The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show 1977

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The 1977 Morecambe  and Wise Christmas show was the end of an era – their last before moving to Thames.  It’s well known that this show attracted the largest ever Christmas audience – 28 million viewers – except of course that it didn’t.  The 1977 Mike Yarwood Christmas Show (which preceded M&W) also attracted 28 million viewers – but had a slightly larger audience share – therefore it’s Yarwood who can said to be King of Christmas.

It’s slightly splitting hairs though – 28 million (at that time roughly half the population of the UK) was an incredible figure.  Yes, it was the pre-digital, pre-internet, pre-VHS age, so the choice of alternative entertainment wasn’t large, but it’s still an impressive achievement that’s unlikely ever to be matched.

What would this audience have seen?  The show opens with a Starsky and Hutch parody – Starskers and Krutch.  It’s virtually a shot-by-shot recreation of the Starsky and Hutch title sequence, which works so well due to the attention to detail.  The film work (shots of the car travelling down the street through a blizzard of paper, for example) gives it a glossy, expensive feel.

Elton John’s back – although he finds a great deal of difficulty in locating the studio.  Along the way he meets a variety of familiar faces, such as newsreader Kenneth Kendall as well as John Lawrie, John Le Mesurier and Arthur Lowe.  Quite why the three Dad’s Arny soldiers are sitting fully-dressed in a sauna is something of a mystery – and the segment seems to have been designed just so Arthur Lowe can call Elton a “stupid boy”.  It’s a nice moment though, and all of Elton’s encounters help to sell the idea that the BBC was one large entertainment factory, with stars lurking behind every corner.

Angharad Rees looks gorgeous and Eric is fulsome in his praise. “I’ll tell you something Hand Grenade. I was thrilled when I realised that you’d escaped from Colditz.”. Eventually, Ern manages to explain that Angharad was the star of Poldark and not Colditz.

Angela Rippon’s back – this time as a member of the chorus line.  They were obviously pleased with this – as it’s repeated (slightly faster each time) throughout the show.

The sense that this is the end-of-an-era is strengthened by the final BBC flat sketch.  Everything is packed up as they’re preparing to move.  But there’s still time for Eric to make some familiar digs at Ern’s expense.

ERIC: I remember the first time you ever stuck your head out this window.
ERN: When was that?
ERIC: It was blowing a gale. It blew your wig off. It landed in that garden down there. A little old lady came out and gave it a saucer of milk.

Nothing Like A Dame is one of the crown jewels from Morecambe and Wise’s BBC career.  Apart from the pleasure in seeing some familiar BBC faces, it’s the editing (making them appear to be responsible for incredible feats of acrobatic prowess) that’s the reason why it’s so memorable.  Eric was famously sure that it wouldn’t look convincing, but it really does work well.  It must have taken some time to edit and assemble, but it’s another sign that M&W could call on all the available BBC resources.

Penelope Keith and Francis Matthews star in Cyrano de Bergerac.  There’s some other well-known faces who make cameos (Richard Briers, Paul Eddington) and it’s an improvement over the 1976 play simply by being a little shorter.  Penelope Keith also wanted to take part in a big song and dance number – and she gets her wish, sort of.  It’s just a pity that somebody forgot to complete the staircase …..

That would appear to be the end of the show, as the credits roll.  But afterwards we see Elton John reach the studio – but he’s too late.  The show’s over, the audience has gone home and there’s only two cleaners left (played by Morecambe and Wise).  This allows us to see how tatty the audience seating was (i.e. very tatty) and it provides a somewhat melancholy ending to the show as Elton performs his song to an audience of two.  Wisely, they didn’t dub any audience reaction onto this section later.  It’s also noteworthy that Elton’s complete performance was recorded on one camera and with one take – quite impressive.

It’s an interesting ending to Morecambe and Wise’s last hurrah at the BBC.  In retrospect, the 1971 Christmas Show was by far their best (and it seems clear that the pressures of repeating that success caused some problems in the years following) but the 1977 show does run it quite close.  Morecambe and Wise would carry on, but things would never be quite the same at Christmas again.

