Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Eric and Ernie by Peter Bowker with Victoria Wood as Sadie (repost)

This is a repost as Peter Bowker's drama has recently been repeated by the BBC. The link to the BBC player at the end of the first part below still works - the programme will be available to watch again on iplayer for a further four days, if you haven't seen it.

This isn't really to do with music - or only with music as an incidental ingredient - but I feel compelled to write something about Peter (not David) Bowker's dramatisation of the early years of Morecambe and Wise which was shown on BBC 2 last night and will presumably be available to readers in the UK for a further week on the BBC's iplayer here.

As with Beatle-related biopics I am both helped and hampered by my knowledge of the subject, so that it's hard to judge it - or, indeed, to submit to simple enjoyment.

Others can do that. Mine is another voyage.

What struck me as I watched was a sense of streamlining of events - probably necessary to tell the story, but there were one or two details remembered  from reading and rereading the various Morecambe and Wise books around (and there are quite a few of them) which mildly surprised me by their exclusion from this retelling.

I did think that apart from the recreation of Ernie's Little Pal routine with his dad, which Ernie said had audiences "crying into their beer", as was more or less shown in the dramatisation, the emphasis was firmly on Morecambe with Wise. It wasn't, for example, made clear (not that I'm saying it necessarily had to be, but it interests me) that Ernie was taken up by impressario Jack Hylton to the extent of being invited to stay at his home for months until he eventually grew homesick, returned to the Wiseman homestead, only to have his dad say to him something like: "Why did you come back? You had it made." Which I suspect may have contributed to the hardening of Ernie.

And it wasn't made clear enough that the invention of the Woody Woodpecker routine was driven by fear: on one occasion they had been compelled  to strip off in their dressing room when they heard over the tannoy that something was wrong with an act so that they couldn't be made to go on with extra material which they didn't have. Not to mention their initial frustration at not being allowed to perform as a double act when they were appearing in the same show.

And it wasn't just Running Wild which was bad. As it was outwith the timeframe of the programme, viewers might have assumed the pair, emboldened by more live work, immediately came into their own as a much-loved telly duo when they finally had a go at a second series (this time on the other side). Actually, the first episode of that ITV series was, Morecambe says, "exactly the same as all the other televisions we had been doing." The breakthrough, and the key to their telly success, came about by chance, when an Equity strike led to its tranformation into what became known as "The Lonely Show."

The first ITV programme had densely populated sketches which apparently meant that the pair felt lost inside their own show, and it was that strike the following week, and the fortunate fact that Morecambe and Wise were part of another union (the Variety Artists' Federation), which made it plain that the duo worked better on TV without being swamped by actors. And so began the slow trek to greatness with writers Sid and Dick as (remarkably amateurish) stooges when necessary and no one else in sight - but if there hadn't been a strike, who knows?

The other moment which sticks in the mind from reading various biogs is of Eric tearing Ernie off a strip when they were young, Sadie (I think) witnessing it and later commiserating with Ernie, who wouldn't hear any criticism of his partner: he simply told her that Eric was teaching him to be the best feed in the business. When that was later relayed to Eric by Sadie, he never had a cross word with Ernie again.

And the nickname "Lilywhite" -was never really explained, though perhaps it didn't have to be, given that Eddie Braben later said in an accompanying documentary that his contribution to the act was to put on paper what he saw in front of him when they first met.

But thinking about these sort of things probably makes me the worst audience for this film. Decisions have to be made to tell a story in ninety minutes, and they were. The film stops when Sadie is happy Morecambe and Wise have got their mojo back after the BBC fiasco (though would she really have walked out so conspicuously midway through her son's performance?) with the implication there is now more time to devote to her husband.

And that ending rounded off the Brief Encounter-type element earlier when - very nicely, and accompanied by the flourishing of a first class ticket - Sadie is in effect given the boot from her son's professional life once Eric and Ernie get themselves a proper agent, and is despatched back to Morecambe (the place). She has a little cry in the her compartment, not really taking notice of Eric and Ern's high jinkery (top) as the train moves off. So George Bartholomew is sort of the staid husband grateful to have his wife back at the end, though the affair has not been with another man but a budding double act.

