Britain's Most Loved and Best Comedy Double Act

Uncle Ernie

Feature from 2018

Jill and Ernie

As a child growing up in Alaska, U.S.A. I would often hear my mother speak of my `Aunt Doreen and Uncle Ernie`....and occasionally something about an unknown act (in America) called `Morcambe and Wise`. In reality, Doreen is my mother’s first cousin and my Godmother. I didn’t know what a Godmother was but I pictured her to be a fairy princess with a magic wand. It seemed that description was appropriately correct as I recall being showered with various gifts from them throughout the years. Often a postcard would come recounting a lovely holiday they had taken in sunnier climbs and another time autographs would be included.

One particular day my mother excitedly said Morcambe and Wise were to be on The Ed Sullivan Show! I still didn’t quite understand what the fuss was about really and my focus at the time had been stolen by the Beatles - John Lennon to be exact. But as my mother was looking forward to seeing them I figured it had to be something special. Living in Alaska in the 60`s meant the absence of fast food, multiple television channels (one actually) and Colour T.V. As this was way before the internet and with Alaska being so remote, we would often get our television programmes 3 weeks later than the rest of the `Lower 48` States. We anxiously waited for Sunday night`s show but to my mother’s disappointment, the neighbour had an emergency to which she was called and ultimately missed it! It wasn’t until a couple years later that she was able to see a rerun of the show. My memories of that night, unfortunately, are fuzzy.

The following year when I was ten, I made my first trip to England. We visited with my cousins in Norwich and took a holiday with them to the Seaside. Eric and Ernie were playing at the Pier in Yarmouth and as they were so near Ernie and Doreen came over to visit. Being so young I was more interested in playing outside then visiting with the adults. A couple days later my mother informed me that we were going to see them in concert on the pier. I recall watching the performance and afterwards going back stage. When we entered the room I saw Eric in the far corner speaking to various people and Ernie with a group nearer to us. To a child it seemed all business until Eric noticed me and came over to ask if I would like to see “Charlie”, the dummy! Out of a long black box he pulled out their friend, much to my delight.

Fast forward to 1977 and we once again returned to the Yarmouth pier to visit back stage. I was a young adult now and I found Ernie to be very kind-hearted. It wasn’t until my visit with them two years later in 1979, however, that I got to experience the lifestyle! The first being as we left the airport lot to pay the parking ticket, the incredulous look on the man’s face as we drove up! They lived in a lovely house that backed on to the Thames River with a huge garden that incorporated tennis courts and a swimming pool. With all the fame you might think there would be an air of self-importance about but I found them both to be very down to earth. Ernie was such a kind man. He really wanted to make sure I enjoyed myself and at one point a trip to France on the ferry was discussed. Off we went to the travel agent (Ernie preferred to drive himself) and along the way I started to feel my bum getting hot! I felt silly but finally asked Ernie if I was imagining things and he burst into a laugh saying that it was a feature of the car (a Saab)! Because there had been some unrest at the borders it was advised to skip the trip to France so we went to plan B.

Doreen brought me a cup of tea the next morning and told me we had been invited to a friend’s home for lunch....someone named Billy (Smart) and I was later to learn he owned a circus. As we approached his long driveway I could see it was adorned with old fashioned black lamp posts – about 20 or so, on either side! Ernie urged me to take a photo saying that Billy had bought the house especially because it had accommodated all the lights! I found Billy to be quite humorous and I remember laughing with him when he told me a little known secret – he was afraid of elephants! After a lovely meal with Billy and his family I was told there was a surprise waiting. And what a surprise it was – a visit to Windsor to watch Prince Charles play polo! Ernie led us into a special VIP tent and after the match I was able to speak with Prince Charles personally. I was unaware that the Royals don’t give autographs and felt very sheepish that I had asked. Consequently when Ernie and Billy suggested I have my photo taken with Charles I was hesitant to go back! Billy kept saying to move closer, closer, closer... to the Prince....subsequently I have a photo with Charles to my side and me leaning next to him similar to a right angle!

My visit was quite surreal in that often we would be in the car and if were stopped at a light, people would scramble when they recognised Ernie. If we were in public they would ask for his autograph and then look at me and ask for mine too! This happened quite a bit and Ernie took it all in good fun. He was a humble man and never took for granted his good fortune.

In the evenings we took walks along the Thames and on another occasion we took their boat out, aptly called the `Lady Doreen`. One evening we went to a birthday party for an elderly man I recall only as `Arthur`. Along the way we became lost and Ernie got out to ask for directions. Again, you can just imagine the shock on a passer-by’s face when he recognised who he was speaking to!

I have very fond memories of my visits with Doreen and Ernie. As life moved on I kept in touch with them but sadly, another visit was not to be. I was devastated to learn of Ernie’s death some years later and to this day always remember his kindness and empathy towards others. I was pleased he was recognized with the unveiling of the statue in Leeds. He may be a British icon to most but to me he will always be my `Uncle Ernie`.

© Jill Humphrey 2018

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