Morecambe and Wise
And from that day forth the idea of sharing Eric Morecambe with the great British public came as second nature.
“Even if you were going down the road for an ice cream you had to allow an hour because he would talk to everyone,” he recalls.
“He was great with people. He knew that he owed his career to his audience so he was incredibly grateful and he would never cut people short. There was no starryness about him.”
Now, half a century after the first episode of the Morecambe And Wise Show was screened by the BBC, Gary is marking the occasion by releasing 50 Years Of Sunshine, an abridged version of a book he published in 2013.
It details the inside stories behind all of Eric and Ernie’s most famous comic turns including the unforgettable Breakfast sketch, the hilarious three-hander with conductor Andre Previn and, of course, the moment that BBC newsreader Angela Rippon displayed her amazing legs to an astonished viewing public for the first time in a memorable dance routine.
Sketches such as these made the Morecambe And Wise Christmas Show a national institution, which broke all records in 1977 with an audience of 28 million.
But what is it about Morecambe and Wise that they retain such a special place in the nation’s affections more than 30 years after Eric’s death of a heart attack at the tragically early age of 58 in 1984?
“I think a lot of it is sincerity,” says Gary, 62.
“People can tell when performers are a little bit insincere. There are acts you look back on and you think, ‘They’re very slick at what they do but you can just see they can’t wait to get to the bank and put their money in.’
“But I swear that if Eric and Ernie had been told they were never going to work professionally again they would have just performed at home in the kitchen and got people round. They genuinely loved the business and you can’t hide that enthusiasm.”
The Morecambe family in 1967
Eric’s heart problems dated back to an unfortunate stint as a Bevin Boy – one of the young men conscripted to work as coalminers during the Second World War by the Minister of Labour Ernest Bevin.
Mines in those days were dusty and dirty places and health and safety regulations were not what they are today.
The result was that a man who went down the mines in Accrington with an A1 health rating was invalided out a year later as a C3.
But it was the first of Eric’s three heart attacks in 1968 that led to the creation of the format that made Morecambe and Wise household names.
The duo had just completed their first series for the BBC after switching from ITV and as Eric convalesced their writing team, Sid Green and Dick Hills, found work elsewhere.
When Eric was well enough to resume work, the BBC teamed up him and Ernie with a new scriptwriter called Eddie Braben.
It was he who modernised the comic dynamic of their act, came up with the notion of Ernie having pretensions to be a playwright and mooted the quirky idea that they should appear in some scenes sharing a bed.
These innovations, coupled with the brilliance of the talent involved, took the ratings into the stratosphere.
Father and Son
However, this did put pressure on Eric and Ernie to keep delivering the goods.
Eric once said he found it difficult to switch off his comic persona because he was worried that if he did he might not be able to switch it on again.
This even extended to holidays abroad.
“If the waiter poured a drop of wine in a glass to taste Eric would always go to an empty glass, sip it and go, ‘Great!’ which I thought was brilliant,” says Gary.
But Gary’s young life was marked by his father’s long absences doing panto in the winter and lengthy summer seasons.
In this context the unlikely institution that did much to foster the bond between father and son was Luton Town.
“I was obsessed with football as a kid,” says Gary.
“And he had always been obsessed with football. Our local sides were Watford and Luton and it just worked out that Luton was at home that weekend so we went along.
“It was an evening game and, as we came out, the chairman of Luton came over and grabbed us and said to my father, ‘I had no idea you were a fan of Luton!’”
Eric went on to become a director of the club and an informal club ambassador.
He even introduced mentions of it into the show.
The club’s ground boasts an Eric Morecambe suite to this day.
By the time Gary was in his late teens Eric was spending more time at the family home in Harpenden, Hertfordshire, with wife Joan and their three children, as his career then revolved around London TV studios.
“I remember coming down one evening to answer the door and of course my father got there first,” says Gary.
“Five girls had turned up to see me, all about 17. He was straight there, ‘Oh look, Gary, two and a half each.’ I thought, ‘What a great comic mind to even come up with a line like that.’”
He adds: “I have stayed friendly with quite a few of the people of that era who, like me, are sadly now in their early 60s. They all say, ‘It was great. We were 17 and 18-year-olds and we would come round and your dad would give us a big fat Havana cigar out of a humidor and a quadruple whisky with ice and then put on a Morecambe And Wise Show.’
“If you put it like that it was quite nice but at the time I hated it. I thought, ‘Oh no! My friends are being hijacked.’”
By this time, Gary was a veteran of the Green Room and had met many of the celebrities who appeared on his father’s show including Shirley Bassey, Tom Jones and Andre Previn.
Gary believes it is the sketch with Previn that is his father’s best piece of work.
This is all the more surprising given the circumstances under which it was produced.
“I think Previn’s mother wasn’t well and he was based in Canada and flying backwards and forwards. He didn’t really have any time to rehearse. I think Eric and Ernie thought this was going to be one of the biggest disasters in any of their shows.
“But of course what they had not anticipated is that people such as Previn, who have a genius for something, tend to have a kind of general genius for the creative so he was always going to be perfect and he was perfect.
Beloved comedy duo
“He said it himself: he landed at Heathrow, had the torch on in the back of the car and started learning the lines. Absolutely wonderful. For the first and last time he was the only guest star to walk in to the show and do it and be brilliant. A great moment.”
No account of Eric’s success is complete without a mention of the role played by wife Joan.
“My sister and myself have often said that without our mother I don’t know quite how our father would have worked out because he needed to be completely organised and looked after and she did that,” says Gary.
“She dealt with the hundreds of pieces of fan mail. She dealt with all the finances and brought in the accountants. She dealt with all the holiday planning and any purchases they wanted to make.
“All he had to think about was his work and his show and that’s why he could be so supreme because he was able to put every bit of energy into it. And that’s how it should be when someone is that brilliant.”