Watching the scene in the train station again on iplayer just now, it really is affectingly done: both sides are fully aware that it is a leavetaking, and Eric's capering is clearly about covering embarassment at what is, in its way, a momentous occasion."Don't go all sentimental on me" is his plea, but both script and acting are beautifully judged here.

The focus on Sadie meant that we saw Eric meeting and chatting up Joan, but Ernie's Doreen was suddenly on the scene without explanation - which I suppose goes with the absence of the Ernie moments mentioned above. On the plus side, it was made clear Ernie had a career before Eric, and was more steely when it came to confrontation (Eric not backing him up when it came to the crunch about the BBC scripts was well done).

I suppose the trouble (if you want to call it that) is that this is a love story with a happy ending which everyone knows about. There was perhaps another story to be told about Sadie and George Bartholomew which was hinted at but not developed. Was this because it was written with the apparent cooperation of the respective families or simply because both Eric's parents are long dead? But the train departure scene, for me, was key: I knew that Sadie was the driving force behind Eric but it hadn't occured to me before now to consider what it felt like for her when, with all her encouragement, her son finally did leave the nest and Eric and Ernie embarked upon what they used to describe as "marriage - without the fun."

Anyway, that's as much a review as you're going to get. Of the various Morecambe and Wise biographies, I know that the one Eddie Braben relies on is Graham McCann's book, which is certainly very good, but it does have a lot of previously published work to draw on.

Of those earlier works, I particularly recommend the pair's own autobiography, presented as a conversation with Dennis Holman as referee (he actually blows a whistle at the end). This book is rich in anecdotes about touring and digs, so you really get a flavour of those times and a sense of the hard slog involved in getting to the top.

I also recommend David Nathan's 1971 The Laughtermakers, out of print but still possible to obtain. The chapter Men's Doubles, mostly about Morecambe and Wise, concludes with Nathan's eyewitness account of the process of recording one of their TV shows, revealing his understanding of their variety past. For my money this, the first extended piece I ever read about them, is as good as any later full-length study:
A few sentences later, Ernie falters and nearly loses the thread. “You see, the point is (pause) – what happens?”

Eric: “You’ve got to be careful – the suit drops off as well. What happens is, if you do a commercial …”

The “suit drops off as well” is almost a private joke and goes largely unrecognised by the audience. It is possibly a tag-line from some old story about a series of disasters and it taps the performer’s nightmare of appearing on stage improperly dressed. In its way it is a reassurance, one of the verbal amulets they constantly exchange in a world that could turn hostile without warning.

You can read a longer extract in an earlier post, here (scroll halfway down).

I've just found an Independent article by Graham McCann, here, which takes the programme as a starting point for a piece about the importance and significance of Morecambe and Wise's success for today's performers. The essence of his view about the film itself is that while the leads can't conjure up what made the pair so special,
taken as a fondly nostalgic "once upon a time" tribute it works rather well. The supporting performances are decent, the period detail precise and the photography superb. Simplified and romanticised, the story slips down smoothly like a festive sweet sherry.
I think that's fair assessment and a useful corrective to comments I've already seen on some forums about this being the best drama ever. It isn't that - but it is worth watching.

And far better this sort of simplification than its mirror image, namely the falsifying effect of those Curse of Comedy dramas. I really hated the Steptoe one, in particular, because there was no suggestion that the endeavour - the sitcom, I mean - was of any worth or represented anything other than a prison for the performers. Which, from what I've read, is far from the case. Galton and Simpson talk about that series in a Times article here.

And if I could remember it I would reproduce here a remark by Harry H Corbett, possibly made when he was touring in a revival of Rattle of a Simple Man, which struck me a great deal at the time. I won't pretend to remember the wording, but I think its point was that he submitted to his work (in general, not just Steptoe), did it wholeheartedly - and every so often there were moments of joy, inspiration, fulfilment, whatever. And they came out of that submission.

But perhaps the last word is best left to Galton and Simpson, who say of the Curse of  Comedy series (which also featured a film about Hancock):
They are all about parts of their lives to which we were not privy, so as to the content we cannot possibly comment. They are all dead now so neither can they. Suffice to say that they all left a great body of work behind them, which in the final analysis is the only thing that matters.

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