It seems that death isn’t the career setback it used to be. Once upon a time, all that we had available if we wanted to see bygone artists perform was recordings; thanks to the rise of the tribute act, however, we get a chance at seeing them live to perform another day. From the Bootleg Beatles to the Rat Pack, there are now opportunities aplenty to be able to see what’s going to be the closest thing possible to attending a live performance by those who are sadly no longer with us.
And it doesn’t just apply to music: comedy has also seen a rise in tribute acts as well, with shows dedicated to recreating The Goon Show, Steptoe And Son, Hancock’s Half Hour, and Round The Horne, along with performers like Tommy Cooper. The next best thing to being there, for those of us who just happened to have been born in the wrong era, and missed out on being able to enjoy them at the time. Amongst the pantheon of such comedy greats are Morecambe & Wise, who left us in 1984 and 1999 respectively, but they’re still a strong part of British culture, with their shows being repeated to this day, as well as more documentaries being made about them with each passing year.
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In addition to this, we’ve had biopics like Victoria Wood’s Eric & Ernie, which had Daniel Rigby and Bryan Dick having the unenviable task of bringing the boys back to life. Similarly, 2017’s Eric, Ernie & Me gave us a look at the duo in their halcyon days, showing the input that writer Eddie Braben had into their success at the BBC; Mark Bonnar and Neil Maskell brought us their take on the double act, with varying degrees of success. So ingrained into our national psyche are Morecambe & Wise, with each physical and verbal nuance so well known to us, that it’s perhaps harder for anyone to bring them back to life than other contemporaries. It’s certainly quite a daunting task, so anyone taking it on must be either foolhardy or supremely confident in their abilities.
Ian Ashpitel and Jonty Stevens are most definitely not foolhardy. Taking what was originally an impromptu party piece, the pair then developed their act into a play, Eric And Little Ern, which had a run in London’s West End and toured round the UK. They’ve also been seen on our screens as Eric & Ernie in Eric Idle’s 2016 special on BBC Two, The Entire Universe. Jonty and Ian also filmed a pilot for the BBC the same year at the Salford Sitcom Showcase entitled The Late, Late Morecambe And Wise Show, petforming new material alongside special guests. You can certainly say that these lads have form, after doing Eric & Ernie for over 15 years now.
The two of them bear more than a passing resemblance to the boys, which is half the battle. However, looks alone will only get you so far, and the proof of the pudding is very much in the tasting. Fortunately, Ian and Jonty do an impeccable job, capturing all of Morecambe & Wise’s mannerisms to a tee, be they visual or verbal. They both seem incredibly comfortable, not only in their roles, but also around each other – it comes over as the sort of genuine rapport which can’t be forced or manufactured. It can only come from the sort of familiarity and closeness which results from having known each other since studying together many years ago at the Birmingham School of Speech & Drama.
Having seen Morecambe & Wise on TV for so many years and become so familiar with not only just the boys’ on-screen personas, but also the format of their shows, it’s so easy to forget that they actually came from the great tradition of variety and music hall, as well as the Working Men’s Club circuit. To those not in the know, it can come as a bit of a culture shock to have the majority of the first half focused on the two of them on stage together, with the repartee and banter we know from their duologues, but few of the sketches or the set pieces the audience is familiar with. It’s a smart move, as Jonty and Ian manage to get us firmly onside and comfortable with them as Eric & Ernie, before bringing out the big guns later.
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As with the TV show, they have a special guest, in the form of singer Becky Neale, who’s worked with the two of them over the years. Becky certainly is a good sport, being mercilessly lampooned in the same way Eric & Ernie did with the celebs they shared the spotlight with; she also does a great line not only in being a luvvie and a diva, but also portraying the exasperation that comes with appearing alongside the duo. A particular highlight is her totally straight rendition of ‘Send In The Clowns’, while Jonty and Ian manage to undermine her, performing some fabulous physical schtick while dressed, yes, as clowns, and larking around with balloons.
Some of the all-time favourite bits get an airing, including the ventriloquist dummy act, as well as ‘Mr Memory’, and the now legendary Grieg Piano Concerto. As André Previn is synonymous with this sketch, it may seem odd to have it replayed without him; however, it’s a little-known fact that there was a prototype version of the skit played out in the 1963 Morecambe & Wise ATV series Two Of A Kind, with Ernie as the conductor, and that’s the basis of the version they do here. It’s a testament to the strength of the original writing that these vignettes still stand up even now, but Ian and Jonty more than do justice to the material. Yes, the audience shout out the punchlines, as well as singing along with the songs, but that’s all part of the fun.
Definitely the closest thing you’ll ever get to actually seeing Morecambe & Wise in the flesh, it’s absolutely a joyous night out for audiences of all ages. You can’t see the join, but you can certainly see the joy. Let the boys bring you sunshine, and have An Evening Of Eric & Ern while you can.
An Evening Of Eric & Ern is currently on tour around the UK until June 2019