The third man | Interview with Eddie Braben, Morecambe & Wise's writer

The third man

Interview with Eddie Braben, Morecambe & Wise's writer

The voice on the phone is warm and friendly, tinged with a soft Liverpudlian accent. ‘Hello,’ he says cheerily, ‘what can I do to help advance the cause of comedy?’

The answer is that he has surely done enough already. For this is Eddie Braben, the legendary writer behind most of Morecambe and Wise’s most memorable moments, giving an interview to promote the latest DVD release. And clearly, at 77, still offering up his services.

Braben didn’t create Eric and Ernie’s act, of course. They did that themselves, over half a lifetime treading the variety hall boards, scrambling slowly up the bill. By the time he started writing for them, they were already major stars, demonstrating a mastery of the TV medium over six ITV series and one BBC one, with scripts written by Sid Green and Dick Hills. They were loved by the whole nation… well nearly.

‘I wasn’t a fan,’ Braben admits. ‘Eric was too gormless and silly and Ernie was abrasive. It was a typical double act but it wasn’t for me.’

Not that it mattered; he was too busy writing for Ken Dodd to worry about anyone else. But when Eric had his first heart attack in 1968, aged just 42, Green and Hills, fearing their star would never be able to perform again, signed a contract elsewhere – and Braben found himself in a meeting with the comics he didn’t much care for.

‘It was there I saw this great warmth, affection and respect between them,’ he said. ‘And that wasn’t what I saw on the screen.’

He saw how the dynamic could change; with Ernie having a more distinctive naivity rather than simply being the blank straight man, and playing up the incredible chemistry between the pair.

‘I tried to characterise them as they really were,’ he said, ‘to show the great affection that was so natural between them. They were closer than any brothers, and that relationship was not being seen.

‘I couldn’t begin to write like Hills and Green anyway, I can only write like Eddie Braben – which is innocent, a humour that doesn’t hurt.’

It’s a style of comedy that’s he feels isn’t often seen today. ‘Each generation gets the comedy and music it deserves,’ he says resignedly. ‘Today’s comedy lacks warmth.

‘All the best comics treat the audience like a friend, a person. It’s us, not just me.

‘Eric and Ern had a desire to relate to an audience, so had this great rapport with them. Ronnie Corbett has it, so does Jimmy Tarbuck. The audience loves Jimmy Tarbuck.

‘You never find people showing warmth to a comic who says “what a clever sod I am” and puts himself above the audience.

‘I never forgot the people working 8am to 6pm, sitting there thinking that at least Eric and Ernie would be on when hey got home. I remember that from my teenage years when it was the radio, and I’d look forward to Take It From Here, Jimmy Edwards, Al Read or Ted Ray, so that was my inspiration.

‘I was fortunate enough not only to be able to make a living by making people laugh, but to write for the funniest stand-up ever and the funniest double act.’

And boy, did he write, creating about 13 hour-long shows for Morecambe and Wise, plus their Christmas specials that attracted more than 28million viewers.

‘I was young, you have mental stamina then,’ he said. ‘I felt obliged to use the gift I had.’

‘I did let the fact we’d get 28 and half million viewers weigh heavy on my shoulders, but then I thought to myself, “There’as work to be done and a mortgage to pay”. The hours were cruel – but it was self-inflicted, in a way.’

He’s previously described his writing process thus: ‘I used to write ten pages and then tear nine up. Then write ten more and tear eight up - and so on, until I was happy. If I had the slightest doubt about anything it wouldn't go in. A Christmas special would take about five weeks to write - that's 16 hour days, including weekends.’

With such demands, you think he’d take a well-earned break at the end of each series… but not a bit of it. He knocked out radio shows such as The Show With Ten Legs, which he also starred in, just so he could exercise his writing muscles with a different style than the Morecambe and Wise shows.

‘When we finished the series we had a break of about 12 weeks, and that was when I could write differently, and write for me,’ he said. ‘My biggest fault was that I couldn’t say no.’

But, he says, comedy is always hard work, even when you appear as natural as Morecambe and Wise.

‘Eric and Ern went through all this, too,’ he said. ‘You can’t teach anyone comedy. You are born with it, but you don’t just sit down and wait for the gift to work. It’s like chipping granite with a plastic spoon

‘When I started out, I wrote 500 lousy jokes – and was told they were lousy. But I didn’t put the quill back in the duck, I kept at it and it

‘It’s like when comics sometimes don’t get the laughs, that’s the way it goes. But then they examine whether they’ve got the right intonation, or the right timing, and they do it night after night if they’re really determined to make it.’

But, he feels, there’s not enough places for comedians to master their craft any more – nor the demand for it on TV.

‘TV companies make light entertainment departments, but they don’t make light entertainment shows,’ he said. ‘Ant and Dec is probably the best entertainment show on TV, but there are no variety shows except all the talent shows.

‘Singers come onto these and can be voted the best – but they don’t even know how to walk on stage or take a bow. And where are the comedians? There is nowhere for them to ply their trade. I’m sure one day there will be a man on TV again telling jokes again

‘But where’s the shop window for comedy? You can do the Edinburgh festival and maybe you’ll be seen in a back alley performing to six people, but that’s it.’

The state of TV is a recurring theme, and he seems baffled and saddened, rather than angry, for what makes it to the screen. ‘I saw this show the other night about lethal injections, about killing people,’ he sighs. ‘How have we got to that? That TV people sit around and decide it would be great to show gas chambers and hangings as entertainment.’

But now, after writing what he estimates to be 500 TV shows and 200 radio shows, Braben doesn’t have to pander to the fads of broadcast executives.

‘Now I can sit back and write for my own pleasure,’ he said. ‘I’m just putting on thoughts on paper, along with some silly poetry and short stories, and when there’s enough of them I’ll see what I can do with them.’

It just goes to show that workaholics never retire – even when they’ve created something as enduringly popular as Eric and Ernie’s finest hours…

Interview by: Steve Bennett

  • Morecambe and Wise: The Thames Years was released on Network DVD on Monday at £19.99. Click here to buy it from Amazon at £12.98. Braben’s autobiography is also available here.

Published: 27 Mar 2008

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