Morecambe and Wise - Top Ten Guests

Eric and Ernie's Top 10 Guests

When retrospective shows come on tv about Morecambe and Wise, people are normally treated to a highlight reel of performances as viewers look for their favourite moments and very often the sheer volume of work Eric and Ernie put out means that some of their finest material doesn’t always make the cut. Equally, there are famous sketches that get sliced from their original length, giving new generations a taster of their skills but not fully immersing them in what made a whole Morecambe and Wise Show work so well.

As such, below are my top 10 guests from the years of both The Morecambe and Wise Show and its predecessor from ATV days, known these days as Two of a Kind. These are based not just on the most famous sketches, but recurring guests, those whose performances were every bit as entertaining as the ones most famous, and also reflective of those which remain famous, but the full context of their appearances are sometimes lost on the editing room floor for the compilations.

These are my choices – in my eyes, they’re all the right guests, just not necessarily in the right order. After all, every minute of Morecambe and Wise brought sunshine, and long may that continue.

1.       Andre Previn

Eric and Ernie with Andrew Preview

So there’s nothing new about referencing Andre Previn as a popular guest on the Morecambe and Wise Show. All three were impeccable in their delivery of arguably the perfect comedy sketch as Eric and Ernie bundle their way to Eric’s atrocious piano solo within Grieg’s Piano Concerto, with Previn astonished at the pair’s incompetence. As is so often the case with highlight shows however, much of the routine is cut. So glorious is the pay-off routine with the orchestra, the pre-amble in front of the famed curtains is too often unseen.

Eric had been worried about Previn’s involvement as he had no time to rehearse, very much against how the boys worked. Allegedly Previn learned the script in the car from the airport. Eric’s fears were of course laid to rest very quickly. The routine in front of the curtain begins with Previn saying how pleased he is to be appearing with violin soloist Yehudi Menuhin and how he may not have appeared were he not assured that Menuhin was appearing too. A mystery hand passes a note through the curtain that Yehudi cannot make it as he’s appearing at the Argyle Theatre in Birkenhead in Old King Cole. Eric is subsequently introduced as the piano soloist and it quickly becomes apparent that Previn is word perfect, with superb timing – ‘I’ll go get my baton…it’s in Chicago,’ which elicits Eric’s delighted response, ‘he’s in isn’t he – I like him,’ as he chuckles away to himself.

After the renowned Grieg routine carries off to perfection, one could be forgiven for thinking that Previn would be done with the Morecambe and Wise Show, for how does one improve on perfection? But in their penultimate BBC series, Previn makes his return. Ernie is in the boys’ flat and reads a letter from Previn to the BBC in which he plans to return to discuss a new work, much to the disgust of Eric who bemoans that since Previn ruined his Grieg’s Piano Concerto - they won’t let him near the piano at The British Legion.

Previn is horrified to see Eric and Ernie when he arrives at what he thinks is a discussion with the BBC. ‘It took me 20 years to build up my reputation, and in five minutes you turned me into a complete non-entity,’ he bemoans. ‘How kind,’ is Eric’s humble response! The boys don’t want Previn to appear, they say…they want his advice. They recount Eric’s own musical credentials from Mrs Turnbull’s lessons at Milverton Street School, black notes and all. He is about to leave when they drop into the conversation that the conductor of the work they want him for will be introduced to the Queen, which persuades him to acquiesce. The next scene sees Previn grumpily conducting a Glen Miller-like orchestra as Eric and Ernie sing No Wonder We’re in Love.

Previn reappears in front of the curtain at the end of the show fuming at being duped into appearing once again, with no sign of Her Majesty – she missed the coach as she hadn’t fed the corgis. She arrives late, but it’s actually Mrs Mills, Queen of the Ivories. Previn storms off in a strop, ending a delightful nod to one of their most famous sketches… except for when he interrupts Bring Me Sunshine to voice his disapproval once more!

