Britain's Most Loved and Best Comedy Double Act

The Other Morecambe and Wise

2007 Article

Joan and Doreen
They were the ultimate support act for Britain's favourite comedy duo. Now Joan Morecambe and Doreen Wise reveal the sacrifices they made for the men they adored.

There's always frisson when great comedy pairs get together for a comeback, and this is one of the best double acts ever. Not Morecambe and Wise, but their curtains - the gold ones with the M and W pattern that were once a highlight of weekend viewing for anyone now over 40.

Today they're hanging in a photographic studio in west London, lights and cameras trained upon them. What's this? They part slightly and the head of someone short appears. A second or two later, a taller head appears above. "I'd rather be at the dentist," says the short one, peering into the lights. And we all wait for the response from the tall one, something along the lines of, "If I had teeth like that son, so would I." Only funnier.

But nothing comes except a giggle, because this isn't Eric and Ernie. It's Joan and Doreen, or Mrs Morecambe and Mrs Wise, getting together behind those curtains for a one-off television special about their husbands.

Morecambe and Wise: The Greatest Moment is a compilation of the best of the shows, linked with contributions from the two widows, scriptwriter Eddie Braben and friends such as Cliff Richard, Edward Woodward and Barry Norman. When it goes out on UKTV Gold tomorrow night, those of us who remember their other halves will be settling into a warm bath of nostalgia for the days when a tall bloke with glasses and a short bloke without could up to 28 million of us laughing with gags that were neither dirty nor cruel, and then leave us with a funny dance and a song that included the words, "In this world where we live there should more happiness/So much joy you can give to each brand new bright tomorrow... "

As the younger generation might say, "How naive is that?" Oh dear, wait until they see Eric and Ernie sharing a bed. How will they cope when they realise it's not what they think? "You see, Eric and Ernie did actually share a bed when they were younger," says Joan Morecambe, the tall thin one of the two wives. "Brothers did in those days, if there wasn't space. And when they were boys and met on tour, Eric and Ernie were like brothers, because Eric's mother, Sadie, took Ernie under her wing like an extra son. Ernie was travelling on his own and only about 15. One day, when they were in Birmingham, Ernie had no digs and Sadie said he must come in with them, sharing Eric's bed. They usually had digs together after that. There was nothing odd about it then. And, of course, Laurel and Hardy had done it, and, anyway, Eric always smoked his pipe which, in the 1970s, was enough to give off masculine vibes in spite of the shared counterpane.”

Their act had lasted 43 years when Eric died after collapsing on stage in Tewkesbury in 1984; he was only 58. His last words on stage, on his sixth curtain call, were, "That’s your lot." Ernie was 73 when he died in 1999.

Eric met Joan, a model and singer, in 1952, and married her six months later. Ernie, shocked by their haste, promptly married Doreen, his girlfriend of five years who was a dancer. The Morecambes went on to have two children, Gail and Gary, and then Steven in 1973. The Wises chose not to have children. "You can’t pack them," says Doreen, simply. "Emie said, I’m not getting married to tour on my own." So we travelled together. I had a dance school training children for pantomime, which I kept going for a couple of years after we married, but then I gave it up. I've never regretted that decision. If he was away without me he would send cards, with a verse, saying something like, 'a bit of from the short fellow'."

Joan, meantime, concentrated on family, creating a home for Eric that he appreciated all the more because of his own childhood: at a young age he was driven into show business by his mother and her fear - quite understandable in the poverty-stricken 1930s - that her son might face a penniless future. Eric and Ernie met while both boys were touring in Jack Hylton's revue, Youth Takes A Bow.

As the two boys travelled, their constant sparring drove Sadie mad and, so, in 1941, she suggested that they set up a double act. Sadie was very much aware of the difference between Eric and Ernie, says Joan. "She loved them both, but Ernie was everything she wanted Eric to be. Eric was spendthrift and reckless; Ernie was the cautious one." Ernie was also the one whose act was more established, and had the most to give up when, after National Service, the two comedians created Morecambe and Wise. Eric Bartholomew had taken the name of his home town; Ernie Wiseman thought about completing the joke by calling himself Ernie Leeds, but opted for Wise because they didn’t want to sound like a cheap rail ticket.

The differences between the two men were the lynchpin of their act. Morecambe was the confident wisecracker; Ernie the sensitive soul who was to promote the latest 'play what I wrote'. Eric could make us laugh just by adjusting his glasses or by looking over his shoulder, Ernie was the straight man whose timing made it all possible. Ernie, a genuine song and dance man, survived professionally after Eric's death by turning his hand to panto and the like, but when he retired at 70 he said, "There's a cold draught down one side of me where Eric should be." Together they had warmed up our weekends throughout the 1970s, those days of such restricted TV choice that it sometimes seemed as if the entire nation had watched the same thing.

In the act, Ernie was the long-suffering one, putting up with Eric's cracks about his short, fat, hairy legs, his wig (he didn't wear one) and his sole and very faithful fan (equally non-existent), whom Eric often tried to spot in the audience. Eric was the bundle of energy, the lightning to Ernie's conductor. They must have very different husbands.

"Ernie was wonderful to live with," says Doreen, who still lives in the home they shared in Berkshire. "He had a very placid nature. We used to joke that he should have been a priest. He only lost his temper twice, when I dented his first new car, a Triumph Mayflower. He complained, so I hit him with my handbag. I can't remember why he got angry the second time."

