Book review: Morecambe & Wise Untold

by William Cook

As befitting their enduring status as Britain’s most-loved comics of all time, countless biographies have been written about Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise – which makes author William Cook’s goal of telling their ‘untold’ story seem ambitiously unattainable.

What can he possibly discover that handfuls of biographers before him – including Morecambe’s own son Gary – have failed to unearth?

Well, firstly, he has been given unprecedented access to the families’ archives. Like his 2005 book, Eric Morecambe Unseen this tome contains pages and pages of delightful, candid images of the much-photographed pair that we have never seen before. In glorious, glossy, monochrome these pictures capture the dying days of variety halls, and Eric and Ern’s first steps towards mastering the new medium of television.

For the narrative, Cook has chosen not to chronicle their success, but to describe in glorious detail the world they inhabited in the build-up to it, as they trudged around the country, first as bottom-of-the bill comics – the so-called ‘wines and spirits’ listed in small type at the foot of the poster – to headliners on the Number One circuit of the swanky Stoll and Moss venues.

The book’s not so much their tale, but a portrait of this lost time from the Forties to the Sixties, where top music halls would be packed to the rafters, for ten shows a week, with eager audiences ready to devour the diverse entertainment served up: comics, singers, dancers, dubious ‘blacked-up’ minstrel acts, even zither-players - not to mention countless dreadful novelty acts.

It’s where Eric and Ern learned their craft, over years of graft, and this book shows their rise from the lowliest roots. But crucially, unlike other performers who were set in their ways, these two always experimented with their relationship and delivery, and continually tried out new pieces of material, so when their circuit died, they were ready to move on to the next challenge.

In some of the chapters where he interviews some of the surviving characters who remember those bygone days – such as Bruce Forsyth, Michael Grade, Ken Dodd , Freddie ‘Parrot Face’ Davies – Cook barely mentions the subject of his study; instead talking in general terms of the dressing rooms, boarding houses and railway platforms of the day, to flesh out his portrait.

But whenever Morecambe and Wise are mentioned, it’s with absolute fondness, both as performers and human beings – what other response could there possibly be? – and it’s a tone of affection that pervades every page.

Cook hasn’t just tracked down old troopers, the family get a look-in, too, to share some of their memories, including Eric’s widow and children – and, for the first time in a book – Ernie’s widow Doreen.

But it is the pictures the relatives, and the commercial archives, have supplied that will provide the greatest pleasure, with scores of delightful snapshots of a delightful duo. Just seeing them in print raises a smile, as you subconsciously recall what joy they brought. The only criticism is that so many of the wonderful images are left uncaptioned. That’s possibly because family portraits rarely are, but it means curious readers are robbed of vital context.

A few bits of theatrical ephemera are also reproduced, from Eric’s first contract with impresario Jack Hylton in 1941 to countless playbills, which always arose curiosity with their list of long-forgotten stars dwarfing the names of Morecambe and Wise – names which are often even misspelled, so unimportant were the pair. You won’t learn anything earth-shatteringly new about them from this latest book, but where the ‘untold’ lies is firstly in the detail of the very early days of their career; second in the pleasure you’ll get reminiscing about the time when Variety ruled – even if you don’t actually remember them from the first time around. It may be a nostalgic rose-tinted image Cook conjures up, but he does it so well, the result is a perfect tribute to their much-loved memory.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

Morecambe And Wise: Untold was published by HarperCollins on Monday, priced £18.99 in hardback. Click here to buy it from Amazon at £11.39

Published: 11 Oct 2007

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