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The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show 1976

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The 1976 Christmas Show was the second that Eddie Braben didn’t write – although it’s certainly better than the previous non-Braben show (1972) and something of an improvement on the 1975 show.  Mike Craig, Barry Cryer, Lawrie Kinsley and Ron McDonnell were on writing duties (with additional material from M&W).  Although Ern sometimes seems a little dim (not realising that Eric’s Christmas gift was incredibly duff, for example) overall it’s a good attempt at synthesising the Braben style.

There’s a dress-up sketch, similar to efforts from some of the previous Christmas shows (Turkeys/Reindeers).  Here, Morecambe and Wise are two members of a table-top football team.  Ern’s the new left back, whilst Eric has been there a while.  “42,338 consecutive games. And only had the trainer on once. And that was for a coat of varnish.”

The Nolans sing When You Are A King.  They’re very pink.

Elton John’s good value.  Initially he attempts to provide piano accompaniment for the boys.

ELTON: Do you want this blues, reggae or funky?
ERIC: (looks offstage) Can he say “funky”? No, “funky”. You were close. The studio manager is looking it up. It’s a gift he has.

Eventually Elton gets so frustrated he grabs Eric (although slightly too hard as they bump faces – watch out for Eric and Ernie’s expressions, priceless!).  He then appears a few more times, before getting the chance to sing Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word.  He obviously made a good impression as he’s back the following year.

By this time, Ernest Maxin had taken over as producer.  He had choreographed some of the musical numbers on previous shows – so it’s maybe not surprising that song & dance numbers tended to feature quite strongly during his time as producer.  Since M&W (especially Ernie) both loved song & dance, it’s something that plays to their strengths and there’s two good examples in this show.

Ernie performs Singing in the Rain whilst staying bone-dry (it’s Eric who gets wet).  As Ernie was always something of a frustrated song-and-dance man, it’s a lovely segment for him.  The street set looked very impressive, especially for such a short sequence – which was a clear indication just how highly the BBC rated M&W (clearly money was no objective when crafting the Christmas show).

The play boasts appearances from John Thaw, Dennis Waterman and Kate O’Mara.  They help to liven things up – especially John Thaw – but like a number of the other plays it’s just far, far too long.  At twenty minutes, it feels very padded out.

Nowadays it’s a common sight for newsreaders to dress up and perform (Children in Need  or Strictly Come Dancing, amongst others).  Back in 1976, it just didn’t happen – which explains why Angela Rippon’s appearance caused such a sensation.  M&W get to dress up in top hat and tails and it provides a nice end to an entertaining show.

The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show 1975

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Things get off to a bad start almost straight away.  Somebody decided that the title music needed rearranging – so it’s gone all funky (wah-wah guitars and saxophone).  This isn’t helped by the fact that while the titles are running there’s no clips of what’s to come (everything we see is of past glories – Andre Previn, Shirley Bassey, etc).  Watching these brief moments of old classics would really only work if the current show was of a similar standard.

And sadly, it’s not.  Eddie Braben’s on writing duties – but he seems to have struggled this year.  It opens brightly enough though.  Ernie’s less than impressed with Eric’s present to him – a ballpoint pen with a piece of chain still attached (“That’s where I snapped the chain at the post office”).  But that’s nothing to the shock Eric receives from Ern’s present – a Des O’Connor record (“God, if you want me to be a goner, get me an LP by Des O’Connor”).

After some more digs at Des (“That’s the best record Des has ever made … You mean there’s nothing on it at all?”) he turns up to demand an explanation for the years of cruel jokes.  The byplay between Des and Eric & Ernie is one of the best parts of the show, especially when Des seems to go off script, much to the bewilderment of Eric (“This is all new.  You never once said ‘indelible thought’ at rehearsal”).

