Eric and Ernie's Supporting Cast

Eric and Ernie's Supporting Cast

People all have an opinion on who they have most enjoyed seeing alongside Morecambe and Wise. Whether it be the abject incredulity of Andrew Preview (sorry, Privet), the beauty like what Glenda Jackson had, or maybe the finest footwear modelled by Shirley Bassey…the list is endless. But there are others who were not star guests and so get less credit than they deserve. Here then is a short nod to those wonderful regulars.

Article by Brian Slade

Sid and Dick

Sid and Dick

Most fans know by now that before Eddie Braben transformed the characters of Morecambe and Wise at the BBC, Hills and Green were their long-established writers. Not always the most comfortable of relationships, they nonetheless helped propel Eric and Ernie on their way to stardom. In their earliest days however, Sid and Dick were forced into appearing on screen with the boys. An actors strike meant that most performers in the show could not appear. It helped the flow of the show, having previously seen Eric and Ernie somewhat lost amongst many other performers, but it promoted Sid and Dick into regular stooges to play with.

Sid and Dick were not performers. They were somewhat wooden and terrible for corpsing, but their appearances became very frequent. And they were prime fodder, particularly Sid, for Eric. With the black and white ATV shows being live, there were no retakes and as such, the site of Sid turning away in hysterics became a regular thing. In a simple sketch in which Ernie, then Sid, then Dick would in turn steal sausage and chips from Eric’s plate in a café, Sid is completely lost in tears of laughter, looking away from Eric and trying in vain to hide behind his raised cutlery. Eric was in his element, heard joking amongst the audience hysterics, ‘I told you it wouldn’t get laughs.’

Sid and Dick would leave the act after one series at the BBC after Eric’s major heart attack. A look back at the Two of A Kind days is often best done when one can find a sketch with the writers. It’s fast paced comedy, almost guaranteed a corpse and some ad libs and is a real joy to watch.

Arthur Tolcher

Arthur Tolcher

For no immediately apparent reason, in the middle of a sketch or a front of curtain routine, a diminutive man with receding curly grey hair, dressed impeccably in suit tails and tuxedo would appear and commence playing Spanish Gypsy on the harmonica. He would get through only a few bars before he was interrupted by Eric, who would simply say ‘Not now, Arthur’ at which point the disappointed musician would wander forlornly off stage. Arthur never did get any further with the song.

The man in question was Arthur Tolcher. Arthur was a pal of Eric and Ernie in their very earliest stage days, doing the hard slog of Youth Takes a Bow in the 1940s, the variety show that would see Eric and Ernie pal up under the watchful eye of Eric’s mother, Sadie. Arthur’s mother, Beatrice, was equally involved in her boy’s career, pushing his talents to any potential producer willing to listen.

Arthur was known as the Boy Wizard of the Harmonica. He was to all intents and purposes the classic variety performer. He was not a star but had a very particular talent that made him excel in those early touring days, but as the boys went on to fame and fortune, Arthur’s career declined as the variety circuit itself did.

The running gag of Arthur never getting to finish his act was apparently from their days together when another performer would bring all manor of brass instruments onto a table and would be admonished with ‘not now.’ In the vast majority of his appearances on Morecambe and Wise, Arthur would get that same treatment, even on the David Frost interview show that replaced the new Christmas programme when Eric was too ill.

Arthur did appear in the occasional sketch with minimal lines, and on one occasion was called by the boys to do his number as the show had finished early. But in a switch from the usual gag, he realises he has left his harmonica in the dressing room, and on his return with it, time has run out.

Arthur died three years after Eric, almost unnoticed. He was subsequently made the subject of a Radio 4 programme as Stewart Henderson tried to track down more information on him. Said to be a gentle and kind man, who according to pal Roy Hudd wouldn’t harm a fly, he is still fondly remembered by all Morecambe and Wise fans.