"He was devastated when Eric died. Eric had a great ego; he was an egomaniac. He had to do things to excess. He couldn't relax. As far as Ernie was concerned, it was a business and he enjoyed his work. People often ask how much they saw of each other socially, but the answer is they didn't need to because they were working all the time. Ernie worried about Eric's health and asked if he wanted to retire, to ease up, but Eric couldn't. It wasn't in his personality."

Doreen rarely sees Joan, who lives in the family home in Harpenden. She'll be in the US when the programme goes out; she travels a lot with friends, one of whom sent her a postcard he picked up in Corsica. Doreen has brought it along to show her. It's a black and white photo of the bill for a theatre in Bristol. It's dominated by a huge picture of Gypsy Rose Lee, famous striptease artist, in basque and stockings, but down in the bottom right-hand corner is the billing for Morecambe and Wise. "Probably around 1952," says Doreen. Like Joan, she is used to living with an immortal after his death, as it were, and knows all the detail of his well-told story. "We're rather surprised to be brought out of the cupboard and dusted down after so long," she says, as she steps up to the curtains for the photos.

Erne was certainly the best straight man in the business, but if anyone fits the stereotype of tortured genius, surely Eric must have done? That timing, that ability to make an eyebrow or a stare to camera speaks volumes, came from obsessive self-examination. To toss a killer line at Ernie and say, "Now get out of that one," and know he couldn't takes concentration and also immense self-criticism. There are references in the files to Eric shouting at home. "Actually," says Joan, who sits straight and elegant like the model she once was, "once they started doing the TV shows he learned to relax a bit more. When he was young, he was full of nervous energy. He was a perfectionist and had a tremendously sharp brain. But he very much appreciated home, the meals we ate round the table together, fact that it was comfortable. It was what he worked for. I always felt appreciated. He felt he hadn't had that sort of life as a child and he relished it as an adult. He'd been working since he was 13."

"Once you have become in the public eye, there's a fear of failure, of letting your standards drop. You feel you're only as good as your next show. I have always been a calm sort of person. I could understand him, which made a difference. He would sometimes come up with ideas and say, 'What do you think of that?' but never really brought work home. He loved us to see the finished product. That was very important."

"Eric had health problems and I remember him saying to be one day, You know, love, you mustn’t waste yourself if anything happens to me. You must marry again. I said, I won’t marry again. I’ve never wanted to be married to anyone but you. I think he was rather pleased, but it was true - and it always has been."

Like all loving wives, both women now well into their 70s, suffered when their husbands died, but with the added distress of being the focus of a nation who had taken the comic due to its heart. Even now, people stop Joan in the supermarket and say how Eric made them laugh. And Doreen speaks of the cocoon she existed in immediately after Ernie's death as she was propelled along by events, ranging from sorting out probate to appearing at public events. "Some weeks later there was a Bafta awards do with Princess Anne, and I remember having to say something and looking down at this row of men from show business - Michael Grade and everyone else - and realising they were crying. That upset me," says Doreen. "And at a similar do, they had Ernie's picture surrounded with lights. I had to ask them to turn them out because - it was his eyes. He had the most cheeky eyes. And then Rolf Harris took me to the pictures to cheer me up and the film was about a coffin being pushed around all over the place…"

Both are looking forward to the programme, Doreen because she likes to remember what was happening in their lives along the way. "You know, I look at a sketch and think, 'Oh yes, Ernie or Eric had a cold that time.'"

"There's a certain sadness about it." says Joan. "But I think they'd be thrilled to know they still attracted an audience, and that compensates."

The Queen was said to delay her Christmas Day meal for the Morecambe and Wise special, and everyone loved the guest spots where big names such as Glenda Jackson, Vanessa Redgrave and Des O'Connor found themselves part of the script, with the tantalising possibility of a role in Ernie's 'play what I wrote'. Newsreader Angela Rippon astonished the nation by proving that not only did she have legs, but that she could also dance. And Andre Previn (usually called Andrew Preview by Eric) brought a few friends along for his guest spot - an entire symphony orchestra, in fact.

Song and dance, the staple of British music hall and an essential pall of the men's own past, was never far away. They finished their show with Bring Me Sunshine, and Gene Kelly claimed that their version of Singin' In The Rain was the only one he cared for.

This year Joan will be having Christmas at home with her grandchildren. "They'll be about seven of us in the room where Eric used to preside at Christmas - he loved a big family do. Everyone got their marching orders after the meal and we all had to sit down in front of the TV to see the Christmas Special. Those who didn't want to watch it quietly had to go into another room," she says.

Quite right, too. Genius deserves a little respect. So if you turn the telly on tomorrow and see a chap in a raincoat and flat cap with a shopping bag, crossing the back of the stage as a little bloke tries to sing the opening number without him, do sit down and shut up. As the great man used to say, "He's still got it, you know!"

© Weekend Magazine 2007

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What’s it like being married to a comedy man?
An interview from March 1967 with the wives of Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise from Photoplay Magazine

The Morecambe and Wise Story
From teenagers to stars, the road to success was not always easy.

The Wonderful Girls In Our Lives
Article taken from Woman magazine in 1973. Eric and Ern chat about their early lives.