This then sets up a running gag of Des attempting to sing and getting thwarted each time – until he eventually manages to send the boys off on a wild goose chase, so that he can finally serenade the audience.

Apart from that, there’s not a great deal that’s really memorable.  There’s a quick sketch with Robin Day that descends into a punch-up at the end.  Periodically throughout the show we cut back to them as the fight gets more intense.  One rule of comedy is that something doesn’t necessarily become funnier if it’s repeated – and that’s borne out here.

There is one great sketch though – Eric and Ernie visit a maternity shop to buy a present for Ern’s expectant sister.  Ern seems to be totally oblivious to how babies are born (“Hey. Why are those frocks so big?”) and then takes offence to the innocent questions asked by the girl behind the counter (Ann Hamilton).

My sister hasn’t got a husband.  My sister’s not married!  As a matter of fact, my sister will have nothing to do with men.  She doesn’t like men.  She wouldn’t let a man touch her any time, I’m telling you!  I don’t like that sort of thing meself, either.  All that nasty business that goes on.  It’s not nice.  All that fumbling and crumbling that goes on, I know all about that.

Diana Rigg is the big guest star and rather unusually she first appears, completely unheralded, in a sketch about a psychiatrist before starring in the big end of show play.  Ernie is Samuel Pepys, Eric is King Charles II and Diana is Nell Gwynn.  It’s long – possibly a little too long – running at just under twenty minutes, but there is some filming to break up the studio stuff as well as an unexpected appearance from Gordon Jackson (who was a favourite with the viewers at the time, thanks to Upstairs Downstairs).

If his final line “What would Mrs Bridges say?” is a little obvious, then that sort of sums up the show.  M&W would jump ship from the BBC to Thames a few years later, mainly because they were concerned that their shows were becoming stale and felt that a different network would give them new impetus.  Whether the Thames shows were an improvement over the later BBC ones is a debate for another time, but on the evidence of the 1975 Christmas Show, M&W were somewhat treading water.

The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show 1973

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After the slight disappointment of the 1972 Christmas Show, Eddie Braben was back on writing duties for 1973, so there’s a definite upswing in the quality of the material.  The show opens with Eric advising Ernie to check the Stop Press of The Harpenden Bugle and Advertiser.  Ernie has been awarded the following title – Lord Ern of Peterborough (“She was going to make you a sir, but she didn’t think knights were that short”).  There’s some more choice lines, such as –

ERIC: You’ll realise you’ll have to have a monogram?
ERNIE:  I’ll have no time for playing records

It’s this sort of banter that was largely absent from the previous Christmas Show.  Of course, there’s the inevitable disappointment for Ern when he realises that Eric’s put his new present of a typewriter to good use by typing in the Stop Press of The Harpenden Bugle and Advertiser ….

When Ernie introduces John Hanson as England’s number one musical comedy star, that gave me pause for thought.  If that was so, time hasn’t been kind to him – as he’s pretty much forgotten today.  But his M&W appearance will probably continue to keep his name alive, and he does work well with Eric & Ernie.  His chat with them in front of the curtain is a joy.

Eric’s in a particularly playful mood, especially when John has trouble saying The Chocolate Soldier.  Ernie asks him if he meant The Chocolate Soldier, just to make things clear for the audience, but Eric’s not going to let the moment pass, “No, what he said … Socolate Choldier”.  After some more good-natured banter with M&W he gets the chance to sing, backed by Eric & Ernie, who are joined by Edward Heath, Harold Wilson, Jeremy Thorpe and Enoch Powell!

Hannah Gordon’s up next, but she’s surprised to find that she’s not been hired to act – instead they want her to sing, which concerns her (“I can’t sing a note”).  But she’s game, so has a bash at The Windmills of Your Mind.  M&W have built a set for her, which should strike a note of caution for anybody who’s watched the previous Christmas Shows.  It boasts a very impressive windmill which picks up Ern (or at least his stunt double) and whirls him around.

