Biography: Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise
On the 25th December 1977 over 28 million people tuned in to a television show that had become a national institution. As much a part of Christmas as the Queen's Speech, Turkey and Plum Pudding, Morecambe and Wise's Christmas Day Special was an event not to be missed. Like most success stories this kind of adoration didn't come overnight. In Morecambe and Wise's case took more than thirty years of hard work, setbacks and refining their act to evolve a style that was quite unique. An act that twelve years after the death of Eric Morecambe, had television viewers voting for them as the Best Light Entertainment Performers of all time. This is their story...
John Eric Bartholomew, the only son of George and Sadie Bartholomew, was born at 12.30pm on 14th May 1926 in the front room of his parents neighbours house at 42 Buxton Street, Morecambe in Lancashire. At that time his father worked as a labourer with the Morecambe Corporation, earning around thirty-eight shillings a week. (These days the equivalent of £1.90). According to Eric it was Sadie who 'pushed' him towards a life in show biz, saying that she didn't want him 'tied to a whistle' like his dad. However, it was always Sadie's contention that Eric didn't need much pushing, never passing up the opportunity to perform his 'party piece' -a song and dance- at family gatherings. Even at the tender age of three it seems as though Eric was born to perform and entertain. He was in the true sense of the word a 'natural'.
But even naturals have to learn the tricks of their trade, and so Sadie arranged for Eric to learn how to play the piano, the clarinet and several other instruments, as well as packing him off to a dancing class. In order to pay for these lessons Sadie had to take on extra work, so on top of her cleaning job she also worked as an usherette at the Central Pier Theatre. Eventually, Eric (still only nine or ten), began to perform at local clubs for fees ranging from five shillings to a pound. In 1939, after a number of minor successes in local talent contests, Sadie entered Eric for an event organised by the music magazine Melody Maker, in the local leg of a national talent search competition, which Eric won. The prize was an audition with the famous Jack Hylton, whose shows always featured fresh new talent. Eric, it seemed was less than enthusiastic about travelling to Manchester where Hylton's show was currently on tour. However, it was here that another young star had already established himself in the discoveries show. Although they would not meet up just yet, their paths were destined to cross, and when that happened, it would change both their lives forever.
Ernest Wiseman was born in Leeds on 27th November 1925, at a local maternity hospital. His father, Harry, was a railway worker and his mother, Connie, a former box-loom weaver who had gone against her parents wishes in marrying Harry, and as a consequence had been cut off from the rest of her family. Ernest was the eldest of Harry and Connie's children, he was followed by two brothers and two sisters although one of his brothers, Arthur, died of peritonitis at the age of five. Harry performed song and dance routines and told jokes on the local club circuit, and although his act was more amateur than professional, he began to build quite a reputation for himself. Around the age of six or seven it became evident that young Ernest wanted to follow in his father's footsteps, so Harry coached his son until they eventually formed a double act known as Carson and Kid.
The popularity of the double act (also known as Bert Carson and his Little Wonder), began to spread across the West Riding region -and bookings multiplied. Then, in 1938, the impresario Bryan Michie was touring the north in search of new juvenile talent to showcase in revue. Harry Wiseman heard about the auditions and made sure that young Ernest went along. At first it seemed as though Ernest had failed to impress because he was not contacted by Michie, then, one day, a letter arrived from London - not from Michie but from fellow impresario Jack Hylton. On 6th January 1939, Harry travelled down to London with Ernest, who did an audition for Hylton in his office. That same night Ernest made his West End debut in 'Band Wagon'. On Hylton's advice Ernest Wiseman became Ernie Wise and was awarded a five-year contract starting at £6.00 per week.
When Eric Bartholomew went to his audition in Manchester in front of Jack Hylton he would have been unaware that in the audience was Hylton's latest 'star'. Ernie Wise however, was extremely impressed if not a little threatened by the unknown comic performing in front of him. As Ernie recalled later, he wasn't the only one to sit up and take notice: 'The boys in the band turned to me and said, "Bye then, Ernie. Things won't be the same with this new kid around. What are you going to do now?"
However, in September of that year war broke out and the theatres closed down. Eric returned home without hearing about the results of his audition and Ernie returned to Leeds, where, after working for a few months as a coalman's labourer, he received a telegram from Bryan Michie inviting him down to the Swansea Empire to join the touring version of Youth Takes a Bow. The theatres were opening up again.
Eric was also invited to Swansea and, accompanied by Sadie, made the trip. It was here that the boys finally met up. As the show toured so Eric and Ernie started to form a friendship, then sometime around 1940 Ernie found himself wandering the streets of Oxford without any digs for the night. Going from guesthouse to guesthouse Ernie finally arrived at the same place where Eric and his mother were staying. When Sadie overheard Ernie asking for, and being refused a room, she immediately offered him a place in the room Eric and she were staying in -sharing Eric's bed! From that day on Eric and Ernie shared digs together wherever they went.
