Sunday, December 24, 2023


We open on Eric Morecambe & Ernie Wise asleep in bed like Laurel & Hardy as Father Christmas comes down the chimney with a sack to steal the silverware. After the opening titles feature Morecambe’s trademark slaps of Wise’s cheeks between appearances of the show’s guests, their personal popularity is measured in sizes of commemorative tankards. Later, they will appear as bell-ringing monks, using candlesticks to pull pints of beer, and as turkeys ready for the yuletide chop, before dancing with actress Glenda Jackson like they were Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers – the increasing size of Morecambe’s cane is done so deftly that the audience doesn’t notice the first time it’s done, but they do the others. They then spar with a very real-life authority, a conductor of a symphony orchestra who turns out to be as funny as they are.

I have always liked Morecambe & Wise – for my generation, they are the link between Laurel & Hardy and Reeves & Mortimer, all comedy double acts that were perfectly surreal, perfectly timed, and perfectly tuned. There is a line in the above episode, which was their Christmas special of 1971, where upon seeing the first tankard, Wise says “Great Scott”, to which Morecambe replies “He’s not in there is he? He’s everywhere else!” I don’t care that makes no sense, but the energy of the delivery made me laugh. 

I personally think this special may be the greatest hour of television ever made in the UK, but saying that is very subjective indeed, having also said it in May 2022. I used this Carlsbergian statement then to justify the extreme lengths made to save a 1968 episode of the show by using laser cutting and X-rays on a fused film reel. With the BBC run of “The Morecambe & Wise Show” from 1968 to 1977 being a milestone in both the comedy history of the UK, and of its cultural history, its Christmas specials often bringing literally half the population together, the effort to save one lost episode was rewarded.

With compilations of Morecambe & Wise sketches being prevalent on British television through the decades, along with memories of individual sketches, the power of the 1971 Christmas special lies in seeing how many of the duo’s classic sketches are from this one show, just as when you realise the episodes of “Fawlty Towers” about the fire alarm and the Germans are the same episode. This special has the “Grieg’s Piano Concerto by Grieg” with André Previn/Preview/Privet, Glenda Jackson's dance routine, and Shirley Bassey singing “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” as her stuck shoe is replaced by a hobnail boot. The final sketch, Wise’s “play what I wrote” was “Robin Hood” featuring Francis Matthews, known to audiences as the radio voice of Paul Temple, and the TV voice of Captain Scarlet.

The 1971 Christmas special also saw the coalescing of the various changes made to “The Morecambe & Wise Show”. The first BBC series was much like the previous 1960s for ITV, staged sketches written by Sid Green & Dick Hills, with Ernie Wise very much the straight man to Eric Morecambe’s unpredictable and zany persona, successful in a few appearances in the United States on “The Ed Sullivan Show” but did not travel further. Eddie Braben was brought in by the BBC to write subsequent series, changing Wise’s persona to be a self-important writer and Morecambe’s close friend, as sketches and routines brought classical Hollywood spectacle and production values. Dance routines were choreographed by Ernest Maxin, producer of later episodes, and music was arranged for orchestra and conducted by Peter Knight, who later did the same for The Carpenters’ version of the song “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft”.

“The Morecambe & Wise Show” would become the show to appear on if you were famous. BBC faces like Michael Parkinson, Frank Bough, Patrick Moore of “The Sky at Night” and newsreader Robert Dougall appear in the 1971 special were making other programmes elsewhere in BBC Television Centre, but Glenda Jackson’s appearance followed that of actors Peter Cushing and Edward Woodward. The 1973 Christmas special boasted Vanessa Redgrave and The New Seekers in the studio, and Yehudi Menuhin, Rudolf Nureyev and Laurence Olivier appearing in filmed insert jokes about why they couldn’t appear in person.

“The Morecambe & Wise Show” became the Rolls-Royce, or Lincoln Continental, of UK TV shows: parodies of “Opportunity Knocks” and “Mastermind” had their real hosts Hughie Green and Magnus Magnusson respectively appear, instead of Morecambe or Wise impersonating them, and their spin on routines from “South Pacific”, “Singin’ in the Rain” and other classical Hollywood musicals were eagerly awaited. 

But the epitome of these was Eddie Braben’s own favourite sketch from those he wrote for Eric & Ernie, from the 1971 Christmas special and featuring André Previn, then the principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, being much more naturally funny than expected: “Thank you for that tremendous introduction, that doesn’t come out of my fee, doesn’t it?” Having been “tricked” into thinking he would conduct Yehudi Menuhin instead of Eric Morecambe, it shouldn’t have been surprising that an accomplished musician and conductor would have had good timing, saying “I’ll get my baton, it’s in Chicago” - Morecambe then seemingly breaks character, saying “Pow! He’s in. I like him.” With a full orchestra and Steinway piano, the piece reworks an earlier 1963 sketch with Previn taking the place of Ernie Wise as the exasperated conductor of a smaller band, Wise now acting as Morecambe’s support and mediator against a very real authority, making the grabbing of Previn’s lapels, and Morecambe’s line “I’m playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order, I’ll give you that”, followed by the slap on Previn’s cheek, all the funnier. Seeing Morecambe’s own applause at the end of the sketch, you can see he is genuinely happy that the sketch has gone so well.

I didn’t need an excuse to write about Morecambe & Wise, or one of their Christmas specials, but people will keep returning to it, or discovering it anew, so we will continue to talk about it.

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