The Unforgettable Ernie Wise

The Unforgettable Ernie Wise
Yeah! Hallelujah! High Five! Wehay! Yessiree Bob! Well OK, Yessiree Ernie! I love you Dearly, Ernie Wise, Truly I Do. And this Hallelujah chorus is penned in honour of the rightful, long overdue ITV Christmas tribute to the diminutive legend that was Ernie Wise, short statured sidekick to the glorious Eric Morecambe. Namely, a brilliant 2011 documentary, latest in the 'Unforgettable' series about UK comedy legends, ‘The Unforgettable Ernie Wise’. But come on, let’s be honest, everyone always talks about Eric, and 'The Unforgettable Eric Morecambe' aired a decade ago, in 2001. So I reckon there’s an element of irony in the latest title.

Please bear with me here. If you think this praise is a little too over the top, then eavesdrop on my conversation with my brother and my ‘in law’ brother – and no, not my brother-in-law, but my brother’s wife’s brother, if you get my drift –on Christmas Day just passed, 2011. I was complaining that everyone has forgotten Ernie. There was a tribute to the late, great Mancunian comic Les Dawson on the telly on Christmas Eve, and whilst discussing comedy genius, naturally Eric and Ernie, Morecambe and Wise raised their wondrous heads.

'What about Ernie?’ I said, having been brought up with a mother wise enough to prefer Ernie to Eric, and no, this is not sacrilege. Ernie was sardonic, the timing was perfect, he had those ‘short, fat, hairy’ legs that were essential to the story, he 'wrote' the fabulously bad plays, and as a would-be 'lovey', was simply a star. He was also finely tuned in the art of playing ‘second fiddle’ - he allowed Eric to shine. This is the finest article what ‘I’ve ever wrote’ by the way, oh and please don’t forget that as it’s Boxing Day, ie the day after Christmas Day in England, I’m still in celebration mode, in case you feel this tribute seems a little too fulsome. Hic! So like a St Bernard in the Christmas snow, carrying a little tot of brandy in a barrel round its neck, ‘The Unforgettable Ernie Wise’ popped up on the evening following that cosy chat about British comedy, around the kitchen sink (the guys were washing up! Apparently Ern was a dab-hand around the kitchen too). So it was truly a Boxing Day Christmas cracker, and about time too!

Ernie Wise was The Man. The little man, admittedly, but like bread without butter, or a carriage without a horse, what would Morecambe be without Wise? Well, nobody. Take two men and put them in a double bed together, with absolutely no hint – even of the nudge nudge, wink wink variety – of sexual undertone. The bed was often the arena upon which they performed, and if you feel the need for a guilty giggle, please re-read the last sentence. This was the seat of the action, the basis for hilarity, and going out into the world from there, everywhere they went, people were in stitches. What’s so lovely about this documentary is that Ernie was always smiling, too.

In their fabulous sixties family home movies, as shown on the programme – well, if you call home wherever they were, for as his long time wife Doreen tells us, they were ‘gypsies’ wandering the globe - these black and white images show him smiling, happy in Venice, happy wherever. In the States they appeared on 'The Ed Sullivan Show' (and don't you just love all Sullivans? I do!) Eddie adored his two 'English friends' - he took them out, he showed them off. He was, quite simply, a man in love. Just as Ernie was - with life, with his wife, and with Eric, his long term show-biz partner.

‘The Importance of Being Ernie’, a TV so-called tribute made in 1993, basically lambasted Ernie Wise, saying he was lost, professionally hopeless without Eric. I was angry when I watched it then, and I’m angry recalling it now. Thank goodness, this blasphemy was lambasted in turn, in this new and at long last, fitting show, all about Ernie. How dare the BBC do that to him? (Though admittedly this fresh documentary was made for ITV! Hmm.) As the brilliant Morecambe and Wise co-writer, Eddie Braben points out in the documentary – they earned millions for the Beeb over the years, both Eric AND Ernie, thank you very much, then they reduced him to this! It’s still so sad to recall that Ernie may not have realized just how much he was appreciated, and now, quite rightly, the balance has been adjusted, and publicly so.

It’s wonderful, this tribute. The love shines out of it. Husband and wife, (both couples), comedy duo, man and man. They all really, truly loved each other, and they gave us all such a laugh! Great tidings of comfort and joy, in fact. What better Christmas message could we have than this? Which is why their Christmas specials, filmed for the BBC, always aired to many millions, and for many years was the best show in town.

English actress Glenda Jackson with her Oscars and her portrayal of the beautiful Cleopatra ‘like what I am’. Andre Previn with his orchestral baton, Shirley Bassey with that boot. What would life in 1970s Britain have been without them? Or come to that, contemporary TV without their copyists Ant ‘n’ Dec, or Vic and Bob? Basically just that bit more grey, more miserable. It was a devastating blow to Ernie when Eric died – and also to their adoring public. With the death of his partner in crime, Ernie’s career died too. So it’s just brilliant that he is, at last, getting the due love and appreciation he deserved.

‘If he hadn’t had such a great sense of humour, he wouldn’t have been such a great partner for Eric.’ Now this may sound like a classic example of ‘damning with faint praise’, as usually accorded to Ernie by the media. Except this was said by Eric’s other life partner, ie his wife, so we’ll let her off, and let her help wrap up this Yuletide article, because she was one of the two unseen partners who made Eric and Ernie what they were – a supreme and successful double act. Talking of wives - Ernie and Doreen waited 9 months to go on honeymoon due to his work commitments. In Paris her ‘nylons’ were laddered, and Ernie bought her some more, although ‘We can’t really afford to buy a new pair,’ he said, just before he did. Soon Eric ‘n’ Ern were earning enough to buy, ooh, thousands of pairs of nylons. Of course, Eric’s mother did her bit too, nurturing and encouraging the two young comics on their uphill road to fame. So, come on, weren’t the boys just great? Oh and shucks! Weren’t their women just wonderful too?

Eileen O'Sullivan heartily recommends this DVD comedy classic collection. She watches Morecambe on Wise on British TV -

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