Morecambe & Wise are such an intrinsic part not just of the British light entertainment fundament, but also the nation’s cultural heritage. The duo’s legacy is such that they are still as beloved now as they were during the prime of their career, back when they were being watched by TV audiences which reached upwards of 20 million viewers.
Yet despite appearing on our screens across four decades, it seems that our collective vision of them nowadays is largely based upon their work for the BBC between 1968 and 1977; even then, we only tend to see their Christmas specials that were made during this period, so what we mainly think of as fundamentally Morecambe & Wise is shaped largely by our exposure to what is merely a percentage of a percentage of their total output.
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In an ITV special this summer, Morecambe & Wise: The Lost Tapes, Eric Morecambe’s widow Joan said that he had been worried about being forgotten; in the same programme, his daughter Gail also said he once asked her: “When I am gone, you will watch the videos, won’t you? Because otherwise it will all have been for nothing.” The chance for the public to watch those shows, however, has been extremely limited for some time, as besides annual repeat showings of their Christmas extravaganzas, the regular non-festive episodes rarely tend to be aired.
Bookending either side of the BBC run of The Morecambe & Wise Show – the majority of which is available on DVD – Eric and Ernie had two stints working on ITV, and those runs have been even rarer and far harder to access. From 1961 to 1968, ATV produced the black and white series Two Of A Kind (which, part the way through, was renamed The Morecambe & Wise Show); later, after being poached from the BBC in 1978, the pair transferred to Thames Television, until Eric’s passing in 1984.
Network Distributing put out the complete run of Two Of A Kind on DVD in late 2016, on a set which has long since been deleted, and was only available for a limited time. Network also released the first of Eric and Ernie’s four Thames series back in 2008, on a two-disc set which also included several of their Thames Christmas specials; however, the remainder of their shows for the ITV weekday franchise holder had not followed suit, and until very recently it appeared they would remain stuck in the archives.
Thankfully, Network announced they would be bringing out a new DVD set that contained the ATV and Thames material, Morecambe & Wise At ITV. It now means that, apart from a trio of recently rediscovered missing BBC episodes, all of Eric and Ernie’s surviving TV shows are now fully available to the public, so – in conjunction with the previous BBC releases – we can at long last all enjoy a virtually complete run of their existing television material which spans a period of some 22 years, and lets us see exactly how they grew together on the small screen.
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Two Of A Kind represented the TV comeback for the double act, after the critical flop of their debut on the BBC in 1954, Running Wild (which sadly no longer exists); so reviled, in fact, that one review read simply: “Definition of the week: TV set — the box in which they buried Morecambe and Wise.” For their ATV series, Eric and Ernie were teamed up with writers Dick Hills and Sid Green, who the previous year had penned the surreal and short-lived Anthony Newley vehicle known as The Strange World Of Gurney Slade.
Watching Two Of A Kind is a fascinating yet curious experience, not least of which is down to the fact that Hills and Green often appear on camera as supporting artists in some of the sketches, changing the dynamic by making it feel almost like a quadruple act. We also get to see proto-versions of Eric and Ernie’s on-screen personas, with the characterisation not being quite right: Eric is too dim and guileless, and Ernie is just too mean-spirited and cruel at times, so the balance feels a little off.
Yet there is so much to commend Two Of A Kind with, as even in this rough-hewn form, the building blocks of the partnership are clear to see. Eric and Ernie may have both started out learning their craft together on the Music Hall circuit, but they seem natural television performers here. There is also an early version of the Grieg Piano Concerto piece, only without André Previn, and it really is thrilling to see such a famous sketch looking something like an uncut and unpolished diamond in this embryonic form.
Another highlight is the meeting between the duo and The Beatles, with the ad-libbed repartee between Eric and John Lennon being a joy to behold; the consummate ease of the interactions with the Fab Four foreshadow the wonderfully memorable and effective use of guest stars during the boys’ BBC years. While not quite the Morecambe & Wise we know and love in Two Of A Kind, the show manages to signal their early brilliance, and showcases their talent superbly.
With Thames’ The Morecambe & Wise Show, their heyday at the BBC is now over, but although the ratings may have been smaller, the big set piece numbers a little less glossy, and the moves a little bit slower, Eric and Ernie are still able to give it their all, with great gusto. You can pretty much forgive their longtime writer Eddie Braben recycling some of his material from the BBC shows, given that it was just so good in the first place, and the format by and large follows Braben’s winning template, which had made the pair into national icons when they were on the Beeb.
For anyone who had been lucky enough to pick up Network’s standalone set of Two Of A Kind in 2016, and is wondering if it would be worth double-dipping to get Morecambe & Wise At ITV, then most probably not: the contents – including the special features, with many rare TV appearances of Eric and Ernie – are nigh-on identical. Fortunately, Network looks to have anticipated this issue, by also releasing two other sets: Morecambe & Wise At Thames (excluding Two Of A Kind), and Morecambe & Wise: Xmas At ITV (which contains only the seasonal specials made for Thames).
For everyone else, however, Morecambe & Wise At ITV is an essential purchase, showcasing two often overlooked parts of Morecambe & Wise‘s extensive body of work. By giving us this comprehensive set, Network manages to shine a light on significant portions of Eric and Ernie’s TV career which have sadly been oft neglected and left to play second fiddle to the BBC glory days. Eric would be so chuffed we can all watch the videos now. Thanks for bringing us sunshine, Network.
Morecambe & Wise At ITV is out on DVD on 29th November from Network Distributing.