Last night's BBC 2 repeat of Episode Seven of The Perfect Morecambe and Wise, a compilation series drawing on their time with both the Beeb and ATV, prompted this repost of an extract from The Laughtermakers by David Nathan, a book very influential in my life.
In the chapter entitled Mixed Doubles, mostly about Morecambe and Wise, Nathan writes about being present when the very first sketch in last night's episode, which can be viewed on BBC iplayer here until August 24th, was recorded.
Published in 1971, The Laughtermakers provided my first glimmering that comedy was a) also important to others and b) could be discussed intelligently. It set me off on a course of reading on which I am still engaged, so I am very grateful to David Nathan.
Other chapters cover Frankie Howerd, Morecambe and Wise, Pete and Dud, the early Pythons and many others. Unlike some other writers on comedy he’s not ponderous, getting to the essence of a comedian quickly, and some of the summations in the book have stayed with me for thirty five years.
There now seem to be a huge number of books written about Morecambe and Wise, (and not all of them by his son), but the twenty pages here really tell you all you need to know. A description of a TV recording, for example, reveals Nathan's understanding of the importance of the pair's background in live performance in the last tattered days of variety:
“Real hair?” scoffs Eric in the script. “Real hair? If it’s real, how is it when it’s a bit windy it moves up and down like badly fitted lino in a draughty kitchen?”
Morecambe had misgivings about this line and approached it carefully. Apart from its being difficult to say, it was, he thought, old-fashioned in its imagery and would not be understood by a lot of viewers. So on transmission he spoke it very carefully, very slowly.
“Real?” he said. “If that’s real hair – just excuse me one moment please – if that’s real hair, how come when it’s a bit windy it moves up and down like badly fitting lino in a drafty kitchen?”
He then buttressed the laugh which followed by adopting the “aren’t I a bit of a clever dick?” look that he reserves for consciously clever or witty remarks. In short, he delivered that line as if it were a crate marked “fragile” and delivered it safely.
Eric explains that he cannot take off the wig because he is wearing it as an advertisement. Ernie is shocked. “You can’t advertise on the BBC,” he says. “Nobody can advertise on the BBC. Even Lord Hill can’t say what kind of pipe tobacco he smokes.”
The script merely called for Eric to say, “No wonder, it’s mine.” What he did say was, “And no wonder – it’s mine. It is well known along the powers of corridor…”
Ernie: “Corridors of power.”
Eric stops, baffled for a split second. Then: “Ah, don’t forget – he walks backwards.”
Ernie laughs and responds: “Yes, he does.”
The audience, recognising the quickness of thought, laughed and applauded.
Eric recapped his line and finished it: “…the corridors of power…as quick fill Charlie.”
The script is momentarily lost.
Ernie: “You ought to be ashamed of yourself.”
Eric: “Well, you can’t win ‘em all. Anyway, what I thought – you looked worried there because you didn’t think I was coming in …”
Ernie: “No, I didn’t think you were. Go on.”
It is the signal to return to the script and Eric does so.
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.
Watching the sketch as transmitted, we don't really get to see the "Clever Dick" expression David Nathan mentions, although the build up is so clear that we don't really need it.
That sketch is followed, in the compilation show, by the one about the oversized, offstage dog, which feels like a variety staple, not only because the stage curtains are integral to the gag but because Ernie is about to regale us with nostalgiac songs until Eric interrupts.
But I had forgotten [***SPOILER ALERT***] the gentleness of the ending. Once Eric produces a tiny dog from backstage Ernie goes into an elaborate display of relief which his partner regards with unblinking sobriety (top) before remarking, once all the short fat hairy-legged one's passion is spent, "You worry me at times, do you know that?"
And although there is a further humorous remark ("I've got a wet hand now"), essentially it's a downbeat, the effect dependent on your prior knowledge of, and love for, the characters ... which, of course, places you in a far from exclusive club.
You can read David Nathan's Guardian obituary here.
Among the many books devoted to the pair special mention must be made of William Cook's Morecambe and Wise Untold, as Freddie Davies is among its contributors. The blog devoted to Freddie's own autobiography Funny Bones, which I cowrote, can be found here.