A look back at the cinema of one of the UK’s best ever comedy double acts: Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise.
Arguably Britain’s greatest post-war double act, Morecambe and Wise are best remembered – and understandably so – for their celebrated TV work across both the BBC and later ITV from the late 60s to the early 80s. However, they’d first arrived on BBC TV at Easter 1954 in a series called Running Wild. Radio Times described the duo as “running wild at the Television Theatre”. The director of this series, Ernest Maxim, would helm and choreograph their BBC shows in their 70s heyday. But this initial venture was not deemed a success: “TV- the box they buried Morecambe and Wise in” were the words of one of their detractors at the time.
Yet the pair were soon far more successful with a series called Two Of A Kind (1961-67) for ATV. By now they had a dedicated team of writers in the form of Sid Green and Dick Hills. Sid and Dick were chosen by Eric and Ernie after agent Billy Marsh tempted them back to television.
The duo had been reluctant to return following the savaging their debut series had received. They were aware that a second such failure wasn’t an option, so the choosing of writers that could really capitalise on their act was vital. Significantly the writing team had seen their material (for comic Dave King) developed for America by a young Mel Brooks. They had experience of the international market and helped the duo move into films.
Eric and Ernie thus raised their profile with three features made between 1965 and 1967.
The Intelligence Men, made in early 1965, was the first cinematic outing for Morecambe and Wise. Espionage was a surefire hit at the box office in that year, and it’d prove the basis for their maiden movie. There was the popularity of the big screen successes of James Bond and Harry Palmer for a start, as well as the gadgetry and cool of the American TV series The Man From UNCLE, which was itself extending its franchise with a string of theatrical releases. The year before, even the Carry On team had responded with Carry On Spying.
Written by Sid and Dick, the plot of The Intelligence Men sees Barista Eric (Morecambe) asked to remember an important tune by a rather sinister customer to his coffee bar. Ernie Sage (Wise), an agent for Military Intelligence, is tone deaf and realises he must recruit Eric to help him foil an assassination attempt by SCHLECT at a performance of Swan Lake.
An excellent jazz score by Philip Green, adds to the ‘cool’ sensibilities of the subject matter. The ensemble included April Olrich as Russian ballerina Madame Petrovna and reliable character actors William Franklyn, Warren Mitchell, Terence Alexander and Richard Vernon.
The film did well with the public, becoming the twelfth highest grossing of the year. That success guaranteed a further two films.
That Riviera Touch (1966) – above – saw more money spent on the production and a genuine foreign location secured for a caper film typical of many of its ilk in the late 60s.
This time, traffic wardens Eric and Ernie decide to head for the south of France after ticketing a Royal car. A jewel heist gone wrong and the lure of beautiful con artist Claudette places the duo in a specially-engineered villa. Eric and Ernie are unwitting pawns in gang warfare between diamond smugglers trying to double cross each other, and the story goes from there.
Director Cliff Owen gets the best from the location budget with some beautiful scenery to distract from the thin plot. There’s a great score from Ron Goodwin too.
The cast included Suzanne Lloyd as Claudette, Gerald Lawson, Alexandra Bastedo, Francis Matthews and Peter Jeffrey. Carry On star Valerie Leon is uncredited for her role, although the camera is more interested in looking at her than the boom mic is hearing what she has to say.
The film did decent business becoming the 15th highest-grossing film of 1966 at the box office and plans were drawn up for a further Morecambe and Wise film.
The Magnificent Two (1967) – for which the trailer is above – saw Eric and Ernie as travelling salesmen trying to sell their wares in a country in political turmoil.
In this one, Eric is mistaken for the brutal dictator Fernando Torres (not to be confused with the Spanish footballer who played for Liverpool and Chelsea. They are very different people). He comes face to face with his doppelganger and the inevitable mistaken identity takes place with the usual hilarious consequences. Despite the script’s South American pretensions, the director found the locations required to shoot the movie in Black Park, Iver.
The supporting cast included Cecil Parker, Sandor Eles, Isobel Black and Tyler Butterworth, the young son of Carry On star, Peter Butterworth. An uncredited Mike Reid, later of Runaround and EastEnders fame played a train guard.
This time though, the box office fell short. The movie failed to make the top 20 of the year, and with that, immediate plans for more Morecambe and Wise films were shelved.
Instead, Morecambe and Wise returned to TV in 1968, this time on BBC2 and in colour, in a deal negotiated by Ernie (who was the more business-minded of the two). However, following the first series which was scripted by Sid and Dick, Eric had his first heart attack and the show was put on ice. Sid and Dick had to make an income elsewhere and signed an exclusive deal with Lew Grade at ATV, which led to a new writer being sort for the 1969 series of Morecambe and Wise, now on BBC1.
In arguably a masterstroke, Bill Cotton secured the scriptwriting skills of Eddie Braben. Eddie’s scripts redefined the relationship, with Ernie becoming more likeable and less bossy and comically a playwright (in his own mind at least!)
The pair moved to Thames TV in 1978, ostensibly for more of the same but with the added attraction of a chance to diversify into films again, which Eric was particularly keen to do. It was something the BBC (at that time at least) was unable to offer them.
Thames was so proud of its coup that Eric and Ernie made an appearance as themselves in the final series of The Sweeney in the episode “Hearts and Minds”, with John Thaw and Dennis Waterman famously returning the favour by agreeing to appear on the Morecambe And Wise Christmas Show. Eric then appeared in a number of short films in the early 80s. The Passionate Pilgrim (1984) made shortly before his death, which co-stars Tom Baker and Madeline Smith and is narrated by John Le Mesurier, is by far the best of these.
Thames’s film production outlet, Euston Films, previously behind The Sweeney, Minder and Widows, amongst many great TV series, produced Eric and Ernie’s final work together: Night Train To Murder.
Set in 1946, it’s an underrated 70-minute comedy drama made in late 1983, shot on videotape. It’s written by Eric and Ernie themselves and Joe McGrath, who also produced and directed.
The plot sees the duo essentially play 40s versions of themselves caught up in a convoluted attempt to wrestle (metaphorically) a family inheritance from a master of disguise. The cast included Richard Vernon, (who had appeared in the duo’s first feature, The Intelligence Men), Kenneth Haigh in a number of disguises, Fulton McKay as a solicitor called McKay, Margaret Courtney, Pamela Salem, Roger Brierley and Lysette Anthony (in one of her first roles, having just appeared in Krull) as Kathy, Eric’s niece.
It’s a warm-hearted watch which, while not their greatest work, is better than perhaps its reputation suggests. There’s a charming scene where Eric and Kathy share a late night cocoa that really speaks to Eric’s situation in life at that point in his career, asking Kathy not to call him ‘Uncle’ as it makes him feel old.
Sadly, Eric died of a heart attack, his third, on May 28th 1984 and the film was eventually shown as a posthumous tribute to him by ITV on 3 January 1985.
Morecambe and Wise will always be better known (and rightly so) for their superb TV shows but there is much to enjoy in their films too. Do seek them out if you get a chance.
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