Saturday, May 14, 2016

Hammers inside my head

’Saw the name Morecambe & Wise on the front of the theatre - first time on Broadway. Mind you, it won’t be there for long. We do the show tomorrow, so it will be taken down tomorrow night.’ This is Eric Morecambe, one half of the famous Morecambe and Wise comedy double act, writing in a (rather banal) diary he kept for a couple of years at the end of the 1960s. Today marks the 90 anniversary of his birth.

John Eric Bartholomew was born on 14 May 1926 in Morecambe, Lancashire, to working class parents. His mother encouraged him to leave school aged 13 to work as a child performer. By winning talent contests, he earned a place in a touring show, Youth Takes a Bow, in which Ernest Wiseman was also a comic prodigy. The two became close friends, and began to develop a double act, which became a regular feature in the show. During the last years of the Second World War, Wiseman joined the merchant navy, while Bartholomew was conscripted, in mid-1944, to become a so-called Bevin Boy and work in a coal mine in Accrington, though he was discharged as unfit after a year or so.

Bartholomew got together again with Wiseman once he was released from the merchant navy,  and in 1947 they joined Lord George Sanger’s variety circus, soon billing themselves as Morecambe (after his birth place) and Wise. In 1952 Morecambe married Joan Bartlett, a dancer and daughter of a captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps. They had two children, and also adopted a third child. In 1954, Morecambe and Wise’s first television series, Running Wild, was not a great success, and for the next few years they continued stage performances, with much touring, including a half year in Australia. They were also regulars on television variety shows. In 1961, the television broadcaster ATV launched The Morecambe and Wise Show, written by Sid Green and Dick Hills, which ran until 1968, establishing the duo as comedy celebrities. During the same period, they appeared several times on the Ed Sullivan show in New York, attracting huge audiences.

In 1968, Morecambe had a heart attack, and took six months off work to recuperate, returning to the stage with Wise the following summer. The couple moved their television work to the BBC, with Eddie Braben as their writer, and stayed until 1978 - producing the now-legendary Christmas shows - before switching to Thames Television in 1978. Morecambe had a second heart attack in 1979, followed by a bypass operation. Though he continued with the double act, making a series of shows for Thames between 1980 and 1983, he started branching out, playing other roles and writing more. He died of a third heart attack in 1984. Further information is available from Wikipedia, Chortle, or the old Morecambe website.

For a couple of years, between 1967 and early 1969, Morecambe kept a diary. This was first published by HarperCollins in 2005 - the last chapters in William Cook’s Eric Morecambe Unseen, sub-titled The Lost Diaries Jokes and Photographs, but essentially a pictorial biography. Cook gives a very brief introduction to the diary. ‘A lot of Eric’s observations,’ he says, ‘are fairly matter of fact, but the more intimate entries cast fresh light on his work, while the descriptive passages read like a dry run for his future fiction. And although the private voice is a good deal graver and reflective than his public persona, the same impish sense of fun remains.’ Here are several examples from the diaries as published in Cook’s book.

6 January 1968
‘Waldorf Astoria, New York. Today is a hard day. Two or three run throughs at the theatre, now called the Ed Sullivan Theatre, on Broadway. Then a quick lunch and a music run in the afternoon. Saw the name Morecambe & Wise on the front of the theatre - first time on Broadway. Mind you, it won’t be there for long. We do the show tomorrow, so it will be taken down tomorrow night. Got back to the hotel and the phone is flashing. It’s Fred Harris, an Englishman who works in New York for the Grade Delfont office. We stayed in the Waldorf for drinks as it was too cold to go out. We got slowly pissed, then went and had a bowl of soup downstairs in the cafe. This would be 12.30am. I then said, ‘Goodnight.’ He didn’t speak, got a cab and went home. I went back to my furnace of a room and fell asleep. I didn’t even switch on the TV.’

