The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Specials Review

I want people to keep watching the shows. Otherwise, it will all have been for nothing - Eric Morecambe

When I was a child, one of my most anticipated moments of the year was the day when the Christmas Radio and TV Times would appear on the coffee table. Back in those days, BBC and ITV had separate listings magazines which only added to the lingering pleasure of scanning the schedules to see what treasures were being displayed over the festive season. I would go through each day with a red pen and put a large cross by the side of the things I wanted to watch and, once this task was done, I would begin the Sisyphean labour of cross-referencing to see where my viewing plans had clashed. In those days, before video recorders were common household accessories, if programmes were scheduled against each other, you had to miss one and hope it was repeated. Only one programme was sacred viewing however, no matter how attractive the opposition from ITV might be, and the biggest red cross was reserved for The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show. On Christmas Night, the turkey having been suitably ravaged and the New Berry Fruits and Chocolate Oranges filling up whatever portions of our digestive systems which were not already chock-a-block, the family would sit together and watch Eric and Ernie clowning about with an ever-increasing variety of guest stars.

The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show was such a vital part of Christmases when I was growing up that it’s surprising to note that the tradition was in fact a relatively new one, dating back to 1969. This has much to do with the ascendancy within the BBC of Bill Cotton who determined to beef up the BBC’s Christmas output and make a ratings raid on ITV. He was responsible for the establishment of the Circus spectaculars on Christmas afternoon, the inspired choice of Val Doonican to do a British version of the Andy Williams specials and for the phasing out of Christmas Night With the Stars in favour of lavish seasonal spectaculars from the likes of The Two Ronnies, Dick Emery and Mike Yarwood. But his key innovation in terms of Christmas Day was to follow the lead of his predecessor as Head of Light Entertainment, Tom Sloan, in placing Morecambe and Wise at the centre of the BBC 1 schedule. Morecambe and Wise had joined the BBC in 1968 following a period at ATV and a brave but unsuccessful attempt to launch a career in films. They stayed with the corporation until 1977, reaching their popular apotheosis by attracting 28 million viewers to watch their final BBC Christmas show. Subsequent series and Christmas specials for ITV hovered between watchable and disappointing – somehow, without the guiding hand of their BBC producers and, perhaps, the stability which was offered to them, the duo never seemed as funny on the ‘other’ channel.

Between 1969 and 1977, the double-act produced eight Christmas Shows for the BBC – the exception being 1974 when the traditional show was replaced by a late-night interview with Michael Parkinson. The first show looks like a relatively low-key affair now with guest appearances from Susan Hampshire – famous at the time due to The Forsyte Saga – and one-joke music act Frankie Vaughan – my memory of whom is a 1983 end-of-the-pier show in Blackpool during which he managed to get through a single song in fifty minutes. But the format is already in place. The show begins with a cross-talk act between Eric and Ernie and continues with a mixture of sketches and songs, ending with a lengthy ‘play what I wrote’ in which Ms. Hampshire has to contend with Ernie’s appalling dialogue and Eric’s equally appalling hamming. What makes it work is the brilliance of Eric Morecambe’s delivery. He has the ability to make a carefully scripted line look like an inspired improvisation. I can’t think of many other comedians who having the timing skills to get a huge laugh out of the line “Excuse me madam…” Eric is beloved by virtually everyone who ever watched him and I think that’s simply because everything he does is funny – and funny in such a seemingly incidental way. If we warm less to Ernie Wise – something I think he knew and which pained him right up until his death – it’s because he’s got more professional showbiz pizzazz. With Ernie, everything seems rehearsed, and when he’s funny, you can see the effort which has gone into it. He is a brilliant foil for Eric – the one’s silliness pricking the other’s pomposity – but he’s not a brilliant comic in his own right. At his best, Eric is so remarkable that he crosses the line from comedy into art.