2.       Peter Cushing

Eric and Ernie with Peter Cushing

After Eric’s near fatal heart attack in 1968, writers Sid and Dick left the show, leaving the BBC needing to find a new writer. With Eddie Braben at the helm, their second series became the format audiences now remember…the front of stage intro, persuading a guest star to appear in a play, interspersed with sketches and musical guests before finishing with the play itself. When Peter Cushing first appeared with the boys in 1969 it was in just the second show that Braben had penned, so the format was new and Cushing’s efforts set the standard for acting royalty turned comedy star. Encouraged to appear in Ern’s version of ‘King Arthur’, it’s clear the ever-charming Peter is having a blast, but retaining his gravitas in order to give Eric full reign to his energetic lunacy. The sketch is glorious, with the famous response to Cushing’s question ‘What news of Carlisle?’ being, ‘they won 3-1, their last goal was a belter.’ Cushing would return on a number of occasions, starting with Christmas 1970 when he demanded to be reimbursed for his appearance fee. He is persuaded to take up position in a magician’s box ready for sawing in half. He returns once again in series seven, still looking for payment and performing a song and dance routine of A Couple of Swells to ensure they don’t leave his sight. He falls victim to the ‘one’ll do, now you owe me one’ routine and joins them twice in their Thames days still trying to collect in one of television’s longest running gags. He finally gets his money by taking Eric and Ern’s carol singing collection tin and forcing them to part with their cash!

3.       Francis Matthews

Francis Matthews with Morecambe and Wise

Keeping up with Eric’s quick wit took some doing, but one person who seemed to have a knack for it was Francis Matthews. He had originally worked with Morecambe and Wise on two of their Rank movies, The Intelligence Men and That Riviera Touch. He became a household name playing the title role in Paul Temple from 1969, a detective show that was hugely successful but that fell victim to the BBC’s shocking tape-wiping failures. But thankfully his memory lives on as one of the most likeable guests on The Morecambe and Wise Show, not least with the boys themselves.

When Matthews first arrives in front of the curtain, Eric confuses his Paul Temple role for Simon Templar in The Saint and from the moment their guest grabs Eric by the lapels it’s clear the trio are in for some fun. After exchanging Cary Grant and Jimmy Cagney impressions, Matthews appears in Ernie’s latest play, ‘The House of Terror’, as detective Vivien Darling, as along with stalwart Anne Hamilton they try to survive the night in a cursed house while hoping to claim a life-changing fortune. The jokes come thick and fast, along with some clear ad libs, Eric at one point joking, ‘I’ve never worked so fast in my life.’

The Christmas Special that same year was bursting with classics so it is easy to overlook the next appearance of Francis Matthews, which would be a shocking oversight. ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’ sees Matthews return as the King and once again he and Eric bounce off one another at great pace through fluffed lines and gormless stares at the camera. There’s no doubting that when Eric finds a kindred spirit that can contribute their own comedy presence, the whole process steps up a level…indeed in ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’, Eric can be heard saying, ‘I love working with this one,’ before Matthews has uttered a line, and it shines through. The plays take on an even greater element of fun than normal, and Matthews’ contribution is right up there with the most enjoyable.

4.       Roy Castle

Roy Castle with Morecambe and Wise

Many people associate the greatest Morecambe and Wise guests solely with elaborate BBC musical numbers or plays wot Ernie wrote. However, their ATV series was gathering in popularity in the early 1960s and though their guests were less frequent, one or two did make a particular impression. Roy Castle would of course appear at the Beeb with the boys singing Side by Side with the famous rising middle chair, but Roy’s first appearance was in 1963 in a largely unprecedented show, for his presence was the running theme for the entire programme.

We meet Ernie introducing the show, whereupon rather than welcoming Eric, he welcomes Roy Castle. The pair are buddies and Ernie is dismissive of Eric and his messing around. When asked what Roy has that Eric doesn’t, Ernie replies, ‘he can sing, dance, clown and he’s got a wonderful personality. I didn’t mention ‘idiot’ once.’

Eric tries to insert himself into the old pals act, even going so far as joking to Ernie that, ‘You don’t do very much anyway, you just stand there. You’re just the other one.’ Roy talks about his favourite moves of Ernie’s, which upsets Eric. After this routine, the multitalented Castle performs a jazz solo of Three Blind Mice on his trumpet before a tap dance routine on the valves of a giant trumpet.

The only remaining part of the show without Roy is a fast-paced routine in which Eric is stressed due to ‘Ray’s’ presence on the show. Ernie suggests he tries some visual art - ‘Charlie Drake does it all the time’ – and Eric throws himself around the stage in embarrassment at the female model presented for him to paint. Roy’s return is to sing Once Around the Stars Mr Moon, followed by a failed attempt at Me and My Shadow, with Eric as an additional echo. After a brief dance routine, the trio burst into Together Wherever We Go to conclude.

