way outside show business, even at odd, temporary jobs. The matter was never broached between us. We were variety artists; we were pros. To consider anything else would have been heresy.
An experience shared by most of the best-known British comedians who emerged in the immediate postwar period was a date at the Windmill Theatre in London, and contact with the man forever associated with this curious theatrical institution— Vivian Van Damni. The boys will never forget their audition.
Eric: He looked up. “Well, boys, let’s see what you can do.” We looked around. It was the smallest room I’ve been in outside a loo. You could barely open the door.
“The stage isn’t very large either,”- he said, smiling.
“I had a fellow here called Harry Secombe—he did a sort of shaving act—and there was another called Dick Emery - who dressed up as a woman. We get all kinds.”
We’d heard of neither. Anyhow, we went through our complete ten minutes, cross-gags, the lot, less than a yard from his nose.
“All right,” he said. “You’re on—£25 a week for the two of you. I’ll engage you for one week with an option for a further five weeks.”
On the Wednesday, as we entered the stage door, we were stopped by the stage door keeper. He was brief with us. “Excuse me, Mr. Van Damm would like a word with you in his office.”
“Gentlemen,” he said, “1 thought I’d let you know, I won’t be taking up the option. My patrons seem to prefer the other double act, Hank and Scott.”
We were devastated. “That’s impossible.”
“I’m afraid it’s true. They get more applause.”
Hank and Scott were Tony Hancock and his partner Derek Scott.
Strangely enough, although being fired by Van Denim seemed at the lime to be the last foul blow of misfortune, Morecambe and Wise never looked back from then on. Some variety bookings led to a rewarding association with the top flight Moss Empires variety circuit. By 1954 they were climbing steadily in the variety league. Along the way they managed to find the time, and the money, to get married. Ernie had put in the long courtship—seven years—but it was Eric who got married first.
Eric: I remember one particular band call on a Monday morning. We used to look forward to band call to study “form”—there -were always pretty girls in the chorus. It was fun making smart-alec approaches.
Then I saw this tall girl, very beautiful with wonderful eyes and a sort of sweetness that makes your knees buckle-and I knew immediately that she was the one for me for life. Yes, it was as sudden as that. There -was never any doubt about it. Somebody introduced us, and I learned her name was Joan Bartlett.
Joan: We started to see each other regularly. At weekends Eric would take a train after his show - had ended on a Saturday night to where- ever I was playing, and we’d spend the Sunday out somewhere. Other weekends I’d take my turn to do the travelling. It was a courtship of snatched moments.
Then Eric and Ernie, who’d been booked for every week of the year, managed to get one week off. It looked like a chance to get married, and we decided to take it. We married in December 11, 1952.
Ernie: I felt like a mother with an unmarriageable daughter that’s miraculously swept off her hands by an unsuspecting suitor. Besides, I had some marrying of my own to do, and I wasted no time in making Doreen my wife.
Doreen: We married on January 18, 1953. By that time I had given up show business and was running a dancing school, so we walked out of the chapel under an avenue of tap-shoes held up by my ex-pupils.
Theatrical digs loomed large in the life of the very bus double-act.
Ernie: If you asked me to name some of the most comfortable and happy places we stayed in on tour, I’d say without hesitation theatrical digs, when they were well run.
I remember a Miss Davies in Swansea. We would come in to our room to a great roaring fire, so piled up with coal that there were holes in the hearth-tug from burning embers.
You slept on a feather-bed which, believe me, is far more comfortable than any interior spring mattress, provided it’s well tossed every day, as ours was.
She was about seventy, and her Christmas dinner was out of this world.
© Woman magazine 1973