One very British Christmas tradition is a festive airing of one of the many specials made by one of the nation’s most loved comedy acts: Morecambe & Wise. For decades, families have been gathering together on Christmas Day to watch Eric and Ern in their prime, with repeats of their annual BBC Yuletide extravaganzas still a fixture of the schedules.
This year, we happen to be getting something different, with a repeat of a recently-recovered episode first broadcast in October 1970, only to subsequently end up wiped, presumed lost forever. A copy of the missing instalment turned up as a black and white film print which was found by Eric’s son Gary in the attic of the Morecambe family home, after he was having a clear-out. The episode has been lovingly restored to colour and is ready for its first outing in over 50 years.
Almost as old is the Birmingham Repertory Theatre’s current home, which opened its doors to punters the following year, in 1971. The Rep’s current artistic director, Sean Foley, has a connection to Morecambe & Wise through a piece he had co-authored with Hamish McColl, and which first hit London’s glittering West End back in the November of 2001. Now, for the Rep’s 50th anniversary season, Foley has brought it back to serve us an extra little slice of Eric and Ern-related festive magic, with the aptly-named The Play What I Wrote.
Originally directed by Kenneth Branagh, Foley has stepped into his place to bring us this revival of his loving tribute to the comic duo. The show sees another comedy partnership – Dennis (Dennis Herdman) and Thom (Thom Tuck) – about to go their separate ways; desperate to save the act, but also do a show about Morecambe & Wise, Dennis recruits the help of pal Arthur Tolcher (Mitesh Soni) to trick Thom into coming back. Thom, however, has other plans: he wants to mount a production of the play what he wrote – ‘A Tight Squeeze For The Scarlet Pimple’.
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After having a premiere in Liverpool, the original version of The Play What I Wrote had runs in London and around the UK, as well as doing a transfer to Broadway in March 2003. Emulating one of the traits of The Morecambe & Wise Show, which was known for its impressive roster of guest stars, The Play What I Wrote managed to attract a slate of celeb talent, from Roger Moore to Jeff Goldblum, Kylie Minogue to Dawn French, Glenn Close to Liam Neeson, and many more far too numerous to list here.
A little bit of stardust goes an awful long way, and in the best tradition of prolific playwright Ernie Wise’s big productions, the guest is persuaded to appear in Thom’s historical piece. The appeal of this is twofold: ‘A Tight Squeeze For The Scarlet Pimple’ has original material from Eric and Ernie’s longtime writer, the late, great Eddie Braben, giving it an extra slice of authenticity; and the celeb turn who acts as ‘straight man’ to all the comic chaos and buffoonery going on around them is a complete and total mystery with each performance of the show.
This star lottery only heightens the attraction, as you never know who is going to walk out on stage: for those who were fortunate enough to make it to the press night, they ended up getting Tom Hiddleston. However, for every Asgardian trickster, there is also the chance you might end up with a lesser name, like a Gary Lucy or a Denise Welch. No matter, though, as all of the celebs are game for getting some good natured ridicule and insults, with dignity taking a backseat here, as they get thoroughly roasted and humiliated in the best Eric Morecambe-esque fashion.
A wise (no pun intended) move is that although Dennis and Thom fill the same basic roles as Eric and Ernie (one, a clown and chaotic force; the other, a pompous little man who is full of grandiose literary aspirations), neither of them attempts to do an impersonation of Morecambe & Wise. The function may be the same, but the form is very different; trying to be Eric and Ernie is a foolhardy errand, only attempted with any real success by a brave few; far better, then, for Dennis and Thom to be Herdman & Tuck, than Morecambe & Wise, and to do the famous routines in their own style.
And there is classic material aplenty, drip-fed throughout the show, as if testing the waters initially to acclimate the audience slowly to familiar skits being recreated by unfamiliar performers; a perfect example of the ‘boiling frog’ analogy, in fact, as you barely notice the play gradually reaching the boil during the first half, bringing in more of Eric and Ern’s stuff, carrying you along on the building wave of nostalgia and emotion that the audience doesn’t even remotely care that the ones performing it all are actually someone other than Morecambe & Wise.
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The main players here are a formidable trio, with Herdman playing the fool with consummate ease, and proving to be the perfect foil to the uptight Tuck, who really is a dynamo throughout, with bursts of frantic, explosive energy which manage to pull focus whenever he is in full flow. However, the real stalking horse here is Soni, who – as Arthur (a role which was originated back in 2001 by Toby Jones: whatever happened to him?) – has to adopt a number of personas as part of the subterfuge to dupe Thom, and Soni’s versatility and comic skill is plain to see.
The Play What I Wrote is a joyous, affectionate love letter to Morecambe & Wise, guaranteed to deliver guffaws and belly laughs in abundance, as well as a ‘feel good’ factor which we sorely need right now. What do you think of the show so far? Anything but rubbish.
The Play What I Wrote is currently at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, until 1st January 2022, followed by a brief UK tour.