Book review: Eric Morecambe Unseen, edited by William Cook

‘The lost diaries, jokes and photographs,’ reads the cover line on Eric Morecambe Unseen, promising to unearth a buried treasure trove of the great man’s inner thoughts.

In a breathless introduction, editor William Cook, builds up the anticipation, describing his excitement at coming across boxes stuffed full of books and notepads at Morecambe’s home in Harpenden, Hertfordshire, which his loyal wife Joan has kept relatively unchanged since his untimely death in 1984.

But anyone expecting some revelatory inner thoughts - perhaps something along the lines of the rancorous, bitchy, self-pitying volumes that threw so much light on Kenneth Williams’s character – should be prepared for disappointment.

Morecambe, you see, wasn’t much of diarist. He kept entries for less than two years, and they are mundane in the extreme. ‘Wednesday January 10, 1968: Just hung around the house. Thursday January 11: Very little happening. Wrote a script could be qiite funny. Friday January 12: Nothing. Wrote a script. Haven’t finished it. Couldn’t geta good enough tag. Saturday January 13: Watched TV sport. Nothing else.’

Scintillating stuff. And even when they are not so deliberately terse, they concern themselves more with box office takings and golf scores than they do with the inner workings of comedy genius.

No wonder, then, that the diary entries comprise just 25 pages at the back of this book. Then there’s another half-dozen pages of one-liners – a mixture of corkers, gags that would have been old even in the Sixties and even some disappointing mother-in-law jokes.

Instead, most of the book is a retelling of Morecambe’s life story, which will be familiar to most fans especially if they’ve read Graham McCann’s comprehensive history of Morecambe and Wise, a thorough tome Cook acknowledges as the definitive source.

Thus we track his days from the drudgery of the touring variety circuit to the universal adulation from those unmissable Christmas TV specials, and on to the controversial switch from BBC to ITV, the ill-fated cinematic ambitions and the heart problems that would eventually claim his life. It’s a solid, decent account of his life, told with readable efficiency - but surprising it is not. Cook might have been given unprecedented access by Joan and Morecambe’s son Gay, but both have previously published their accounts of life with Eric, too.

Where Eric Morecambe Unseen does come into its own, however, is with the impressive and sizeable range of candid photographs. It’s a wonderful coffee-table collection of snapshots from a long career and loving family life.

That Eric’s face is so familiar – iconic even - is what make makes the pictures so fascinating. Whether they show him larking about with friends or family, at work on the sets of various projects or from his earliest days with Ern, this pictorial history of a legend is far more illuminating that the biographical details of the text.

Many of the shot are remarkable for their ordinariness, holiday snaps or at home with his wife and children. Others for their extraordinariness – Eric and Ern dressed up as reindeer on one page, enjoying a meal with Tommy Cooper the next.

There are a few press cuttings, too, plus old theatre bills advertising ‘Ernie Wise & Morecombe [sic] – Names Of The Future’ in a lot smaller type than the main comedian ‘Billy Russell – On Behalf Of The Working Classes’. They are, as the old joke goes, so far down the bill you’d think they were the printers.

Pages from his notebook are also reproduced, again more a curio of passing interest than anything more penetrating. Even his Ration Book, with his real surname Bartholomew, is reproduced.

So never mind the embellished rehashing of his CV, Eric Morecambe Unseen is more of an intriguing scrapbook of an enduring comedy hero. One, perhaps, just for the fans – but then Morecambe did, at his peak, have 28 million of them, so there’s got to be a lucrative Christmas present market there.

Eric Morecambe Unseen is published by HarperCollins at £16.99. Click here to order your copy from Amazon at £10.19

Steve Bennett
October 2005

Published: 23 Sep 2006

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