7 January 1968
‘Waldorf Astoria, New York, It’s thick snow outside. It’s thick hammers inside my head. However it’s show time this morning - got to get down to the Sullivan Theatre for 9.15am. Now to try and be funny at that time in the morning - believe me, there’s no such time. But it’s got to be done. This trip the weather has been really cold - fifteen below. I hope the plane will take off tomorrow. It could have cleared by then. Ern and I do the Sullivan again tonight. We will do the Marvo & Dolores [spoof magic act] bit. All the crew think it’s very funny. I think it will die, but I have been wrong before. We rehearse and hang about the theatre all day. Fred comes round before the show. The show is over, they say it’s gone well. I’m not happy about it nor is the Boy Wonder [Ernie], but they are - so much so, Ed asks us out to dinner with him that night. We go to Danny’s Hideaway on Lexington and have a very informal and most enjoyable evening. Bed around 12am.’

8 January 1968
‘Waldorf Astoria, New York. Well, I’m going back home tonight - back to the 35,000 feet up again bit and this time I’m not sorry. It’s 29 degrees below freezing, and that to me is cold. I’m going tonight on the ten o’clock flight from New York, but this time it’s BOAC. I’ve checked out of the hotel and took all my cases to the Essex House. Taxi at 7.15, airport at eight VIP room 8.30, 9.15 not drunk but happy. Great. Thirty five thousand feet up again, on the way home. Did the Sullivan last night and did well - maybe the best we have done. In a few moments the pilot has asked me to go up front while we are landing. This should be a thrill.’

16 January 1968
‘Today I went to the Delfont Grade office in Regent Street to meet Ernie and Billy Marsh. We had a long chat about future deals. I mentioned a tax saving scheme to Ernie and was rather surprised that he seemed quite interested, as since we have been married we have kept everything separate, and now Ernie is so close with information I never know what he is doing. All he does is secret! The idea is that we should both take out a policy on each other for £4,000 pa for ten years and after the ten years are up, for the next five years we are paid back at so much a year. At the end of the five years we will get £72,000 each - that of course is with profits. The beauty of it is that the £4,000 pa comes out of our different companies. If it comes out of the profits you are not taxed on the £4,000 at all. The only time you are taxed is when you start earning on the five yearly payments and by then we will have retired and will not be in the same earning capacity as we are now, so the tax will be less than now. I left the thought with the Boy Wonder, and I’ll wait to hear from him regards it, although I don’t think he will want to come across. Also if one of us dies, the other gets it, and Ern doesn’t look too well. It’s all a matter of pushing the money I’m earning now into the future.

Had lunch with Leslie Grade at Dickins & Jones. Very interesting as Leslie, who is a very shrewd man, had one or two propositions to offer - but with Leslie you have to think everything over for two or three days. Then you end up with the answer, which is nearly always, ‘Well, where does Leslie’s share come in?’ But it’s in there somewhere!’

18 January 1968
‘Today I was asked to become President of Kimpton Players. It sounds like a football team, but it’s a group of amateur actors and actresses who do local shows for charity. It should be quite interesting. They are doing an old time music hall show in a few weeks time, so I’ll be getting a party together and going along. Ern and I had a meeting with our writers, Sid Green and Dick Hills, at Roger Hancock’s office. We went to talk over a film idea for this coming summer. After a few drinks, conversation loosened up and Sid and Dick came out with the idea of doing a film about gypsies, where Ern and I are something to do with the council, and we have the job of moving them on, off the land that they are on. Although they had a few good situations within the film I could see Ern was not too happy about it, and I must admit I wasn’t jumping for joy. It’s a good idea, but it’s an idea anyone could do. It’s not pure Morecambe & Wise. Over lunch I happened to mention an offbeat idea I had for a film, which all thought funny. At that point Sid said that if that was the type of film we were thinking in terms of, he was all for it. So it looks as if we may after all be doing a type of film that we are all keen to do. The boys went off to write it up. We meet again next week.’

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