The programme was of course live and it’s a testament to just how professional the three were that the routine seems every bit as seamless as the later BBC shows. It shows genuine affection for Roy Castle, best of friends with the pair of them, and reminds us of what a likeable and talented performer Castle was. Above all else it must be unprecedented for the boys to devote an entire show to their guest and it’s arguably the most rounded show of all their ATV series.

5.       Dame Flora Robson

Dame Flora Robson with Morecambe and Wise

Morecambe and Wise always went for the grandest of theatrical performers to appear on their show and we were often treated to sketches where they tried to persuade said performers to appear in one of Ern’s plays. To try and entice Dame Flora Robson they moved from the usual visit to their flat, instead ‘borrowing’ a rich country mansion to make it seem as though they had made a fortune from Ern’s quality scripts.

The remainder of this part of a show in 1971 is Ernie trying to persuade Dame Flora to appear in the play by impressing her with the opulence of her surroundings and his own upper class ways – ways completely undermined by Eric’s woeful attempts at being the butler. What completely floors them is once Dame Flora announces that she has run out of time and must be going, it is revealed that the home is actually hers!

The play wot Ernie wrote in which Dame Flora appears sees her dressed in full Elizabethan regalia in Queen Elizabeth I. She is given traditionally corny dialogue and is interrupted regularly by Eric on the trombone, but she enters into the full spirit of the sketch, with a regular opportunity to mock Ernie’s diminutive stature with regular requests to him to ‘arise Sir Walter’ when he is still standing.

Of all the thespian giants, Dame Flora is the perfect guest. Her acting talents give credence to the proceedings, but she is hugely entertaining, and she makes several subsequent appearances in brief cameos, most notably becoming a tea lady in the popular, ‘I worked with Morecambe and Wise, and look what happened to me’ snippets.

6.       Robin Day

Robin Day

Robin Day was well known as a hard-nosed interviewer, cornering many a whimpering politician long before the likes of Jeremy Paxman arrived on our screens. He would of course get a rasping and vicious Spitting Image puppet in the 80s, but in the fourth series of the Morecambe and Wise Show, we would see his skills put to more comedic use. Robin welcomed the two as distinguished political guests to discuss outstanding achievements of the previous ten years. The pair stare blankly at a piece of paper and eventually throw the paper away as Robin thanks them, and the sketch concludes. It’s not the most memorable sketch, but four series later, Day returns for a far more entertaining recurring scene.

The Christmas specials were the pinnacle of the Eric and Ernie’s time at the BBC. In the 1975 special, rather than sketches in the flat trying to set up the other scenes there was a long running thread of snippets that began with just Day and Ernie as Day asked just one question of Ernie – ‘why don’t you resign?’ The pair exchange unpleasantries and insults until the debate becomes a physical confrontation as Eric as the announcer declares the end of the latest episode of ‘Robin Day’s Friendly Discussion’. Eric walks off and joins the angry exchange. Throughout the remainder of the show, the scene reappears with no new words, just developments of the fight. Day would take cover under his desk with a bin on his head, have bottles and vases cracked over his head and eventually addresses the audience to wish good will to all men – except two. It’s a change to the normal guest star involvement, with almost entirely visual gags, but it showed how they were happy to play to the reputations of their guest stars and also demonstrates the amount of physical comedy they were capable of.

7.       Ann Hamilton

Ann Hamilton on Morecambe and Wise

As much as we justifiably have our favourite guest stars, one person made more appearances on the Morecambe and Wise Show than anybody other than the boys, and yet gets minimal credit in the retrospectives. However, when a female character was needed in pretty much any sketch, the boys would turn to a woman who was as much a part of their screen presence as Carol Cleveland had been to the Monty Python team.

Ann Hamilton thought she had blown her chances with Morecambe and Wise after her debut appearance in one of their ATV shows. She was brought in as Agent Y in a send-up sketch of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. These were of course live shows, so running over time and deviating too much from scripts could be a potential problem. She knew, just as throughout the careers of Morecambe and Wise, getting through sketches without corpsing was going to be tricky and despite her efforts, she failed. When Eric began talking to the scowling Agent Y about his secret device, he could see she was on the brink. It was red rag to a bull as Eric said, ’don’t you go love, I’ve got enough trouble with him.’ He then delighted in breaking her again by waving her hand in front of her face as she channelled all her energy into keeping a straight face.