Janet Webb

Janet Webb

After the boys went to the BBC and Eddie Braben took over writing duties one series in, their shows took a significant change in format, becoming the now well-known combination of front-of-curtain routines to open the show, sketches in the flat and big names somehow getting drawn into appearing in the plays wot Ernie wrote. In the first episode of that second BBC series, another more mysterious guest appeared. With the show apparently at an end and the boys, along with the guest stars of the night and regulars Kenny Ball and his Jazz Men taking their applause together. Then as the double act were taking their bow, a buxom lady came barging between the two of them to receive bouquets and applause from all around her, including the other guests and eventually Eric and Ernie. That hitherto unseen lady, with a thus far mute role, was as close as Morecambe and Wise would get to the surreal.

The lady in question was actress Janet Webb, but her appearance at the end of the shows wasn’t actually her first for Eric and Ernie. In April 1964 as the ATV shows were really finding their feet, a sketch in which Ernie wanted to contact spirits from another world required a psychic – enter one Janet Webb as Madame Volenska. As was customary for Eric, he tried to break her stoic appearance, without success: ‘Is it a thing from another world? She’s like a female Harry Secombe.’ It was a live show and Janet was unbreakable and word perfect.

Janet’s end of the show adulation at the BBC would be developed as she was given lines, each week thanking her fans: ‘Thank you everybody, thank you. I’d like to thank all of you for watching me and my little show here tonight. If you’ve enjoyed it, then it’s all been worthwhile. So, until we meet again, goodnight and I love you all!’

Janet would also get involved in other parts of the show. Memorably Arthur Lowe’s front of stage segment involved him being far more interested in meeting Webb rather than the boys, despite her only being allowed to repeat her usual end of show monologue. The programme ended with Lowe and Webb seemingly being wed!

Janet’s final appearance was at the end of the 1972 Christmas episode. Previous guests had been in brief recorded segments of ‘I worked with Morecambe and Wise, and look what happened to me’ as they subsequently showed how their careers had declined since their appearance. That was flipped on its head for Webb, who emerged from her chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce to climb the steps to her mansion, declaring, ‘I worked with Morecambe and Wise, and it’s done me no harm.’

Janet was a large lady and allowed herself to be sent up, but she once remarked of her appearances, ‘What I want to get across is that a large person can be glamorous and wear outrageous things and be positive about her size.’ When she died at the tragically early age of 53 from cancer, Eric remarked, ‘She worked with us for about eight years and she was a pleasure to know.’

Ann Hamilton

Ann Hamilton with Morecambe and Wise

Because they never deviated from who they were on the shows, Arthur Tolcher and Janet Webb were instantly recalled by fans remembering ‘that guy who played the harmonica,’ or ‘the lady that came down at the end.’ Even Sid and Dick kept more or less to the same personae. Arguably the most significant contributor however is rarely given the credit she deserved because she played such a wide range of characters. Ann Hamilton was to Morecambe and Wise what Carol Cleveland was to the Monty Python team.

Ann had trained as a dancer and actress and had come through working mens’ clubs and the infamous Windmill Theatre before meeting Eric and Ernie. When Sid and Dick wrote a parody of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. for the ATV shows, they needed a female performer to be a feed for the action and knew Ann from her work with Bruce Forsyth. As with Janet Webb, her role was a straight one for the boys to feed off, and of course Eric tried to break her during the live broadcast. Despite having a glorious sneer as she tried valiantly to maintain her composure, Eric persisted: ‘Don’t you go love, I’ve got enough trouble with him.’ Eventually he broke her with a combination of playing up with his lines about his secret appliance and a quick wave of the hand in her face.

Things went well enough that Ann followed the stars to the BBC where she appeared in all manner of female roles. Whether it was a dour housewife with little to no lines, or a more glamorous lady within some of the plays wot Ernie wrote, Ann was a stalwart…and she can of course be seen joining Eric, Ern and guests when they one by one become distracted by smiling directly into the camera.

When the BBC lost the boys to Thames, Ann appeared in their first show but that was the end of her time. In an interview for morecambeandwise.com she revealed that at Thames, the minor roles she had played went to stars, even though they had been written merely as feeds, so she was no longer utilised.

Ann retired from showbusiness in the 1980s, but her appearances were so frequent that even now, if a tribute or compilation show is aired you are almost guaranteed to see her at her happiest, in the family atmosphere she, Arthur and Janet loved - working with Morecambe and Wise. 

Published on January 4th, 2024. Written by Brian Slade for Television Heaven.

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