As time went on, the shows got glitzier and began to contain more guest stars than the script could quite cope with – at some points, one feels that the very sight of famous people is meant to be enough even though no jokes have been written for them. Certainly, the final show, despite its ratings triumph, is not the best example of Eric and Ernie since every sketch is strained and goes on longer than it should do. Scenes become tired and you are very conscious that what the duo are doing with Penelope Keith isn’t much different to what they did with Glenda Jackson and Vanessa Redgrave. It’s amusing to see the BBC newsreaders dancing about to the strains of “Nothing Like A Dame” but one senses the time and effort which has been put into assembling the number and, for my money, it’s not half as funny as the much more simple set-pieces from earlier in the 1970s. The same goes for a potentially funny skit on Starsky And Hutch which peters out with poorly timed slapstick. Simplicity has its own merits. It allows for more experimentation and gives Eric more room to manoeuvre.

That’s why I think the best of all the Christmas Shows they ever did is the 1971 edition. This is largely because absolutely everything works; the sketches are just long enough, the choreography and music are top-notch and the jokes are constantly surprising and clever. There’s certainly less reliance on familiarity than there is elsewhere and the result is an hour of sheer bliss. This is the edition which features Shirley Bassey’s set going haywire, Glenda Jackson pretending to be Ginger Rogers (despite Eric’s disappointment that she isn’t Dame Glenda yet) and the deliciously silly Robin Hood lampoon with a superbly straight-faced Francis Matthews. Best of all, it’s got the Andrew Preview, sorry Andre Previn, sketch which is my personal choice for the finest thing that Morecambe and Wise ever did. Concocted in something of a hurry and complicated by Previn’s schedule, the sketch crackles with wit and fun. Andre Previn sends himself up, Ernie gets some good opportunities to be self-important and Eric is at the peak of his form – “Who’s the fixer?”, “The one in the gold lame suit”, “They usually are” – especially when he finally gets to play the Greig Piano Concerto and makes a complete hash of it. Andre Previn’s horrified reaction – “You’re playing all the wrong notes” – gets the only possible answer – “I am playing all the right notes. But not necessarily in the right order!”

Somehow, Christmas doesn’t seem the same without Morecambe and Wise. Even when they were on ITV and the material was disappointing, their presence made Christmas seem like Christmas. Eric Morecambe died in 1984 and Ernie Wise followed suit in 1999. The world is a colder, sadder place without them.

The Shows

1969 Christmas Show: Susan Hampshire, Frankie Vaughan, Nina, The Pattersons

1970 Christmas Show: Edward Woodward, Eric Porter, Peter Cushing, William Franklyn, Nina, Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen

1971 Christmas Show: Glenda Jackson, Shirley Bassey, Andre Previn, Francis Matthews

1972 Christmas Show: Glenda Jackson, Vera Lynn, Jack Jones, Flora Robson, Ian Carmichael

1973 Christmas Show: Vanessa Redgrave, John Hanson, Hannah Gordon, The New Seekers

1975 Christmas Show: Diana Rigg, Robin Day, Gordon Jackson, Des O’Connor, Diane Solomon

1976 Christmas Show: Angela Rippon, John Thaw, Dennis Waterman, Elton John, Kate O’Mara, Marian Montgomery, The Nolan Sisters

1977 Christmas Show: Penelope Keith, Elton John, Francis Matthews, Dad’s Army, Newsreaders, James Hunt, Paul Eddington, Richard Briers

The Disc

2 Entertain continue their sterling work at releasing the best of BBC comedy with this three-disc release of the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Shows. It’s not quite comprehensive – an ideal collection would have included the 1974 Parkinson interview – but it’s still an absolute treasure trove.

The picture quality is about as good as you could possibly expect for archive material which has only had the most basic clean-up work done. The shows were all shot on VT with some film inserts and the quality is generally more than satisfactory. Some artifacting here and there but nothing to seriously complain about. The mono sound is very good indeed with pleasing fidelity and no obvious problems.

There are no extra features. Optional subtitles are provided throughout.

This is a very entertaining set which contains some of the very best of Eric and Ernie’s television work. For the price, one might have liked some extra features – perhaps some interviews or a retrospective documentary – but how can you argue with any DVD set that includes Eric Morecambe appearing with a huge wooden leg and announcing, “I’m from the Isle of Man”.

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