Hamilton would return when the boys jumped to the BBC and stayed with them throughout their careers, appearing in almost every episode. She admitted that she would skip final dress rehearsals in order that she could never again corpse in the sketches. For the majority of the time she was the ultimate professional in that respect, and on some occasions would be needed to keep Eric on script if Ernie wasn’t there to do it. In a wartime sketch with Pete Murray, Ernie and Murray are off stage when Ann’s character is throwing herself at Eric. He yells out a scripted, ‘Ern – am I in the right play?’ to which Ern yells back, ‘Yes…just remember your lines, that’s all.’ The latter line is clearly an Ernie adlib and as Eric himself laughs and quips back, ‘you’ve been saving that one up,’ Ann is holding herself together – just – as she brings Eric back on track.

Hamilton’s appearances are largely glossed over, and it’s fair to say that technically she is not a guest star. However, just as writers Sid and Dick and then Eddie Braben, along with Ernest Maxim and John Ammonds were vital parts of the boys’ success, so Hamilton should be credited as being a hugely successful screen presence that was as much a part of their sketch success as anybody.

8.       Patrick Moore

Patrick Moore with Morecambe and Wise

For many casual Morecambe and Wise fans, Patrick Moore’s involvement with the boys was his exaggerated exit as one of the male dancing troupe singing You Were Never Lovelier to Glenda Jackson as they made way for her famous musical number. However, Patrick was to have his own moment in Eric and Ern’s ninth BBC series. Long before Professor Brian Cox made astronomy and comedy meet, Patrick had been happy to appear in a seldom repeated sketch from 1976. Patrick was eccentric and hugely likeable, and quite content to send himself up – a perfect recipe for a Sky at Night special with Dr Ernest Bavistock Peregrine Cecil Wise of the Department of Astronomy, University of Harrow and Mr Eric St John Faraday Aubrey Morecambe, assistant caretaker of Milverton Street Infants’ School.

Patrick was forced to respond to such questions as whether in the boys’ lifetime man would land on Julie Andrews, or indeed if there were such a thing as life on Max Bygraves. At the same time, he fired off inevitably misinterpreted questions to Eric such as, ‘how big is your reflector?’ Eric once said to Andre Previn that everyone else must think their sketch is funny, but those in it mustn’t…well if that applied to all their guests, Patrick was the ultimate success, keeping his well-informed straight talking persona while Eric threw nonsensical answers at him and brought out a cheap plastic telescope.

After a tense face to face where Patrick reels off the length of time it takes light from various moons to reach earth, while being told to get off by Eric for making it up as he goes along, the sketch concludes in glorious farce as Patrick heads for the piano to lead the pair in a chorus of Deep in the Heart of Texas. It’s a fantastic little sketch as it not only demonstrates how well things worked with the right guests, but it evidenced the quality of Eddie Braben’s writing and neatly allowed our favourite twosome to play up to Patrick Moore with respect and anarchy in equal measure. If you’ve never seen it, find it and bask in it – it’s a hidden gem.

9.       Fenella Fielding

Fenella Fielding with Morecambe and Wise

There are few better moments in The Morecambe and Wise Show than when their guest stars are clearly enjoying themselves, and when they are on the verge of corpsing Eric is only too happy to push them over the edge. Once such guest who was loving her time on the show was Fenella Fielding who appeared twice on the BBC programmes.

Unusually, the routine of trying to persuade somebody to appear in one of Ernie’s plays took place in the potential guest’s own flat. Eric and Ernie appear at the door in an attempt to persuade Fielding to appear in a play about Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton. They play up to Fielding’s flirtatious reputation. ‘This is where it happens then,’ says Eric, fuelled further by finding her bank manager in the wardrobe. Eric is instantly worried and suggests Ernie won’t be able to handle her, suggesting doing We’ll Meet Again with Vera Lynn instead. The sketch is based on Eric trying to protect his little fat friend from the clutches of the passionate Fielding, who has a thing about certain words that do something to her. She becomes a little over-romantic at the mention of balloons, Haydock Park and Oldham Athletic!

