It was one of British entertainment history's most controversial and high-profile moves. The London Evening Standard broke the news: 'Morecambe and Wise quitting BBC for ITV' was the headline splashed across the front page. Only a few short months before, on Christmas Day 1977, an estimated 28 million people had tuned in to see The Morecambe And Wise Christmas Show, so it was unthinkable that the BBC's biggest stars - their top ratings winners - would switch to commercial television. Surely not? But it was true.
Bill Cotton had been Head of Light Entertainment at the BBC and worked closely with the boys throughout their 10 years there. He'd been promoted to controller of BBC1 and in the job a whole day when, whilst suffering from Asian flu in LA, he received the telephone call to say they had gone. 'It was like a divorce' he later said. 'I just felt completely and utterly empty.'
So what prompted one of the biggest deals in television? Well, money was a factor of course. Ernie was a particularly shrewd businessman and Thames had been courting Eric and Ernie for a year before the move, offering them 5 times what they were getting from the Beeb. Eric also felt that they had done great work at the BBC but relished a new challenge with a fresh channel. He'd also received a letter from a member of the public who, whilst congratulating the duo on a decade of fabulous shows, said that their material and performances were starting to pall. Eric was extremely sensitive to criticism and the correspondence unnerved him.
But money and creative challenges were not the only factors, and Bill Cotton confirmed that back in 1977, at a Christmas Light Entertainment department party, he had told Eric that they would match any offer ITV had on the table for them.
What Auntie couldn't match, however, was the lure of the silver screen. At the time there was no BBC film unit, but Thames had Euston Films and could offer the boys the chance to try and revive their movie career. In the 1960s they had made three features for Rank with varying success, but it was an itch they still both wanted to scratch. It was this that sealed the deal.
Well, there were two immediate problems: their producer and choreographer Ernest Maxin was BBC staff so declined to defect with them, and nor could chief writer Eddie Braben. His exclusive contract with the BBC had longer to run, meaning he didn't join them over the river until the start of Series 1 in 1980.
With no time to plan and produce a full series before the inevitable Christmas show, a one-off special was planned, and eventually broadcast 45 years ago this night - 18th October 1978. Highly experienced producer and former dancer and choreographer Keith Beckett was drafted in to direct, with comedy writing duo Barry Cryer and John Junkin, who had filled in for Braben on occasions, brought in to write the script.
It was a lavish production to herald the arrival of the boys back on commercial television after a decade away, immediately poking fun at their high-profile move in a sketch where they and their suitcases are unceremoniously chucked out of the back of a BBC van at the gates of Thames's Teddington Studios and greeted by a rather stereotypical camp floor manager, who says they are looking forward to working with them. Eric declares:
'They're the same here as what they are at the BBC, only quicker.'
In the studio, the show proper then begins to to rapturous applause from an appreciative audience, and a huge red, white and yellow MORECAMBE AND WISE sign, which gradually sheds its letters until nothing is left.
There are several references to their move to ITV throughout the programme, which is crammed full of guest stars such as Derek Griffiths, Donald Sinden, Peter Cushing (still asking for his money) and Leonard Sachs. A cracking sketch ends the episode; Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, starring a young Judi Dench, pre-Damehood, who had just finished a successful run in the West End as Sally Bowles in Cabaret.
Voted one of their 30 funniest moments in a 2022 Channel 5 show, it certainly stands up to their better known work at the BBC, with a simple yet effective physical gag of having to step over either Eric or Ern, who were hiding behind a counter, having transformed from Jekyll to Hyde and back again.
Something that does jar to a Morecambe & Wise devotee is that whilst an instrumental of Bring Me Sunshine is used to open the show and for incidental music in and out of ad breaks, they don't close the episode with it. Instead, they sing Walkin' In The Sunshine. And they didn't sing Bring Me Sunshine at the close of the Christmas show two months later, either!
