Article: Brian Slade
When people reflect on Morecambe & Wise, they rightly pour huge credit on the team behind the beloved duo. Ernest Maxim for his musical choreography, John Ammonds for his production values and of course, Eddie Braben for penning so much of the comedy that formed the heart of British television in the 1970s. But ahead of that trio who helped make The Morecambe & Wise Show such a success came Sid Green and Richard Hills, the two gentlemen who arguably had the tougher task – repairing the broken television careers of Eric & Ernie.
It’s an often retold story that after their woeful first venture into television in 1954, the thankfully lost Running Wild, Morecambe & Wise were trashed by the press. Allegedly Eric carried around a clipping of the famous review that referred to television as, ‘the box they buried Morecambe & Wise in.’ Although reviews and viewing figures improved as that failed series progressed, the boys were scarred by the brutality of the failure and they swiftly set about rebuilding their reputation in variety theatres. They remained without their own television vehicle for a further seven years.
When agent Billy Marsh offered the boys a return to the screen, they were reticent to take up the offer. Years of hard graft had met with a calamitous failure in Running Wild and they knew that a second failed attempt to break into television would almost certainly be the last. They needed writers that understood the dynamic of their act and could capitalise on their relationship. Crucially for their careers, ATV allowed them to choose their own writers. They settled on Hills and Green, a pairing already with significant writing credits to their name and who had been around the business a little longer than Eric and Ernie.
Sid Green and Richard ‘Dick’ Hills, ex school mates, had decided after serving in World War Two that they just might be able to make a career out of comedy writing. Their first major success was with Dave King. Having hosted the BBC’s Show Casein 1954, he was given his own series in 1955 and insisted upon having his writers join him. The Dave King Show ran successfully until 1957 and in 1959, King took his act to the United States, Sid and Dick going with him. Their material was fine-tuned for an American audience by none other than an emerging Mel Brooks. Whilst in America they devised a series for a British sitcom with Anthony Newley titled The Strange World of Gurney Slade – a series that was slated by critics and ignored by viewers – to the point where it was rapidly moved to a late night slot before its six week run finished.
Although Dave King had further shows after returning from the USA (Anglia signed King and his scriptwriters up for 11 hour-long specials), his partnership with Sid and Dick came to an end in 1962 as he began to turn his hand towards straight acting. His writers were not without offers however as they took over the reins of Citizen Jamesfrom Galton and Simpson. But their invitation from Morecambe and Wise would be their career defining moment.
Sid and Dick as they were consistently referred to by Eric and Ernie, were former schoolteachers, although Sid was considerably less disciplined than Dick when it came to rehearsals. The quartet settled into a routine of running through ideas Sid and Dick had come up with, adding and adapting them and eventually producing a routine ready for rehearsal – except that Sid would often be missing for earlier run-throughs – ‘a touch of the domestics’ was how Ernie Wise remembered him referring to his regular tardiness. It was a long way from the meticulous nature of rehearsals that became the norm during the Eddie Braben days.
When Two of a Kind aired in 1961, reviews weren’t immediately positive. As with most comedy sketch shows, it was a programme of a variety of performers wrapped up by various Morecambe and Wise sketches and routines. However, the closing one which usually ran the longest, didn’t always appeal to the star duo. They felt that there were simply too many performers in the big closing sketches, which detracted from their interplay. Fate stepped in. An Equity strike meant that the extra performers were no longer allowed to appear, but since Morecambe and Wise belonged to Variety Artists’ Federation, they were free to continue. All other roles were taken by Sid and Dick.
Suddenly Two of a Kind was a hit. The more cosy collection of performers gave full vent to Morecambe and Wise and the presence of Sid and Dick gave Eric consistent characters to play with. The show was aired live and so the quips from Eric at the expense of his writers were frequent and often the highlight of the routines. Such was the success of the new format that they began writing routines specifically for them as a quartet, usually with Ernie, Sid and Dick freezing out Eric in some fashion. It was never more successful than the famous ‘Boom, Ooh, Ya-ta-ta-ta’ routine in which Eric’s solo musical performance is destroyed by the acapella efforts of the other three.
Throughout its run, Two of a Kind drew many laughs in sketches where Sid and Dick were present. Sid in particular was hopeless at corpsing, something pounced on in an instant by the ever-aware Eric. For all the fine-tuning that went into their most successful BBC shows, there is a spontaneity about Two of a Kindthat makes them at times even more enjoyable than the colour extravaganzas that followed in the boys’ most successful spell.
The end of the relationship came in 1968. Ernie Wise had negotiated a deal to leave ATV and join the BBC, taking Sid and Dick with them. The shows in their first series followed the tried and tested format, still including the writers in the sketches. But when Eric had his massive heart attack, the show was placed on hiatus. There was no issue in this for Eric and Ernie, but for Hills and Green it meant the end of their income. With no imminent return in sight and rumours that Eric would not work again, Sid and Dick returned to an exclusive contract at ATV, bringing an abrupt end to their Morecambe and Wise partnership.
It’s safe to say that their post-Eric and Ernie work never found Hills and Green the same levels of success. They returned to America once more after their ATV contract expired, but despite some brief moments of success they never made the breakthrough they hoped for despite writing for such showbiz royalty as The Johnny Carson Show. Green returned to the UK when the opportunity arose and he did have some success, with the dubious comedy hit Mixed Blessings.
When looking back at the careers of Hills and Green there were some significant highs and some fairly hefty lows. Their three attempts to succeed on the big screen with Morecambe and Wise are widely acknowledged as a huge disappointment, unable as they were to capture the spontaneity of the boys’ relationship. They also dabbled in their own vehicles in the form of That Show and Those Two Fellers, a curious programme that was essentially a chat show about comedy. Both failed swiftly.
But the counterbalance to their poorer efforts was the success stories that should have them right up with the most commonly praised writing pairings of Galton and Simpson or Croft and Perry. They worked with many of the finest performers in the UK and the USA, including Arthur Askey, Frankie Howerd, Tommy Cooper, Don Knotts and Johnny Carson. But their crowning glory will always be their success across eight years with Morecambe and Wise. Rescuing careers that had been so viciously side-lined at the first attempt, they went on to become not only a quality writing team, but an integral part of the boys act. The boyish joy across Eric’s face when Sid or Dick corpse in a performance draws out the Eric that we grew to know and love as he and Ernie’s career became show business legend. As wonderful as the BBC’s classic Morecambe and Wise Shows are, there is a pace and spontaneity in Two of a Kind that the meticulous detail in the 1970s programmes weren’t always allowed to replicate, and all fans of ‘the boys’ will be forever in the debt of Sid ‘no lips’ Green and Dick ‘Father Christmas’ Hills.
About Brian Slade
Born and raised in Dorset, Brian 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 March 16th, 2020. Written by Brian Slade for Television Heaven.