Up next is a flat sketch.  It lasts for just over six minutes and I think out of everything they ever did, it’s my favourite bit of Morecambe and Wise.  Virtually every line is a winner –

ERN: Have you cut yourself?
ERIC: No, no no. My face is a bit sore, thanks to that new bathroom cabinet.
ERN: Why, what’s wrong with it?
ERIC: It’s all those fancy designs on the mirror.
ERN: What do you mean?
ERIC: I’ve just spent the last 20 minutes trying to shave a seagull off me left cheek

ERN: You’ll have sciatica in the morning.
ERIC: I won’t, I’ll have shredded wheat like everybody else.

And the best line (as a police car races past the window) from Eric – “He’s not going to sell much ice cream going at that speed, is he?”

No Kenny Ball alas, but The New Seekers aren’t too bad. The last twenty five minutes or so feature Vanessa Redgrave and they get good value from her – she features in a musical number as well as a play. She’s suitably vampish in the musical number (the part where she makes Eric’s maracas drop off never fails to make me laugh) and playing Josephine she attempts to seduce Eric’s Duke of Wellington. Ernie is a suitably diminutive Napoleon with a fondness for concealing rabbits in his tunic.

If somebody was compiling a Morecambe & Wise best of, possibly only the flat sketch would make the grade. But the rest, whilst not hitting the heights of 1971, is consistently good – which makes this show a pleasure from beginning to end.

The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show 1972

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It’s astonishing to think that the responsibility for writing all of Morecambe & Wise’s BBC shows (both the series and the Christmas specials) fell on the shoulders of one man – Eddie Braben.  Other programmes, such as The Two Ronnies, would employ numerous writers, enabling them the luxury of picking the best material from a large pool of talent.

But apart from the odd recycled sketch (such as the Grieg sketch from the 1971 Christmas Special) everything was down to Braben.  And given how well received the 1971 Christmas Show had been, the pressure was on to equal or better that.  Braben would later explain the strain he sometimes felt –

The real pressure came when I was sat in front of that typewriter with all those blank pages and there was a deadline and there was nothing happening. That’s when you realised there were 20 million or 25 million people looking over your shoulder – all saying ‘make me laugh’.

In 1972 the pressure proved to be too much and Braben had a breakdown.  Whilst he recovered, the scripting of the 1972 Christmas Special would be handled by Barry Cryer and John Junkin with Mike Craig and Lawrie Kinsley providing the Reindeer sketch and Morecambe & Wise contributing “additional material”.

It’s possible to detect right from the start just how much Braben will be missed.  The opening crosstalk sees Eric play a number of practical jokes on Ern (a buzzer in his hand, a flower that squirts water and a telescope that leaves a black mark around Ern’s eye) whilst Ern has the last laugh by presenting Eric with a present that squirts foam into his face.  It’s funny enough, but it’s difficult to imagine Braben ever writing anything like this.  One of Braben’s greatest contributions to the legacy of M&W was to change their crosstalk personas, as he would later explain –

I hadn’t liked their stage ­persona. Eric was too gormless, in my view. Ernie was too abrasive and hard-edged. Yet, at that meeting it was obvious there was genuine friendship and affection between them. There was humility and innocence, too. None of that was being shown in their work, so I reckoned if all that could be developed, it would show a different, softer side to ­Morecambe and Wise.

I came back with 30 pages of material with my vision of a new, reinvented Eric and Ernie. In a way, I was caricaturing the two men as they really were. I never told Eric and Ernie that this was really a showcase for their mutual affection, because I was afraid they might become self-conscious and spoil it. Ernie was delighted with his new role. ‘At last I’ve got something to perform,’ he told me.

Until then, Eric had always referred to Ernie as his Wellmaboy. So called because as the straight man, it was his job to draw the funny line out of Eric — ‘Well, my boy, so what happened next?’ Eric would be more worldly, but as the funnyman would still bounce off Ernie, who for years had been the archetypal straight man. Now, for the first time he would have a personality of his own — he would be a playwright; conceited, pompous, and vain.