That first Christmas special for Thames was predictably highly anticipated. After the huge audience for the 1977 festive offering on the BBC, all eyes were on what the boys would pull out of Santa's sack with Thames.
It was another star-studded affair, again produced by Beckett and written by Cryer and Junkin. However, sadly a few days before broadcast the newspapers leaked a surprise appearance by former Prime Minister Harold Wilson, which was the big closing sketch of the show set in 'the flat'.
The episode also packed in some front-of-tabs sparring with actor Leonard Rossiter (who, as a friend of the Morecambe family, Eric wanted to have more than his fair share of good lines), going into the trio dragged up, lip-synching to an Andrews Sisters number, and some perfect comic timing in a complex sketch with The Syd Lawrence Orchestra. Sadly the rest fails to land. It's a bumpy Christmas sleigh ride but 19.5 million people watched it, even with Yorkshire Television off-air entirely due to an industrial dispute, and it topped the Christmas ratings. It was early days in their new home and they were still settling in.
Eric's health had long been a concern, but now, given a potential life expectancy of just months, he had no choice but to undergo a seven-hour triple bypass operation that spring.
It was, inevitably, a huge blow to the duo's new life at Thames. Even though John Ammonds had now joined them, 1979 consequently saw them record only one show, a low-key Christmas special. It featured a couple of new sketches, including the classic I Tawt I Taw A Puddy Tat number with Eric as Sylvester the Cat and Ernie as Tweety Pie, but most of the show consisted of them resplendent in top hats and tails in front of a large gold Christmas tree, being interviewed by David Frost with guests like Des O'Connor coming in to 'pay tribute'.
David Frost: How real is this feud?
Des O'Connor: Do you want to answer this Eric?
Eric Morecambe: Quite seriously we are very, very firm friends. We really are, aren't we. Honestly. We adore each other really. He came to my daughter's wedding. He wasn't invited but he came.
Was this a retrospective before they'd even got started 'just in case'? It has the feeling of one. After all, they'd been signed to Thames for two years but circumstances meant they still hadn't made a whole series.
All this changed in September 1980 when the first series proper of The Morecambe & Wise Show at Thames finally got underway. By this time not only had producer/director John Ammonds joined the fold but so too had writer Eddie Braben. Just as their BBC programmes had, each episode was packed with guest stars including Terry Wogan, Gemma Craven and Tessa Wyatt, with the series topping the ratings again with audiences of between 16 and 18 million.
However, the material had started to resemble reworkings of old BBC stuff. Even some previous BBC guest stars, such as Roy Castle and Hannah Gordon returned, and indeed Eric repeated the gag: 'Hello, Miss Gordon. I drink all your gin.'
It's hard to tell if Eddie Braben was running out of steam ideas-wise or whether Eric's failing health made it impossible for him to take on too much new, unfamiliar work. It had been six years since Ammonds had worked with Eric and Ernie and he had noticed a deterioration in Eric's ability to retain lines after his second heart attack. Maybe another reason ideas were recycled so much was the shows at Thames were half an hour each, rather than 45 minutes at the BBC, which although meant less work for more money for Eric and Ern, perhaps made Braben feel he couldn't develop his sketches fully enough in the shorter time period. Allowing for an ad break he had around 25 minutes and the format didn't suit his style: he had no time for pauses or to dwell or meander, later describing writing for the Thames shows as 'comedic claustrophobia'.
The 1980 Christmas special was the last time the boys had a new show on Christmas Day. There were festive specials in '81, '82 and '83 but a drawback of going to Thames was that if the big day fell on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday - as those three years did - then Thames was not airing, as at weekends LWT took over. Thus their last three Christmas programmes debuted on the 23rd, 27th and 26th of December respectively. If you didn't know or understand the logistics of the ITV network then it could look like Thames and the boys were gradually starting to give up.