About a week later, the boys they found themselves performing their individual acts in Coventry, which had been badly bombed. Because of the damage they had to stay 21 miles away in Birmingham. The journey to and from the theatre was a long one and all three had plenty of time to talk. Inevitably the conversation always revolved round showbiz and the two acts. One night, on returning from their show Sadie made a suggestion. "Why don't the two of you try a double-act?" They both agreed that it was a good idea and Sadie set about finding them a song and dance routine whilst the boys set about finding some gags.
For the next three or four weeks Eric and Ernie, whilst continuing to perform their solo spots, set about learning a new four-minute double-act routine and eventually they approached Bryan Michie with it. Michie liked what he saw but would not commit himself to giving the boys a slot on the show without Jack Hylton's say so. The next time that Hylton came up from London to see the show was in Liverpool, Ernie cornered Hylton in Michie's dressing room and asked him to watch the act. Hylton liked it too and told Michie to find them a slot the next Friday night, 28th August 1941.
That was the start, but it took time before the double act became an established part of the bill, most of the time they were only allowed to perform it when an act had to drop out for one reason or another. The audience reaction was very good for Bartholomew and Wise, but it was around this time that another important change took place, this time in Nottingham. Eric recalled: "My mother was talking to Adelaide Hall, the coloured American singer on the bill and explaining to her how nobody liked the name Bartholomew and Wise. Adelaide's husband, Bert Hicks, overheard and said that he had a friend who called himself Rochester because he came from Rochester, Minnesota." Bert asked Sadie where she came from.
"Morecambe." she replied.
"That's a good name. Call him Morecambe."
They all liked the name and from then on the boys became Morecambe and Wise.
In early 1942, with audiences declining rapidly, Jack Hylton decided to bring down the curtain for the last time on the show. For Eric and Ernie it meant the end of their double act. Eric returned home and got a job in the local razor-blade factory and Ernie tried his luck in London to find a slot in a show. This situation lasted for three months and eventually Ernie travelled to Morecambe to stay with Eric.
Reunited they tried to find work in any club or concert party that would have them, however, there were no offers of work. Once again Sadie decided to take a hand in guiding their future and she took them off to London to visit an agent she had heard of in Charring Cross Road. The agent didn't sign them but he suggested that they visit the Hippodrome where auditions were taking place for a new show, Strike a New Note.
Their partnership was broken up again when Ernie received his call-up papers on 27th November 1943; he elected to join the Merchant Navy and ended up ferrying coal from Newcastle to London. Some months later Eric was conscripted and selected to work as a 'Bevin Boy', which involved him being sent down to work in the coalmines. After eleven months of this he was classified 'C3' with heart trouble and sent home to Morecambe. The resulting effect this would have on his health would plague him for the rest of his life.
After the war the boys tried hard to find work. They had about a ten-minute act including an opening song and a soft-shoe dance number at the end. Unfortunately they found it hard to get any work without an agent, and most agents were not interested in them until they had work. They managed to pick up the odd date here and there, got some work with ENSA doing a tour of the American army camps in Germany, but mainly they were lucky if they got four weeks work at a time.
It was round about this period that they landed themselves a regular date at the Windmill Theatre in London's West End. The Windmill was famous for being the only London theatre to have stayed open throughout the bombing. 'We never closed' became its slogan. But now it became famous for something else.
From midday to midnight it featured fan dancers and a chorus of near naked women. It was also the breeding ground for a new generation of comedians. Harry Secombe, Peter Sellers, Benny Hill, Norman Wisdom and Tony Hancock were amongst the names to appear there with a varying degree of success, and in some cases, failure. It was the latter fate that Eric and Ernie suffered after only one week. Fortunately though, Ernie had the presence of mind to go to the theatre's owner and ask if he could put an advertisement in variety to the effect that, 'Morecambe and Wise are leaving the Windmill due to prior commitments.' The theatre owner, Vivian Van Damm, agreed and the boys left with their reputation intact.
Eric and Ernie continued to tour the variety circuit polishing their act as they went along and towards the end of 1950 an agent, Frank Pope, came to see them perform in Grimsby. Pope liked what he saw and signed them up to a sole agency agreement with a guaranteed minimum wage of £10.00 per week. Pope found the boys regular work, and through this they were able to build their confidence and improve their rapport, both with each other and their audience.
By 1952 Morecambe and Wise were well known radio voices, having a regular spot on Variety Fanfare on BBC Radio. Then in 1954 they were given the chance of their own TV series, 'Running Wild'. The first show in the series aired on 21st April 1954 at 9.40pm, and the following day the boys held their breath as they opened the morning papers to read the reviews. The critics seemed unanimous in their verdict -They hated it.
Not only did the critics hate the show, they attacked it with such fervour that each review Eric and Ernie read was, according to Eric, "Like a slap in the face." At a time when the boys were building a reputation for themselves as a quality act, this one thirty minute show was set to damage their credit up and down the country in full view of the public. After a second and third show, which only showed a very small improvement, the boys went to the BBC and suggested that it would be in everyone's interest to cancel the remaining three shows. However, the BBC decided to stick with the series. By the end of the series Morecambe and Wise's credibility had been damaged so badly, that the best date they were offered was an embarrassing fourth on the bill at the Ardwick Hippodrome in Manchester.
Laurence Marcus January 2005.
for Television Heaven