The Wonderful Girls In Our Lives - Part 3
Eric: But I think the real star of Britain’s theatrical landladies must have been Mrs. Mckay of 11 Daisy Avenue, Manchester. She charged a little more than most of the others, but she was five-star. She had two semi-detached houses knocked together, one side for variety, the other for “legitimate” theatre, and her policy was that never the -twain should meet.
One year, Dame Flora Robson was staying at Mrs. Mckay’s when we were there. Flora went to our show, and later she came round to our side at Daisy Avenue to see us, much to our poor landlady’s consternation. I don’t know why she worried about it, because I’ve always found that both “variety” and “straight” theatre people get on very well together.
Ernie: Remember Mrs. Coomes at Hagley Road, in Birmingham? She had a private dining-room for stars. On one occasion Sir Donald Wolfit was in it, eating in solitary splendor, when part of the ceiling plaster collapsed above his head and landed in his soup.
Eric: On Sunday September 13, 1953, my wife Joan started to give birth to our first child. We were living at my parents’ place in Morecambe, and I was appearing in Blackpool, less than thirty miles away. While we were on-stage I saw someone mouthing at me from the wings: “It’s a girl!” I was given permission to leave the theatre before the finale.
When the cast were all lined up after the curtain calls, Alan Jones stepped forward: “Ladies and gentlemen, I have an announcement to make. You’ll notice that Eric Morecambe of Morecambe and Wise—that wonderful double act on the bill—was not with us for the finale. Well, folks, there’s a good reason. He’s rushing home this very minute to his wife, because he has just become the father of a six month baby girl.”
I’m told those were his very words!
Now comes the next stage in our progress as a family - a caravan.
We had to learn to adapt ourselves to a gipsy life, especially in a Northern city during the winter, with nowhere to park the caravan, no sanitary arrangements, no running water, and a pile of dirty nappies. Under such conditions caravanning was penitential. It played havoc with my nerves, not to mention my driving.
Ernie: Life was simpler for Doreen and myself, as we didn’t have a family. When we married we started our own very first home in a back room in Doreen’s parents’ house in Peterborough.
Before I go on I should mention a part of our lives that I think is especially interesting, namely pantomimes. During those early years pantomime kept us fully occupied for twelve difficult and expensive weeks through the lean, cold winter. It was solid bread and butter, but it sometimes meant virtually living in crummy dressing-rooms. You’d find cracked mirrors, old wardrobes with no hangers, springs sticking out of the settee and filthy carpets— if any carpet at all.
One dressing-room was so bad that Eric wrote on the wall: “I was here a week, Oh Lord, what fame is it we seek. That led me up this ruddy creek? EM.”
One year later we were back at the same theatre—and even in the same dressing-room. Under Eric’s graffiti had been added the lines:
“Oh foolish jesters, learn your craft. The clown must cry that others laugh. Seek not cushions, chairs to size, Sack your partner, Ernie Wise! E. S.”
Eric: In our early days in pantomime Joan and I soon had to decide on the sort of home life we would make for ourselves and our children, for show business creates problems that just don’t exist for people outside it.
This was brought home to me one day when Joan came backstage with Gail and a couple of chorus girls started making a fuss of the child. They made her up with lipstick, rouge and a beauty spot. Gail was in her element, but I had a vision at that moment of the possibility of her growing up as a showbiz child, spoilt and precocious. After that I put a block on her being brought backstage. She would be a normal child, have a normal home life, and a normal schooling.
In 1954 came our first big chance on TV. I suppose you could say we were a success on radio and in the niche we had chosen for ourselves in variety. But a new unknown quantity had come on the scene in the few years since we’d become pros. TV could not be ignored, so you can, imagine our excitement when Ronnie Waldman, head of BBC-TV Light Entertainment, signed us up to do a TV series of our own.
We rehearsed. The spots were timed to the second. Fingers were crossed at 9.40 on the evening of Wednesday April21, 1954, when we hit the TV screens in our first series, Running Wild.
The next morning we grabbed the papers to read the reviews. Each one felt like a slap with a wet fish.
Like: This was one of the most embarrassingly unfunny evenings I have spent in front of the home screen for some time.
Or: How dare they put such mediocre talent on television?
My mother telephoned from Morecambe. She’d seen some of the, notices. “What the devil are you two playing at? I daren’t show my face outside the house. We’ll have to move, we’ll have to change our name.”
Ernie: When the series ended our stock was so low we were placed fourth on the bill at the Ardwick Hippodrome in Manchester. Eric said we needed a new act, with new material. So we sat down and worked out a whole new act.
To our surprise and - joy we clicked. We felt our confidence surging back as we heard the audience responding to us, and we wound up with a standing ovation.
The public seemed unaware that the boys had flopped in their TV series. They began to be introduced as “fresh from their brilliantly successful TV series, ‘Running Wild’.” In the end they were beginning to believe in themselves.
Eric: By the autumn of 1958 we felt we owed ourselves a working holiday. We were booked for the 1959 summer season at Blackpool. We had eight months ahead of us and were determined to make the most of it. So we took off and had a wonderful time.
But when we came back, a shock awaited us. Our agent said: “You’re lucky you’re booked for this summer season in Blackpool. Apart from that you’ve returned to an empty datebook. You’ve been away so long you’re forgotten.”
Ernie: We weren’t the only people who had lost ground. What had happened during our absence was the beginning of a drastic change on the entertainment scene in Britain. Variety theatres had begun shutting their doors. Television was now the big entertainment medium of the future, so Eric and I sat down and thrashed out -the situation.
It had to be television, and that meant plenty of fresh material and hard work. By the end of 1960 Eric and Ernie were appearing regularly, and firm favourites with the TV millions. But they still needed the final accolade—a really successful series of their own. Then, in 1961, they were offered their own series, every Thursday evening for thirteen weeks. It was to be transmitted live. Just before the second show an incident occurred that would have finished any other comics. But it was the making of Morecambe and Wise.
Eric: Equity, the actors’ union, came out on strike, and with them most of the people in the show. Not us. We belonged to the Variety Artists’ Federation, but we had some sketches thickly populated with Equity people.
We discussed it between ourselves, then said: “We can play all the different parts ourselves. It will give the sketch a completely new dimension on TV, and keep it personal to ourselves.”
Which was what we did, and it made all the difference. The strike lasted twelve weeks, long enough for us to establish a successful format for ourselves, from which we have never deviated.
That was the turning point. From then on Morecambe and Wise were superstars—and climbing higher all the time.
Eric: Since we had first teamed up in a railway carriage we had per sued only one aim: success. But success with certain reservations. Ernie, in his steady, cautious way had always held that it was preferable not to top bills.
“Second tops are better,” he’d say. “Let’s just stick to being a good, reliable act. It’s safer. You can go on and on as a second top till you’re ready to qualify for the old age pension.”
So we had played safe. But success, wonderful bewildering success, had overtaken us in spite of ourselves. The year 1964 bounded in leaving us breathless, intoxicated. Whatever we touched turned to gold, or so people said. Money was pouring in, but wasn’t that what we had been striving for all these years? Who could complain?
Only it seemed the trouble with making big money is that it becomes a terrible habit. You can’t refuse a good offer - after the tough early times you’ve been through, you hate turning anything down. Indeed, your conditioned reflexes make it impossible. You have become like Pavlov’s dogs, except that, instead of salivating when the bell rings, your hand goes involuntarily into the signing twitch.
© Woman magazine 1973