A couple of things that were new for these Thames years and became iconic. The first was the singing of 'Here they are now, Morecambe and Wise', which fitted perfectly to the broadcaster's ident jingle at the start of each programme; the second was a running gag at the end of each show, where Ernie would tell Eric they weren't doing a song before proceeding to perform Bring Me Sunshine, either with a guest star or on his own, whilst Eric mooched across the back of the set in rain mac and flat cap, with paper carrier bag in hand.
Another three series followed between 1981 and 1983, with more and more classic material being recycled and dependable guest stars such as Gordon, Craven and Suzanne Danielle appearing multiple times - but the consistency of top-quality content was just no longer there.
That's not to say there weren't highlights: cherry-pick the best bits of the boys' years at Thames and you'll get some wonderful comedy treats - you just have to root around for it. For example, there's a beautifully simple routine with Jill Gascoigne where all three are dressed in police uniforms, a nod to her role in the ITV police drama The Gentle Touch, and dance together as Eric's trousers get bigger and bigger. There's also Richard Briers as Captain Blood trading one-liners with Eric, and Ruth Madoc in full Yellow Coat get-up mooning over Ernie as they sing Bring Me Sunshine together.
By the time they got to Series 4 (1983), John Ammonds had left to take up caring responsibilities for his ill wife and ITV stalwart Mark Stuart was producer/director. Ratings were also dwindling, down to between 11 and 14 million, and Eric particularly was unsettled with the course of direction. He had spoken to his family and Ernie about retiring, asking them all what they thought he should do and they all told him it was a decision only he could make. He wasn't even enjoying watching comedy anymore, let alone making it.
The last Christmas special aired on Boxing Day in 1983. Drawing just over 11 million viewers, it felt like neither of them knew why they were going through the motions anymore. Indeed, the episode drew so heavily on old material that Sid Green and Dick Hills, the duo's writers from 1962 to 1968, a full 15-plus years earlier, receive a writing credit alongside Braben.
1983 had also been a particularly intense year because, along with the series and Christmas special, the boys had finally made what they had moved over to Thames for: their first new film since 1967's The Magnificent Two, Night Train To Murder, with the broadcaster's subsidiary, Euston Films.
It was, in Eric's words, not what they had set out to make, and at a private screening early in 1984 he said he thought it was terrible. Certainly, the script is weak, Ernie seems strained and Eric looks ill. It never saw a cinematic release but did achieve the duo's one ambition for it: to be buried somewhere in the television schedule where few would see it. It eventually debuted in early January 1985, eight months after Eric had died.
Those final few years weren't their finest work, even die-hard Eric & Ernie fans like me can see that. Would things have been different if they'd stayed at the BBC? Probably not. Age, ill health and a shifting comedy tide were against them by the turn of the 1980s. But seek out the best bits and you'll find some flashes of the beloved duo's old magic still sparkling, worthy of any show they'd previously filmed.
It wasn't that Morecambe & Wise were unhappy at Thames: they had been courted, treated like kings and wined and dined by the company. They were just growing tired of it all. Ernie was 'still on his way to Hollywood' but Eric just wanted to write and go fishing. The public loved them but comedy was changing.
The best-loved double act that Britain has ever produced, Morecambe and Wise were a staple part of British television for three decades and their festive specials as much a part of Christmas as turkey, tinsel and terrible pop songs!
The shows they made for Thames Television in the late '70s and early '80s were top-flight light entertainment, showcasing their mildly anarchic humour, impeccable sense of timing and keen eye for the absurd. Guest-starring Terry Wogan, Hannah Gordon, Dave Prowse, Deryck Guyler, Gemma Craven, David Frost, Glenda Jackson, Donald Sinden, Judi Dench, Leonard Rossiter and Alec Guinness, among many others, these fast-moving skits and musical parodies have lost none of their warmth and humour over the decades.
This six-disc set contains all 26 editions of The Morecambe & Wise Show alongside all seven specials made for Thames Television, most unseen since their original transmission.
First released: Monday 29th November 2021
- Distributor: Network
- Region: 2
- Discs: 6
- Minutes: 1,030
- Catalogue: 7956165
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