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Sandraseahorse

Morecambe & Wise by Graham McCann

The first half of this book will cover familiar territory for anyone who saw the fairly recent TV dramatization of the comedians' early life; their years in variety, their break into radio and how their first foray into TV with their series "Running Wild" was a flop because BBC producers thought they were "too northern" and tried to change them.

One thing I did learn from this section of the book was that M&W did their own publicity and had excellent relations with the press after their first and only publicist George Bartram proved to have strange ideas about how to keep the duo in the public eye; he would write supposedly "funny" letters to local papers in their names without their knowledge and would even send bizarre cookery recipes to women's magazines in Eric's wife's name.  Joan Morecambe begged him to stop after she received indignant letters from readers saying how the recipe had been disastrous.

The second half describes how after working on their routines in variety, a second chance came to break into TV with ATV and this time they were more successful with their scriptwriters.  Their first writer at ATV was Johnny Speight, who later found fame with "Til Death Us Do Part", and he grasped the nature of M&W relationship and how it was the basis of their humour.  Their next writers were Dick Hills and Sid Green, who produced some great material but had a tendency to crowd the sketches with too many people so M&W became almost marginal.  It was an Equity strike that forced Hills and Green to focus simply on M & W, and the material was better for it.

The comedians fell out with Lew Grade at ATV in 1967 as they wanted their shows to be made in colour and they were snapped up by Lew's nephew Michael Grade at the BBC.  He put them with writer Eddie Braben and director John Ammonds and this team produced the golden age of M&W material.

What I found particularly interesting was the discussion of their films; film success mattered a lot to the duo as they saw it as a way of breaking into the American market.  Both of them had homes in Florida and American success was their dream.  I get the impression from the book that this wasn't so much for the money - both were big earners by this stage - but they had a dream of being one of the all time greats in the same league as Laurel and Hardy.

They signed a 3 film deal with Rank and the script writers for these films were Hills and Green.  The first, The Intelligence Men, had a good cast with William Franklyn, Terence Alexander and Francis Matthews.  The idea was rather tired; there was a whole spate of spy spoofs at the time.  Nevertheless, the cast felt that the film would be very funny and there was a lot of hilarious ad libbing during rehearsals.  However, the director Robin Asher insisted that the ad libs were not used as he claimed that only Eric Morecambe could be the funny one in the film.  The fact that Asher didn't understand that Wise was equally funny but in a different way shows how he didn't understand their humour.  His background was directing Norman Wisdom films and he saw it as no different.

The next film, That Riviera Touch, had a better director in Cliff Owen, according to McCann. Again it was an unoriginal idea as there was a raft of Riviera caper films coming out at the same time but the film does have some admirers.  Even the waspish Kenneth Williams, who described M&W in his diary as his "least favourite comedians" wrote it was "v. funny and original things in this film.  These two come out of it v. well indeed."

One problem with the film,  according to McCann, is that the plot is over-complicated and M&W get submerged in the plot.

"The Magnificent Two", in which they are caught up in a South American revolution, is generally regarded as the worst of the three films.    It was low budget at £1/4 million (the volcano in "You Only Live Twice"  cost more than that) and it looks cheap with damp Buckinghamshire countryside being passed off as South America, says McCann.  It was also surprisingly violent with one of the highest body counts ever for a comedy.  The "Films and Filming" critic said it was "one of the most violent films I have seen for a long time."

Despite this, it got a general release certificate.  Barry Norman said that he felt one of the problems with M&W's films was that they were aiming for a U certificate so they had to curb their use of double entrendres  which were a large part of their act.

They didn't give up their film hopes and the reason they split with the BBC, says McCann, was that Thames TV offered them a film deal with Euston Films.  McCann said that the duo should have looked at the quality of Euston Films output before making the break.  

Their one production with Euston Films was "Night Train To Murder", which they scripted themselves and then discovered was a made- for- TV film, not for general release.  In fact, when they saw the film, they were so disappointed with it that Eric begged Thames to put it out late a at night when no-one was watching.  

McCann discusses the idea that M&W were TV comedians and were never suited to the screen but he dismisses this theory.  He says:  "No double act in the history of movies has ever started its screen career with a critically and commercially successful starring vehicle.  Laurel and Hardy, for example, only made their first feature length movie "Pardon Us" in 1931 after appearing in more than 40 shorts over the previous four years, yet it still received a merely ambivalent critical response."

He also points out that many of M&W's most memorable sketches have a filmic quality; The Stripper breakfast sketch; the Nothing Like A Dame routine and the Singin' In The Rain parody.

I've never seen any of the M&W films and I'm tempted to seek them out; after all I feel that M&W at their least funny are still a lot funnier than many contemporary comedians.  Interestingly, "Night Train To Murder" gets the highest rating on IMDB.
TheRejectAmidHair

Thanks for that, Sandra. I'm a big fan of Eric & Ern, and I found all that fascinating.

Graham McCann seems to have made quite a career writing books about the Golden Age of Television Comedy. I actually read his book on Dad's Army, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
MikeAlx

I saw That Riviera Touch as a teenager and enjoyed it a great deal. Whether I still would today I don't know. I think it was on TV recently.

The whole idea of the double-act seems to have faded now, at least from films and TV. In the 70s you still saw a lot of old Laurel & Hardy and Abbot & Costello on TV, but not so much these days.
TheRejectAmidHair

Not grieving for Abbott & Costello, but it is nothing short of tragic that entire generations have now grown up without knowing Stan and Ollie.
Chibiabos83

They were still regular fixtures on the BBC well into the '90s (and Keaton and occasionally Harold Lloyd popped up on Channel 4), but I suspect I was one of very few of my age in the country who watched them. More fool everyone else.
Mikeharvey

What about Cannon & Ball, Little & Large?  
I remember (50 years and more ago) Revnell & West (female), Elsie & Doris Waters, Nat Mills & Bobbie (very funny), Morris & Cowley (sic), Foster & Clark.
I even remember a very good TRIPLE act - Forsyth, Seamon & Farrell. A tall  man, a big fat woman, a little blonde woman.
Fat Woman:  I come from Wales..
Man: I can tell you don't come from sardines.....
MikeAlx

Cannon and Ball and Little and Large were at their peak 30 years ago. That whole variety double act thing seems to have vanished from TV. TV comedy nowadays tends to be sitcom, comedy drama or panel shows.
TheRejectAmidHair

MikeAlx wrote:
Cannon and Ball and Little and Large were at their peak 30 years ago. That whole variety double act thing seems to have vanished from TV. TV comedy nowadays tends to be sitcom, comedy drama or panel shows.


I think there ave been, and continue to be, double acts thre as well, although it'll surprise no-one to know that I'm out of touch with what's been happening recently. Paul Merton and Ian Hislop certainly have a long-running double act going in Have I Got News For You, while in sitcom, we've had double acts in Steptoe and Son, Absolutely Fabulous (which I thought was awful, but Lumley & Saunders were certainly a double act), and Ted and Dougal in Father Ted. Going back earlier, Hancock and Sid James were certainly a double act, and it does seem to me that fine though that final series was, something did go missing when Sid James dropped out. In short, although the double act in variety shows have gone out of fashion (and that's really because variety shows themselves have gone out of fashion), I'd be very surprised if double acts don't emerge in the newer formats.
Mikeharvey

What about Cameron & Clegg?
TheRejectAmidHair

Aren't they just an Owen & Steel tribute act?
Chibiabos83

Though as so often, not as good as the original.

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