That Morecambe and Wise Thing

English: Eric Morecambe, Morecambe Bay and the...

Quite enjoyed the two part M&W documentary, though can’t help feeling three hours was an hour more than it needed. Television schedules, though, eh?
We played “Bring Me Sunshine” at my dad’s funeral earlier this year, and I don’t suppose we’re the only ones to have chosen it.
The story of M&W is a tragedy in three acts. Eric Morecambe suffered from something more than heart disease. It was a fear and anxiety brought on by early struggles and three big failures. Their first failure was on the BBC, their first attempt at a TV show. They also failed to crack America in quite the same way that other music hall act, The Beatles, did. Finally, they failed to make it in the movies, though they tried.
In the end their huge success was about keeping it simple, keeping it comfortable. And as the audience grew towards peak proportions (28.8 million in 1977, the kind of numbers you’d expect for a World Cup Final) their shows got more and more elaborate. By 1977, they were not keeping it simple, and this gave Eric the heebiejeebies.
He was a high-energy performer, a smoker, and a worrier. Inevitable that he would die young. He was right when he said that 1971, with Glenda Jackson and André Preview, was unbeatable. The documentary could have skipped through the rest. The programmes were brilliant, their audiences huge, but they were riding the wave they’d first hit in ’71. By the time you follow the newsreader-can-dance joke with more newsreaders, the writing was on the wall.
So they moved to Thames. The documentary elided something there. It wasn’t just Billy Cotton at the BBC who felt betrayed. I think a lot of the general public did, too.
The documentary did put the historical record straight by reminding us that the BBC failed them and that it was ITV, who understood Britain better through its regions, who made them a television success. It also reminded us yet again that the BBC managed to lose a lot of early Morecambe and Wise shows through their policy of destroying master tapes. Fucking idiots.
But by the time they moved back to Thames, they belonged to us, the public, who had paid for their lavish shows through the TV licence. When they left Billy Cotton, they also left us.
You could see how ill Eric was on the Penelope Keith show in 1977. Retirement would have been kinder. I remember that by 1981, the public loved them a little less. I also remember hearing how Eric had turned up to a book signing in Canterbury that year, and nobody showed up. Badly publicised, no doubt, but a poignant episode, especially as he was promoting his novel Mr Lonely.
Those days! Oh to live in an alternate universe, the one in which Eric kicked smoking and stopped worrying, the one in which he got to retire after 1977 and write comic novels and appear on Wogan to promote them.
He was always afraid, wasn’t he, that they’d be forgotten? And they never have been, though in his lifetime, Ernie became the forgotten man. I don’t suppose people could bear to see him. Spontaneous sobbing.
I was crying by the end. Amazing how the news of Eric’s death, even though you know it’s coming and it was 30 years ago, still has the power to shock tears into your eyes.

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