The play itself is more well-known, and it is here where Fielding really has her fun. Eric and Ernie both appear believing they are playing Lord Nelson, Eric convinced that Ernie won’t be able to cope with Fielding’s passions. Broken props, fluffed lines by Eric and plenty of apparent adlibbing have Fielding in hysterics making the whole sketch a joy, all the time with the undercurrent of Fenella’s passions for Ernie running bright. Unusually, Ernie corpses almost as much as Fielding in what is one of his own best performances.

As with Andre Previn and Grieg, the Nelson sketch was such a success that Fielding returned to the show a second time in a follow up sketch in the next series. Her ravenous desires towards Ernie remain the topic of much of the humour and the rapport remains every bit as fresh. Fielding is a joy once again as the boys invite her to the flat to persuade her to appear in his tribute play to Noel Coward, appearing as bored ex-musical actress Lady Bedworthy opposite Ernie’s Digby Dunbobben. Eric appears dressed as Long John Silver instead of his planned Lord Fortescue, allowing him to reprise some of the jokes of the Nelson sketch. Fortescue is a famous playwright and attempts to write a number for the restless Bedworthy, but when Fielding leaves character and gets a bed brought onto the set the play goes off track as the boys try to dodge her affections.

10.   Arthur Lowe

Arthur Lowe

It’s frequently seen on the compilation shows that Arthur Lowe appeared in Little Ern’s play, ‘Monty on the Bonty’ (mistyped due to Ern’s typewriter being made out of his old bicycle and being in need of pumping up!) Even in the clips used however, with Arthur being joined by the majority of his Dad’s Army gang, there’s a section removed because out of context it makes no sense. But in series five of the BBC years, Arthur’s appearance in Ern’s play is dependent on one thing – a particular co-star role for Arthur’s favourite, and not one from his Dad’s Army role, and it is her brief appearance in the play that is edited out.

Janet Webb was a glamorous, buxom lady that began appearing at the end of the show in series two. Initially she had no lines, simply barging through the boys and the assembled guests of the show to take applause and adulation from all present. However, she soon progressed to getting some lines, proudly thanking the audience for ‘watching me and my little show.’ She would throw her arms wide and pronounce ‘I love you all,’ before the boys would wheel out the champagne and cigars.

When Arthur Lowe appeared, it was jokingly on the condition that he met the real star, known on the show as ‘the lady who comes down at the end.’ The stage routine in which Arthur meets her is comparatively brief, but Arthur is on top slapstick form, so much so that Eric chuckles away several times and laughs, ‘it’s an easy night for me!’ In the ‘Monty on the Bonty’ routine, when the mutiny takes place Arthur’s Captain Bligh asks if he can take his cabin boy with him, whereupon Janet appears, makes her usual farewell speech before being forced into the boat in which she would eventually be joined by the Dad’s Army crew. It is this brief appearance that is always cut in the compilations. At the end of the show, her finale is performed in a white wedding dress, with Arthur as her groom!

Were these ten to your liking? Maybe, maybe not. Whether it’s Tom Jones holding himself together with Eric and Ern’ as dodgy backing singers, a somewhat bemused Robert Morley having tiffin with Eric in the desert, Frank Thornton as a frustrated hotel maître d’ or Peter Skellern trying to educate Eric in counter melody as Elton John had done years earlier, everybody has their own favourites. The question of favourites has no wrong answer in the case of Morecambe and Wise, but here’s hoping this may have reminded you of some of the lesser-appreciated appearances. And let’s be honest, who needs an excuse to get the shows back out to revisit your own favourites. Ready when you are pally…

Article by Brian Slade:

Born and raised in Dorset, Brian Slade turned his back on a twenty-five-year career in IT in order to satisfy his writing passions. After success with magazine articles and smaller biographical pieces, he published his first full-length work, `Simon Cadell: The Authorised Biography'.

Brian is a devoted fan of the comedy stars of yesteryear, citing Eric Morecambe, Ken Dodd, Harpo Marx and Dudley Moore amongst his personal favourites. He was drawn to the story of Simon Cadell through not only `Hi-de-hi!' but also `Life Without George', a programme he identified with having grown up in the Thatcher era.

Published on July 13th, 2021. Written by Brian Slade for Television Heaven.

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