This warmth is largely absent from the 1972 Christmas Show (it’s notable for example that there isn’t a flat sketch – a key Braben contribution).  But at least Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen are back, so it’s not all bad news.  The Reindeer sketch is a highlight (even if it’s recycling the dress-up idea from the previous year) with a surprise cameo from Bruce Forsyth at the end.

One area where it seems that inspiration was running low concerns the appearances of Jack Jones and Vera Lynn.  Both are identical – a chat, a song where M&W appear in the background to upstage them and then a song performed without interference.  It’s a winning formula, but to repeat it wasn’t probably the best idea.

We get two plays here – Dawn Patrol with Pete Murray and Victoria and Albert with Glenda Jackson.  Dawn Patrol would probably have been twice as funny if it had been half as long.  Victoria and Albert is better, since it doesn’t outstay its welcome and there’s a nice song and dance at the end, ensuring that the show ends on a high.

Overall, the 1972 Christmas Show is something of a disappointment which serves to highlight just how important Eddie Braben had become to the M&W show.  Hopefully, normal service would be resumed in 1973.

The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show 1971

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The 1971 Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show is where everything came together.  Three consecutive sequences would prove to be all-time classics which have been endlessly re-shown over the past four decades.

The show opens with Eric registering his appreciation of the audience. “Lovely audience. They’ve done us proud, haven’t they, the BBC. Not bad, considering they fell off the back of a lorry. I love them when they’re like this, all drunk. Beautiful”.  Eric and Ernie then discuss just how much the BBC values them and it appears that Dick Emery is top-rated, with Ern below him and Eric right at the bottom (if the size of the tankards they receive are anything to go by).  Eric’s certainly dismayed with the size of his (“I’ve only got a little-un”).

The sight of M&W dressed as turkeys is something that lingers long in the memory.  Presumably they decided not to do a retake at the start (where Ernie almost falls over) as it would have dulled the audience’s appreciation of their initial appearance.  It’s broad stuff, but there’s some good lines, such as Eric’s “I don’t fancy lying in a tin of hot fat, on me back, with a roast potato stuck between me knees”.

There’s something missing from this show – no Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen.  Frankly, Los Zafiros are no substitute.  Following that disappointment, we then move into the heart of the show.  The next thirty minutes or so (Glenda Jackson, Andre Previn, Shirley Bassey) are pretty much as good as it gets.

After Glenda indulges in some crosstalk with Eric and Ernie they launch into a big song and dance number, paying tribute to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.  This concerns Glenda, who protests that she can’t dance a step, but she manages very well.  There’s also the chance to see some familiar BBC faces (Cliff Michelmore, Frank Bough, Eddie Waring, Patrick Moore, Michael Parkinson and Robert Dougall) make quick cameos.  By paying tribute to a song and dance act from the 1930’s, nobody could claim that Morecambe and Wise had their finger on the pulse of current trends, but frankly that’s not a problem.  There’s a timelessness to great entertainment (whether it’s M&W or Fred & Ginger).

Next up is Andre Previn conducting Greig’s Piano Concerto, soloist Eric Morecambe.  This sketch dated back to the mid 1960’s and was written by M&W’s previous writing team of Sid Green and Dick Hills.  It’s a little strange that they didn’t receive a credit for this at the end (leading many to assume that it, like the rest of the show, had been written by Eddie Braben).

The obvious change from the original to the 1971 version is the inclusion of Andre Previn as the conductor (displacing Ernie).  This does mean that Ern has less to do, but as it’s Previn who makes the sketch so memorable, this is unavoidable.  As is probably well known, Andre Previn (due to his busy schedule) was unable to take part in any rehearsals, which worried Eric who was convinced that this whole sketch (the centrepiece of the Christmas show) would be a disaster.

