Three of a Kind

When asked about Morecambe and Wise’s greatest moments, most people will instantly recall encounters with Andre Previn, Shirley Bassey, Glenda Jackson or one of the boys’ own song and dance routines. However, long before the BBC got hold of Eric and Ernie and paired them with writer Eddie Braben, the pair had been hugely successful with ATV in Two of a Kind. It was off the back of this success that Britain’s finest double-act were given a three movie deal in the 1960s with Rank Organisation.

Rank had already struck gold using a British comedian with the chain of Norman Wisdom films released in the 50s and 60s. Across the two decades, Wisdom became one of the most popular box office draws for the company and so it was no surprise that they went on the hunt for further commercial success as Wisdom gradually wound down his movie adventures.

Morecambe and Wise, having been written off as failures with their first series in the 1950s (the fortunately lost Running Wild) had been given a second chance with ATV and the boys had grasped it with both hands. Under the expert writing of Sid Green and Dick Hills, their 1961 series – despite a few initial teething problems – established them as firm favourites and it was somewhat unexpectedly that Two of a Kind came to an end when the boys jumped ship for the BBC in 1968.

Morecambe and Wise

Ernie Wise had always dreamed of being a Hollywood movie star. He loved the big song and dance stars and wanted to be up there with them. Eric was of course more grounded in the domestic comedy scene, far more concerned about success on British TV than cracking Hollywood – Life’s not Hollywood, it’s Cricklewood as he often said. But when Rank came calling in 1964 looking for new talent, the pair were at the height of their ATV success and so it seemed like the perfect time to test their comedy on the big screen.

Despite their stardom, these were the days when aside from television work, panto and summer seasons were the norm to supplement a performer’s income and Morecambe and Wise were no different. Ernie would later write that the three films, ‘…should have turned out to be pleasant, leisurely interludes in our careers, a break from the predictable round of TV, variety and pantomime, and permanent records of our comic achievements.’

Morecambe and Wise

First of their movies was The Intelligence Men in 1965. Ernie is a nobody at MI5, while Eric works down the road in a flamenco café. It’s here where Eric is mistaken for a Major Cavendish, a recently deceased MI5 agent, simply because the song he is humming is the same as a secret code agreed with the evil Schlecht agents. He’s told to go to a reception at the nearby Cosmopolitan Hotel and MI5 agree that he should still go along with the intent of protecting a delegation from Russia. After an hour of the film the bad guys realise that the incompetent Eric is not the Major and therefore decide to kill him.

Morecambe and Wise movies

The movie got poor reviews but did moderately well at the box office. Its failings were two-fold. Firstly, the weak storyline. Despite using their TV writers Sid and Dick, the premise of the film is uninspiring and what we get is a selection of routines that had already been used on their shows, or would go on to be used at a later date, strung together to support the storyline. That could have been forgiven but for the second issue – the director and production team simply didn’t know how best to capture Eric and Ernie at their best.

Director Robert Asher had worked with Norman Wisdom in movies across seven years, but seemed to want to utilise Morecambe & Wise in a similar fashion. Nonsense slapstick, running up and down stairs at many times real pace are fine effects for Wisdom who was all about physical comedy, but a double act needed a different touch and the interplay between the pair was wasted.

The Intelligence Men may have been a miss with critics, but it did have enough to suggest that the subsequent films would improve. Routines such as Eric looking at one person while another talks, resulting in him saying, ‘you said that without moving your lips’, the attempt to tell the ‘Two old men in deck chairs’ joke, the efforts to outfox Ernie when using the trusted ‘get out of that’ gag all suggested better would follow.

Eric Morecambe in That Riviera Touch

The second movie was That Riviera Touch and it was definitely a step up. Eric and Ernie are traffic wardens who decide to urgently take a holiday on the French Riviera, having tried to give the Queen a parking ticket. They are spotted as potential patsies at the airport by jewel thieves and are directed to an old stately home instead of their planned hotel. The first twenty minutes of the movie are convoluted as the bad guys seem to multiply to the point where it’s hard to track exactly who Eric and Ernie are really trying to avoid. But things do improve. The pair again have television routines involved – short, fat and hairy is how Eric describes Ernie, as he would for most of their career, the ‘two old men in deckchairs’ joke reappears, and there are previews of the glorious counter melody sketch made most famous with Elton John as Ern’ tries to teach Eric to mime to his singing when trying to woo a lady.

Morecambe and Wise movies

That Riviera Touch has a better feel to it, despite the confusing plot, and reviews of the time placed a great deal of the improvement down to the change of director, with Cliff Owen replacing Asher. Ernie sings the theme tune which was released as a single and there are less supporting players, keeping the boys far more of the focal point than they had been in the previous film. The movie also outperformed its predecessor at the box office.

The Magnificent Two

The final movie of the three film deal was The Magnificent Two. The insistence on having the stars as a comic element in a crime or spy scenario did it no favours, and it ended up being a backwards step. Budget was low, allegedly less than one volcano set in the Bond movie being filmed at the time. Eric and Ernie are toy salesmen who manage to become embroiled in a dictatorship, with Eric pretending to be the guerrilla leader, once again a character that had already met his demise. Still Eric manages to successfully oversee a revolution and become president, where his public-pleasing plans make him target of an assassination attempt. The sad reality is that The Magnificent Two missed its target. A huge amount of characters meet their demise, even though the movies was passed as a U certificate, and the scene most remember above all others was the scantily clad women charging across the terrain in only bikinis but armed with machine guns.

Morecambe and Wise movies

That the movies are not looked back on with five-star reviews is almost inevitable, given the success that followed at the BBC. Their shows were unrivalled in critical appeal and viewing audience sizes and even now their popularity seems to show no signs of fading. The second was that the style of comedy needed for the movies just didn’t suit what Morecambe and Wise were like at their best. So much of their humour is based around their banter aimed at the audience. The awkward looks at the camera, the looks into the stalls for the Ernie Wise fan club (‘is he in tonight?’) and the sometimes scripted but always hysterical adlibbing – these were elements always doomed to be lost in the movies. Eric later believed that they could have been successful on the big screen, but the writing and directing just hadn’t been right.

Morecambe and Wise

Despite the perceived failings in the films, the reality is that when compared to a body of work as adored as theirs, Morecambe & Wise’s movies are always going to struggle. But it doesn’t make them bad films. The box office returns were very healthy: maybe not to the levels of Wisdom at his prime, but still enough to keep the accountants at Rank happy with their investment, modest though that was. Were it not for Eric’s heart attack in 1968, there is no guarantee that they wouldn’t have had another stab at film success, but then of course we would have been robbed of the glories of the 1970s comedy gold. But the Eric and Ernie movie adventures remain a fun reminder of the style of humour they had early in their television career, and surely any level of Morecambe & Wise still available to us should be cherished for the joy the pair brought us.

Review 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 November 22nd, 2021. Written by Brian Slade for Television Heaven.