During their Christmas Special of 1977 Morecambe and Wise pulled in a record 28 million viewers – not bad for a tall man with glasses and one with short, fat hairy legs. From the floodlights of the stage to the magical goggle-box these snappy jesters warmed the hearts of a nation with their effortless chemistry and clean humour. Megastars, with titles, wanted to appear on the Morecambe and Wise show; even John, Paul, George and ‘Bongo’ wanted in on the action – that’s how meteoric Morecambe and Wise were.
I wanted to go and see the Morecambe and Wise show but I wasn’t allowed to cross the Severn Bridge on my own after dark – not until I’d turned five, anyway. But by then it was too late. Eric Morecambe had passed away and the nation had lost its sunshine – Ernie had lost his rudder. Even to this day I still rate Eric Morecambe as one of the greatest comedians of all time. He was such a naturally gifted entertainer; quick witted and even quicker with an ad-lib.
Part of the fun of Morecambe and Wise was to see reputable actors, composers and singers be reduced to giggling wrecks during the plays what Ernie wrote, or bear the brunt of Eric’s irreverent jokes. The ‘Andrew Preview’ sketch, “in the second movement, not too heavy on the banjos!” still reduces me to tears of joy – “I’m playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order”. It was simply unheard of for leggy BBC newsreaders, Shakespearian thespians and music megastars to be made fools of in such a way. It was also a privilege.
When I discovered that Bob Goulding was portraying my favourite funny man I was quite dubious. But upon further investigation I discovered that he was heralded by some of Eric’s closest friends and family – and if you squint long enough to get funny looks from passers by he is a dead ringer for a young Eric. Bob Goulding had been told this most of his life and envisaged his stumbling upon a pair of thick rimmed spectacles as a premonition. Golding approached his friend, Tim Whitnall, to write the definitive bioplay about one half of, “the most illustrious and the best-loved double-act that Britain has ever produced”. He did just that.
Upon arriving in the afterlife through a curtain Eric finds a sofa (so good) and a trunk which he opens to find a ventriloquist dummy of Ernie Wise – you still can’t see the join. Helping himself to a drink – “Johnnie Walker, I know him well, makes you see double and act single” – Eric embarks on a reminiscent journey through his life. He recalls the numerous childhood talent contests, where he and Ernie first met, the working men’s clubs and seedy provincial theatres – and the dreaded Glasgow Empire where comedians sink or swim. It is sometimes difficult to keep pace with the busy script and commendable energy coming from Goulding, but he seems content to leave the audience remain asleep for the first ten minutes – it’s not a bad audience, considering they fell off the back of a lorry.
There was no scandal in Eric Morecambe’s life – no affairs, drinking problems or quarrels, but his life was enough of a rollercoaster ride without them; from being invalided out of his National Service as a Bevin Boy due to a heart defect, to the disastrous television debut that set the partnership back years – where one reviewer defined the television as “the box they buried Morecambe and Wise in” – to the death of his beloved mother and the heart attacks he suffered in later life.
Well placed amid the rolling gags and one liners are tender moments where Eric speaks candidly of his friendship with Ernie and love for his mother. Goulding keeps the impersonation restrained and can clearly act his way out of a brown paper bag; portraying several characters with as much ease and confidence as the central role. He appears so at home with being Eric that one can’t help feeling for the figure on stage – like he had been spiritually repossessed. There was not a dry eye in the house during the concluding scene where Eric performs one last number, tenderly kissing Ernie on the forehead before gently placing him back in the trunk – an end to over forty years of sunshine and laughter.
Morecambe is an extraordinary solo performance commemorating the 25th anniversary of his untimely death. Bob Goulding is fantastic and grabs Tim Whitnall’s sharp script by the scruff; flawlessly willing the jokey John Eric Bartholomew into existence. With just a simple ventriloquist dummy Goulding skilfully manages to project a close companionship. Even Goulding would agree that it is not a perfect impersonation – Eric was one of a kind – and can be looked upon as more of a warm-hearted tribute.
But the shades of Morecambe that he does breathe to life are enough to induce a warm, fuzzy feeling. Deciding to spend an evening with Morecambe turned out to be a wise choice after all. It was a superb appreciation of the Eric Morecambe (and Ernie Wise) legacy; funny throughout and poignant in the right places – but, most importantly: “Rubbish!”