It was a piece of mother’s advice that put Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise on the long, hard road to show business success. Her advice? She told the boys to form themselves into a double act. Now, after 30 years together Eric (the one with the glasses) and Ernie (of the short hairy legs) have good cause to be thankful for that advice.
Recalls Mrs. Sarah Bartholomew, mother of Eric Morecambe: “Eric was 12 and after doing well in amateur talent shows, won a job with the late Jack Hylton. I went with him in response to a telegram we received from the manager of the Nottingham Empire. There was another little chap waiting to rehearse. Sharp-featured with blonde hair. We didn’t know his name until the manager called him ‘Ernie Wise’.”
“Eventually they got to know each other. Eric was a singer and dancer, while Ernie – who was 13 – was a funny man. But in those days, they were strictly on their own. One night at our digs, Eric said: I don’t like Ernie Wise, mum. He calls me ‘sonny’. But a few days later Eric admitted: I think I like that Ernie Wise after all, mum. He bought me a bar of chocolate today. That’s how their friendship started. We travelled about together and Ernie became another son to me. They were both appearing in Bryan Michie’s show Youth Takes a Bow.”
“Then came the turning point. It was 1940, the blitz was on and we were travelling by train from Birmingham to Coventry. We had a compartment to ourselves, there was no corridor on the train, and, as usual, the lads got bored because they had nothing to do. They began cracking gags to each other and to keep them quiet, as I wanted a nap, I jokingly said: ‘Why don’t you start a double act?’ It worked like a dream. They said it was a great idea and began working on it then and there. That’s how the double act was born!”
From that chance remark made in a railway carriage 30 years ago, young Eric and Ern blossomed into one of the most popular and funniest comedy acts ever seen in Britain. Unfortunately the lads didn’t have much time to make an impact. Ernie was called up into the Merchant Navy and Eric later sent down the mines as a ‘Bevin Boy’.
They met again though, seven years later, when they were both booked as single acts in a Sangers Circus Show in 1947. It led to Morecambe and Wise reforming their double act.
Eric, whose real name is John Eric Bartholomew, decided to adopt the stage name of Morecambe after his home town. Ernie, whose real name is Wiseman, thought about adopting the name of Leeds, his home town. “But we agreed that Morecambe and Leeds sounded like a cheap day rail return and so instead elected to go under the names of Morecambe and Wise.” Said Ernie.
“In those early days we only just managed to make a living,” he said. “We earned £6 each which was quite a lot of money then. We began to copy other double acts.... Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Castello. Everybody emulates somebody else in the beginning until you begin to get an angle of your own. We weren’t recognisable in those days, We were a mixture of them all. We pinched all the jokes. But somewhere there would be a little bit of original thought and this is what developed.”
Their technique improved as they toured the country in revues and variety and by 1952 they decided that they ought to attempt to break into broadcasting.
© Billy Marsh 1974