Ernie Wise

Ernie Wise

Date of birth: 27-11-1925
Date of death: 21-03-1999

Ernie Wiseman – who changed his name to make it more showbusiness-friendly – was an entertainer from an early age, appearing as an actor and singer in the music hall, and in his early days as a song-and-dance man he was billed as the English Mickey Rooney.

His father, Harry, was also a semi-professional singer, and they appeared together under the name Bert Carson And His Little Wonder.

In 1939, when he was 14, he forged a friendship with Eric Morecambe, then 13, when they worked together in a a revue called Youth Takes A Bow at the Nottingham Empire. Encouraged by Eric's mum, Sadie, the pair started to develop a double act.

In 1953, Wise married dancer Doreen Blythe. They remained man and wife until his death, but had no children.

He and Morecambe temporarily split when they began their National Service during World War II. Wise served in the Merchant Navy, while Morecambe was a Bevin Boy, conscripted to work in a coal mine.

After the war Morecambe and Wise reformed their stage act, and became a hit on the variety circuit – but their first foray into TV, 1954's Running Wild, was considered a flop. The People's TV critic famously wrote: 'Definition of the week: TV set = the box they buried Morecambe and Wise in.’ Morecambe carried the cutting in his wallet for the rest of his life.

The failure sent them back to the stage, where they refined their act. Three years later they hosted a weekly TV variety series called Double Six, which helped restore their reputation, and in 1961 Lew Grade offered them a series for London’s ITV station ATV, pairing them with Frankie Howerd's writers Sid Green and Dick Hills.

Although the series started poorly, it developed more into a reflection of their stage personas and introduced catchphrases such as 'Get out of that!' and 'More tea Ern?' as well as Morecambe's famous paper bag trick. It also introduced guest stars to the format, who would be gently ribbed by Eric.

During the Sixties they made three films - The Intelligence Men (1965), That Riviera Touch (1966), The Magnificent Two (1967) – although none of them gave them the big-screen success they craved.

In 1968, after six ATV series, they left for the BBC, which had offered to make the shows in colour. But after the first BBC series 42-year-old Morecambe suffered his first heart attack, in the early hours of November 8, as he was driving back from a show to his hotel near Leeds. During his recuperation, Hills and Green, believing he would never work again, quit as writers. John Ammonds, the show's producer, replaced them with Eddie Braben, who had just parted company with Ken Dodd.

Braben further developed their characters, especially Wise's, to give him more depth than the traditional straight man and introducing aspects such as them sharing a bed . Initially Morecambe objected, but Braben convinced them by saying that if it was good enough for Laurel and Hardy it was good enough for Morecambe and Wise. With Braben's help, their TV shows went from strength to strength, and their 1977 Christmas show attracted an incredible 28.4 million viewers.

But in January 1978, the pair controversially left the BBC for Thames Television, for a higher salary and, crucially, the chance to make movies through their Euston Films subsidiary. However, the move cost them their writer as Braben opted to remain at the BBC and, although popular, their ITV series never reached the dizzying heights of their BBC ones. Also, the film they made – Night Train to Murder took six years to complete, only being screened on TV after Morecambe's death, and was a commercial and critical flop.

Morecambe and Wise's final show together was the 1983 Christmas special for ITV. Five months later, Morecambe took part in a show hosted by close friend and comedian Stan Stennett at the Roses Theatre in Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire. After his sixth curtain call, he walked into the wings and joked 'Thank goodness that's over.' He then collapsed, suffering a third and final heart attack, aged 58.

Wise continued to work after his partner's death, mainly as a guest star and on the after-dinner circuit. In a piece of showbiz trivia, Wise made the first mobile phone call in the UK on 1 January 1985.

After suffering two minor strokes in December 1993 and August 1995, Wise announced his retirement from show business on 27 November 1995, his 70th birthday.

In December 1998, he suffered two heart attacks within a week while on holiday, and had to undergo a triple heart bypass in Florida . He died from heart failure and a chest infection at the Nuffield Hospital, Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire on March 21, 1999.

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'Lost' Morecambe and Wise shows get a DVD release

Wiped episodes tracked down and restored

A series of previously lost episodes of The Morecambe and Wise Show is to be released on DVD for the first time.

The series was one of the earliest British comedy shows to be broadcast in colour when it aired on BBC Two in autumn 1968.

However, all eight episodes were lost in the 1970s when the BBC cleared out its tapes to make space in the archives.

Following years of research and restoration, film copies have been found for four of the eight episodes, plus audio recordings for the other four. Two of the episodes were aired on BBC Two on Boxing Day 2018.

All the footage will be released on DVD from BBC Studios on June 6, together with a previously lost one-off Morecambe and Wise special from October 1970. This was found in the attic of Eric’s family home and aired on ITV last year.

All episodes have undergone extensive sound and picture restoration, with 'colour recovery' software having been used to restore three of the episodes to their original full colour.

One episode, the very first Morecambe and Wise recorded for the BBC,  only survives as a badly decomposed film print, rediscovered in a film vault in West Africa.

Groundbreaking new technology was developed to scan this film with X-ray and recover the images locked inside the badly decayed film, as Chortle reported in 2018. This was part of a world-first seven-year long restoration project by the BBC and Queen Mary University, London. 

The full content of the new release, entitled Morecambe and Wise: The Lost Tapes is:

  • Four previously unreleased full colour episodes, including a one-off special from October 1970.
  • A special reconstruction of an otherwise lost early episode from series 1.
  • Four audio-only recordings of otherwise lost episodes from series 1.
  • Two short documentaries about the lost episodes of The Morecambe and Wise Show.
  • A 1968 BBC 2 interview with Eric Morecambe featuring Marty Feldman.
  • An original 1974 BBC Two trailer for The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show.
  • Surviving footage from an otherwise lost episode of series 1.
  • Deleted scenes from series 1.
  • A raw studio recording from December 1972.
  • A BBC radio interview with Morecambe and Wise from October 1963.
  • A collection of original production paperwork, including scripts and Radio Times cuttings.

Some of the footage will be screened at a British Film Institute event on May 21 at the Southbank in London.  

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Published: 3 May 2022

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