30 December 2017

Eric, Ernie and Me by Neil Forsyth & Morecambe and Wise's Home Movies

Another Christmas, another Morecambe and Wise drama and/or documentary ... The formative years of the duo having been covered already in Peter Bowker's 2011 offering Eric and Ernie, this new drama, Eric, Ernie and Me, by Neil Forsyth, moves on a decade or so and shifts the focus to Eddie Braben, the writer who gave Ernie the rather pompous and prissy Victorian-type character who helped boost the duo to their greatest television success.

For those who have read Braben's The Book What I Wrote - or, indeed, just about any of the biographies - there aren't too many surprises, but this hour-long drama doesn't outstay its welcome, and it's good to see a writer being placed centrestage for once. We see his struggles to come up with fresh ideas, although we're not really shown where those ideas came from in the first place, nor what turned Braben into a writer. But it's instructive, nevertheless, to see the kind of agony he went through with responsibility for the show's success being placed so firmly on his shoulders. A gift handed to Forsyth is the fact that Braben drew a TV screen on the wall and imagined watching Eric and Ernie in the next show; most of the time, thankfully, ideas came.

Stephen Tompkinson was very good as Braben, and seemed to have a look of him, though the actor playing Ernie looked rather more pugnacious - to me, anyway - than the man dubbed "Lillywhite" by his partner. True, Ernie had a reputation for being hardheaded in business, but I suspect he went about it with more surface charm than we saw here.

That said, it was good to see a drama which, while it may have simplified elements of the story, was noticeably less sentimental than Peter Bowker's piece. Morecambe's reluctance, in one scene, to cut the beseiged Braben any slack may not have shown the performer in a particularly kindly light but the fear which Eric then voiced about the need to stay on top, the recurrent dread of sinking back down, made clear that all three members of that creative partnership were under pressure.

And although this drama wasn't, strictly speaking, a sequel to Peter Bowker's Eric and Ernie, such a moment undoubtedly has more significance if you are familiar with the earlier work: Morecambe and Wise's initial venture into television was a crushing, morale-sapping humiliation which never left Eric Morecambe, who carried a famously damning (but annoyingly witty) newspaper cutting around in his wallet ever after - something significant enough to merit mention in both dramatisations. Having lost their ATV writers, Sid Green and Dick Hills, and fearing the worst, Morecambe must have been terrified of losing the minor miracle which Eddie Braben represented.

In the joint autobiography by Morecambe and Wise, when asked about their previous writers the pair say something like: "We have the greatest respect for Sid and Dick. As writers" - the implication being that they behaved rather shoddily as people, assuming Morecambe to have been written off after his first heart attack. Nevertheless, it ought be pointed out that the sketch deemed Morecambe and Wise's finest was, in effect, created by them and refined by Braben, something which this dramatisation did not have time to mention - though I noted in today's Times that a correction was issued for attributing the famous "all the right notes" payoff to Braben rather than Sid and Dick.

 The other M&W programme broadcast last night was essentially an attempt to make bricks out of straw as we watched the remaining Morecambes and a few others watching Eric's home movies, buttressed by sentimental music, just in case viewers weren't getting the same emotional charge from the scraps on offer. Stan Stennett, present at Eric's death, filmed Morecambe and Wise in Babes in the Wood, their first professional appearance on film, although this grisly coincidence was not mentioned (nor, now I come to think of it, was there any explanation given for the absence of Doreen Wise from proceedings. Had she been invited to take part?). We didn't see enough in the brief - and silent - panto clips to get any sense of their act, but the women who played the Babes all those years ago were tracked down and wheeled on to react to this unexpected sighting of their younger selves.

Alright, it's Christmas, so one ought to be indulgent, and of course it's right and fitting to be reminded of these great men at this time of year, but I'd caution that this particular foray may demand rather more indulgence than most. After the exemplary 2013 documentary series The Perfect Morecambe and Wise perhaps there simply isn't much more to say about them (and I'm not saying that just because Tony Hannan, copublisher of the book what I wrote with Freddie Davies, was a major contributor).

But quite apart from the calculated sentimentality of reuniting two minor players in Morecambe and Wise's story and filming their reacting to old footage in the theatre where they once performed a genuine air of melancholy hung, unremarked, over the proceedings, especially as we moved from fleeting images of the young Joan Morecambe to the frail-looking elderly widow.

Over the years there have been many documentaries about Morecambe and Wise and other comedians of their era, and for students of such things the sight of the participants' steadily ageing provides an additional, Hardyesque, narrative of its own - and no, I don't mean Oliver on this occasion. In recent years, or so it seems to me, background music has been more prevalent in such documentaries - often at odds with the rhythms of dialogue spoken in archive film or TV clips of the comics - and staged reunions, as in the ... Forever series (Rising Damp Forever etc) seem to have become the norm.

The use of background music seems to suggest the programme makers don't quite trust their product to have the requisite effect on us without such sweetening, and - to me, anyway - most of those reunions seem awkward, a cheap way of providing a phoney climactic moment, with the participants gamely trying to rise to the occasion, but perhaps these days - not only because it happens to be Christmas but also because so much time has elapsed since the heyday of stars such as Morecambe and Wise - one should simply submit to these things, treating the music as a welcome distraction from that story of time passing which might be a little too much to bear confronted head on.

And as for those engineered reunions - well, let's cheer them as evidence of survival: some stars may no longer be with us but some are, and so are we - for the moment. Happy New Year, everybody!

Other  posts about Morecambe and Wise:

Review of Eric and Ernie by Peter Bowker

Morecambe, Wise and Nathan

Review of Little Ern!, a biography of Ernie Wise

The book what I wrote with Freddie "Parrotface" Davies

The book by William Cook (interviewed in Morecambe and Wise's Home Movies), which is mentioned in the Morecambe, Wise and Nathan post includes a chapter of reminiscences by Freddie Davies.

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