When Morecambe and Wise tried to break America: TV series explores the duo’s bid to conquer the US – as Eric’s son shares the untold story behind an overlooked period in their glittering careers
- Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise went to the US over a five-year period in 1960s
- Series includes an hour of footage never seen on British television before
- Hosted by Jonathan Ross it delves into their private archives to unearth some remarkable photos, memorabilia and rarely seen pieces of home movie footage
- Eric’s son reveals the untold story behind the important period in their careers
Christmas is the Morecambe And Wise season, a time of year indelibly associated with the much-adored double act thanks to their unforgettable Christmas Specials.
But fans are in for a real treat this year with Morecambe And Wise In America, a fascinating new series on the Gold TV channel hosted by superfan Jonathan Ross, which covers the little-known five-year period in the 1960s when Eric and Ernie travelled to the US many times to try and win over American audiences.
Eric’s son Gary, the keeper of the Morecambe And Wise flame, probably knows more about the duo than anyone having written more than 20 books about them.
He’s a major contributor to the show, which he’s been trying get off the ground for ten years, and today he reveals to us the untold inside story of a period in Morecambe And Wise’s careers that’s been largely overlooked.
Never-before-seen footage unearthed from Morecambe and Wise time in America shows the duo appear on the Ed Sullivan show, pictured above in 1967
Eric’s son Gary and daughter Gail, along with their mother Joan Morecambe OBE, have dedicated their lives to curating the legacy of Morecambe and Wise
‘It’s a good story because people are still fascinated with them,’ he tells me.
‘But to take it on you’ve got to have material that’s different. We all know about the TV shows and the Christmas specials, but there was much more to their careers.
‘This series covers a time that was so important to them. Being invited to perform in New York on the Ed Sullivan Show by Ed himself was a massive thing in their lives and yet – even in their biographies – it’s glossed over quickly.’
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Always seen as quintessentially British, the pair were on their way to becoming stars in America after their performances on Sullivan’s hugely popular show – which also gave The Beatles their big break on the other side of the Atlantic – when illness forced Eric to stop travelling.
The new series includes an hour of Morecambe And Wise footage never seen on British television before, and delves into their private archives to unearth some remarkable photos, memorabilia and rarely seen pieces of home movie footage.
There are tremendous clips, for example, of them and their wives – Joan and Doreen – fooling around in New York’s Central Park.
We also see film of their stopovers en route to New York, with footage of the four of them swimming in Bermuda and visiting an aquarium in Miami.
‘You’d have to be very strange if you didn’t love the whole experience!’ says Eric’s widow Joan, who enjoyed the glamour of America.
Eric Morecambe, actress Michele Lee and Ernie Wise performing a routine on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1968
The fascinating new series on the Gold TV channel hosted by superfan Jonathan Ross, which covers the little-known five-year period in the 1960s when Eric and Ernie travelled to the US many times to try and win over American audiences
Ironically, Morecambe and Wise only got their big break in the US because Ed Sullivan had come to Britain to scout another comedian, Bruce Forsyth.
‘Ed was a great Anglophile and he loved British acts, particularly British comedians,’ says Gary.
‘But then at that time so did most of America. So Ed used to come over here, and take people like Norman Wisdom back to America.
‘On this particular occasion he had come over to the London Palladium to look at Bruce Forsyth. The irony was he happened to see Morecambe and Wise, who were on the same bill, and fell in love with them.
‘So he invited them onto his US show in 1963. You couldn’t really turn Ed Sullivan down, he had 72 million viewers, so Eric and Ernie jumped at it.
‘The extra motivation would have been that Ernie had always wanted to be in America. He had a great love of the old Judy Garland, Micky Rooney movie era, and he had a rose-tinted view of it.
‘He wanted to achieve something in America, but it wasn’t an ambition held by my father. Eric was actually very happy with British audiences, but coming from a humble background the money was too good to refuse.’
