By Brian Slade
Nearly 40 years after the death of Eric Morecambe, the work he and Ernie Wise did at the BBC continues to be hailed as the finest of its kind. People not even alive when the boys were at their peak still acknowledge them as the Kings of television comedy. Light Entertainment is a phrase widely looked down upon, but that’s the department Eric and Ernie owned in the 1970s. But of course, before they arrived at the BBC, these comedy giants had already carved out a vast following at ATV, notching up series after series with writers Richard Hills and Sid Green – Sid and Dick as Eric and Ernie affectionately referred to them.
When Sid and Dick headed off to America after just one series at the BBC, Eric’s heart attack seeming to spell the end of the act, that signalled a complete change of approach to the shows. Eddie Braben changed Ernie’s character into an egotistical playwright, the pair became bed mates and the whole show became a well-packaged, meticulously rehearsed, self-contained variety show. But dare I venture to suggest that Two of a Kind, as the ATV shows were before morphing into The Morecambe and Wise Show, lays a good claim in retrospect to compete with the splendour of the best of the BBC shows. To poach Harry Hill’s famous ‘see you after the break’ approach – I like Two of a Kind, but I like the BBC shows…but which is better? FIGHT!
After the disaster that was their first outing on British screens, Running Wild, Morecambe and Wise decided to play hard ball with Lew Grade and get the writers they wanted when Grade came calling with a new offer in 1961. The boys wanted Richard Hills and Sid Green to be their writers. After getting their way, the boys began to get edgy about what they’d done. Hills and Green were already a success, while Eric and Ernie were still new. They despaired at their first show, which was packed full of extras to the point where their repartee was lost. Hills and Green would hear none of their complaints and it had seemed like they would have to go along with this approach, until a strike kicked in that wiped out all the other performers. Eric and Ernie, in a different union to the strikers, were able to continue and any extras needed came in the form of the writers themselves – referred to by the stars of the show as Sid and Dick.
The loss of the masses of support performers was a blessing in disguise. Eric and Ernie were now free to perform more intimate routines, and it was initially only Sid and Dick who would appear to assist. Eric was now in his element - Sid and Dick were not natural performers. Their lines were largely kept to a minimum, but both offered comical physical attributes to make them ideal fodder for Eric’s quick wit. Sid was skinny, glum-looking and in Eric’s view, barely in possession of a mouth – ‘old no-lips Green’ he quipped. Dick was shorter, portlier and blessed with a deeper voice than his writing partner. In one later sketch, where Eric is battling to find someone to fill the vacant spot in the Ernie Wise Male Voice Choir, he drags Dick in and he looks very at home puffing on his cigarette and supping his pint while singing along to ‘Oh, What A Beautiful Morning.’
The strike that forced the hand of the quartet ended after three months, but the die was long since cast. Eric and Ernie were a success and audiences were quite content with Sid and Dick rather than a plethora of extras and elaborate scenes. As such, guests would come and go in the manner of a variety show, but in essence, the formula to the programme’s success was having just the boys with one or two people to bounce off.
As Two of a Kind continued, Ann Hamilton joined in the fun for any female roles. She joined initially for a sketch based on The Man from Uncle and Eric delighted in breaking her cold spy face. She remained of course for the rest of the boys’ careers.
Many of the elements that were built upon by the late great Eddie Braben were already present in Two of a Kind. Grand sketches based around Shakespeare or opera were used, dragging in a guest or Sid and Dick for fun. When an operatic performer knocks at the set door in one scene of culture and Ernie asks in song who it was, Eric, having slammed the door in the star’s face, replies in kind, ‘It’s some mad bird screaming her head off.’
There are some classics along the way – early incarnations of Grieg’s Piano Concerto, along with Boom, Ooh, Ya-ta-ta-ta, the paper bag trick and the counter melody routine are here, just not as refined as Braben would make them and without the star name to sell the routine. But Hills and Green sowed the seeds, even for the many routines in the flat as Eric is often trying hard to succeed with a girl and being thwarted by his flatmate.
Many, and I include myself in this group, believe that Eric Morecambe was the funniest man ever to grace a television set. It’s for this reason that I believe that the Hills and Green days offer a greater glimpse of his talents. Instead of the pinpoint-accuracy and elaborate Hollywood routines that graced our screens in the 1970s and 1980s, we had Eric and Ernie performing live and Eric dragging every laugh he can out of the scripts.
Admittedly Ern’ doesn’t get to flourish quite as much – his job, as well as being the Oliver Hardy-like pompous but flawed part of the act, is to try and keep them on track. Eric, however, is relentless. His energy is astounding, his speed-of-thought remarkable and he throws himself into physical comedy in a way he was rarely able to in the BBC years – a look at him carrying Ernie in various positions doing a scene from Julius Caesar is testament to that.
Eric’s heart attack shortly after the switch of the act to the BBC ended the brilliant but at times fractious relationship between Hills and Green and Morecambe and Wise. Believing Eric may never work again, the writers headed for America and so Eddie Braben picked up the mantle and the rest, as they say, is history.
It seems outlandish to suggest that Two of a Kind was better than the BBC’s The Morecambe and Wise Show, almost sacrilege in some ways. It wasn’t of course. But these days, Eric and Ernie’s work is brutally sliced and diced for compilation programmes on television. Even the great routines like Andrew Preview and the Grieg Piano Concerto are edited to leave the brilliant front of curtain performance by all three behind. So given that this happens to the most well-known of their work, what the boys produced in Two of a Kind is almost non-existent on TV, aside from the occasional clip of Eric having fun with The Beatles.
Two of a Kind was funny – very funny – but the success of the Braben years forces it to be left behind. Thankfully a DVD release from the now sadly defunct Network DVD folks is still out there. It’s silly, frenetic and chaotic, but Eric seems at his most free, particularly with Sid and Dick, and for that reason Two of a Kind deserves a lot more credit than it gets.
Published on December 1st, 2023. Written by Brian Slade for Television Heaven.