As it turned out, Previn had great comic timing and it’s possible to see the point at which Eric begins to relax (“Pow! He’s in. I like him. I like him”) and realise that he was going to be fine.  Another part of the sketch which works well are the shots of the orchestra in the background, who are visibly enjoying themselves as some of Eric’s lines (“Which one’s the fixer?”) clearly hit home.

Shirley Bassey’s appearance has a similar template to Nina’s appearance on the 1970 Christmas Show – a chat, a song in which her attempts to sing are sabotaged by a specially designed set that doesn’t behave and a song performed with no interference (although Nina’s was in a different order).  As M&W were masters of making rehearsed moves seem like ad-libs, it’s difficult to know if Shirley Bassey’s slapping of Ernie’s face was quite the surprise it appeared to be, but it’s a nice moment nonetheless.

Her performance of Smoke Gets In Your Eyes is another clip that’s very familiar from numerous broadcasts over the years, but it still seems as fresh as ever.  And a cracking performance of Diamonds Are Forever as well.

After all that, the Robin Hood play does come as a little anti-climax, although Ann Hamilton is a winsome Maid Marion and Francis Matthews throws himself into the spirit of things as King Richard.

The 1971 Christmas Special was easily the most consistent of their BBC Christmas specials to date.  Could they equal or better it in 1972?

The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show 1970

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Ern’s less than delighted with Eric’s Christmas present to him – a pair of socks that Eric has just removed from his own feet.  When Ern complains that they’re still warm, Eric explains that he was airing them for him.  Ern’s present to Eric is much more impressive – a silver fob watch, although Eric isn’t pleased when he opens it up and it plays the Colonel Bogey march.  There might be a reason why this would have offended him, but it’s a bit of a mystery to me (presumably a topical reference).

Later on, Eric plans to do something different – sawing a woman in half.  When he asks Ern to get into the box, Ern protests that he isn’t a woman, to which Eric replies, “I haven’t used the saw yet”.  Luckily, there’s a diversion – Peter Cushing turns up, still looking for his fee from his appearance as King Arthur several years ago.  It’s always a pleasure to see Cushing and they’d certainly get some mileage from this running gag over the years.  His appearance here gives Eric the chance to “saw a Peter Cushing in half”.

Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen perform Hello Dolly with a few changed lyrics welcoming Eric and Ernie back (this was recorded shortly after Eric’s heart attack).

The flat sketch features Eric cooking Christmas dinner for Ern and their guest Ann Hamilton.  Ann Hamilton was such a good utility player for M&W, able to pitch in and play a wide variety of roles over many years. There’s an interesting interview with her here.

Next, Eric and Ernie are joined by Eric Porter, much to Eric’s alarm (“A drunk. A drunk’s just come on. Play it cool. Don’t worry about it”). Eventually they twig that he’s not a drunk but the famous actor Eric Porter, although Eric’s still not happy (“We don’t want him on. He was rotten the last time”). They then all perform a song and dance act, which allows Porter to demonstrate his hoofing skills. This was always one of the pleasures of the M&W show – watching familiar faces demonstrating unfamiliar skills.

Nina’s back and like Shirley Bassey the following year, she performs two songs – one straight and the other with “help” from Eric and Ernie.  She should have realised there’d be trouble when they told her they’d built a special set just for her …..

The stars keep coming, with a special appearance by John Wayne – although he looks a little different from his big screen appearances (see picture seven below).   And then a real star turns up – Edward Woodward.  It’s difficult to tell if he’s genuinely a little ill at ease or if he’s playing at being irritated – I’d assume the later, since numerous interviews over the years seemed to indicate that he had a healthy sense of humour.  He’s not come on to act – instead he wants to sing, which he does (performing The Way You Look Tonight).  Although it’s something of a footnote to his career now, he had some success as a recording artist as well as a short-lived Thames series (The Edward Woodward Hour) where he was able to demonstrate his vocal talents.

William Franklyn joins Eric and Ernie for barely controlled chaos in the closing skit, loosely adapted from The Three Musketeers.

The 1970 Christmas Show was a step up from 1969, and the 1971 Show would be better still.