Always seen as quintessentially British, the pair were on their way to becoming stars in America after their performances on Sullivan’s hugely popular show
Ironically, Morecambe and Wise only got their big break in the US because Ed Sullivan had come to Britain to scout another comedian, Bruce Forsyth. Pictured, on stage during the show in March 1963
Morecambe and Wise didn’t take off in the US immediately though. ‘They got off to a poor start,’ explains Gary.
‘The show was filmed in front of a live studio audience. They were doing material a UK audience would have totally got, but it was met with silence in the US and walking off to the sound of your own footfall is always difficult.’
It didn’t faze Eric and Ernie though.
‘They didn’t seem to panic much,’ says Gary. ‘They would smile at each other as if to say, ‘Well, at least we’re getting paid for being here.’
At that early stage they thought it was just a one-off visit. Although they didn’t appear on any other American programmes, they went on to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show 16 more times over the next five years.
‘After four appearances in 1963 alone, they slowly but surely started to win over the Americans. The Ed Sullivan audience gradually began to warm to their act and there was spontaneous clapping in parts, which didn’t always happen in the UK.’
Fascinating archive footage shows how the duo tailored their act to suit US audiences, with less wordplay and more visual gags. But their genius remained unchanged, and that, says Gary, is the reason they were able to win over US audiences.
Morecambe and Wise didn’t take off in the US immediately though. They were filming in front of a live US audience with jokes made for a UK audience. Pictured, on the Ed Sullivan show in March 1963
Although they didn’t appear on any other American programmes, they went on to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show, pictured, 16 more times over the next five years
Fascinating archive footage shows the duo tailored their act to suit US audiences, with less wordplay and more visual gags
‘Eric and Ernie were very good, that’s the most important thing to remember. I think the American audience probably took a while to get used to their accents and their faces.
‘It’s strange when the host is telling you you’re going to love these people from England, that’s a very harsh environment for them to enter. It’s about familiarity in the end. The audience got used to Morecambe and Wise.’
Sullivan also boosted their popularity by giving Morecambe and Wise a rare accolade.
‘The main thing – and this is something the audience will have had to have picked up on in the end – is that Ed Sullivan genuinely loved them, not just as performers but also as people.
‘So they found themselves on an equal standing with him, to the extent that he then involved himself in their routines which was unheard of. He became part of their routine. He got things wrong, of course, but he loved it. And the audiences loved it too – they couldn’t believe Ed was doing it. That boded very well for Eric and Ernie.’
Another factor that appealed to Morecambe and Wise about the US was the fact that it was the first time they had appeared in colour.
‘The big attraction came with the use of colour on their final visit in 1968,’ says Gary.
‘That was a big moment. Seeing themselves back in colour would have made them think, ‘Well if we can’t do this in the UK, we’ll do it over here.’
‘But then it all fell apart because my father fell ill with a heart condition, and that was the end of them in the US. But when they came back here they were looking to work in colour TV, and they moved from ITV to the BBC to get it.’
The new series includes an hour of Morecambe And Wise footage never seen on British television before, and delves into their private archives to unearth some remarkable photos, memorabilia and rarely seen pieces of home movie footage
The question remains, if Morecambe And Wise had had their own show in the US could they have been as big stars there as they were here?
‘You can never say for sure with these things, but they were certainly heading that way,’ says Gary.
‘America would have continued, I’m sure. It might have been a little reluctantly for my father, but I think they would have carried on performing over there. As we see throughout the series, their progress in the US was very gradual, but yes, I think that could well have been the case that they would have become big stars over there.’
The fact is that eventually American audiences were unable to resist the sheer genius of Morecambe and Wise’s stage act. Their humour was utterly universal.
‘I think their humour is very honest and very simple,’ explains Gary.
‘It’s non-political, it transcends time. I always use the argument that, if you look at shows now that were once considered really cutting edge like Not the Nine O’clock News, they’ve become so dated. But Ben Elton described Morecambe and Wise as ‘surreal’ and said that they were the true alternative comedians.
‘They discussed strange things sitting in their flat. They didn’t trap themselves by going for the era they were in, be it the 60s or the 70s. My father always said, ‘You don’t quite know where Morecambe and Wise have come from. They’re just there, middle-aged men talking to each other about everyday life.’
There are tremendous clips, for example, of them and their wives – Joan and Doreen – fooling around in New York’s Central Park. Eric and Ernie pictured above in New York in 1963
Their relationship was immeasurably helped by the fact that they never argued.
‘If one of them wasn’t happy about something, the other would compromise. If one of them didn’t want to tour, the other would say, ‘Fine, we’ll wait.’ It was all very easy, they never had a big falling out.’
‘They probably made that decision when they were in their teens. Apparently, on the road they saw so many arguments between acts in the theatres that they said, ‘There’s no fun in it if we let it ever get to that stage.’ And that stood them in brilliant stead because they were together 43 years.’
Growing up, Gary was an avid fan of his father: ‘I was a massive fan of Morecambe and Wise from the age of about five. That’s when I first went to school and realised we weren’t the only family with a TV.
‘Other people knew Morecambe and Wise, and that was very exciting for me. At home we had a normal father/son relationship, He was always just my dad. He was great. But as part of Morecambe and Wise he was always on a pedestal for me.
‘We seemed to have a laugh all the time, and our biggest connection was Luton Town Football Club where he was a director. Every other weekend was a home game, and if I could go I would. So we spent a lot of time talking about football and comedy.’
Growing up, Gary was an avid fan of his father: ‘I was a massive fan of Morecambe and Wise from the age of about five. That’s when I first went to school and realised we weren’t the only family with a TV’. Pictured, the comedy duo New York in 1963
The darker side of Eric was his workaholism, a characteristic that was to have an impact on his health.
‘We kept all his old diaries, and my mother would look at them and find something like, ‘Get back from New York, day off, then start recording a TV show.’ It was a terrible, terrible schedule, absolutely full-on,’ says Gary.
‘It was an accident waiting to happen, but I don’t think you could have changed his personality. Even when he was relaxing he could be slightly exhausting to be around because he was such a ball of pent-up energy. He didn’t even really like going on holiday.’
Eric died from a heart attack on 28 May 1984, aged just 58, as he was leaving the stage at the Roses Theatre in Tewkesbury. It was a tough time for Gary, who was 28 at the time.
‘You’ve lost your father, which is terrible, but then you’ve also lost someone the nation loves, so you’re grieving for both. But the public are so supportive and kind.
‘When you’ve got that kind of love-of-a-nation type thing behind you, that is genuinely a huge help. The media were fantastic as well; they didn’t overly pry, they gave us space to grieve and they were so respectful.’
Eric (left) died from a heart attack on 28 May 1984, aged just 58, as he was leaving the stage at the Roses Theatre in Tewkesbury. Ernie Wise (right) later died in 1999 from a heart attack
Gary, who has four adult children and lives with his partner, Margo, in Bath, now works full-time curating the legacy of Morecambe and Wise.
‘My wife says it occupies me 24/7 and I would agree with that. There’s so much Morecambe and Wise going on, which is wonderful.’
His mother, Joan, and sister, Gail, help him with this work.
‘My mother is 91 now but she amazes me every day. She still rules all of us, and she’s very good at it too.
‘These days it’s Gail and myself who tend to look after Morecambe and Wise with our agent. It will be with me ’till I drop. As long as the legacy continues, I’ll continue.
‘I remember ten years ago talking about this with my mother, and she was saying, ‘Well, really, that will be about it now.’ And the last ten years have been madness.
‘We’re always contemplating new projects that are coming up. It’s full-time, but what a lovely occupation. It beats a real job!’
Morecambe and Wise in America starts on Gold on 27 December
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