As a new Morecambe and Wise documentary airs this Christmas, we remember those brilliant moments that brought us sunshine, even on Christmas Day
It was hard to tell at the end of Christmas Day whether our bellies ached from the mounds of turkey and trifle we’d tucked into or – more likely – fits of laughter from watching the Morecambe and Wise Christmas TV special. From 1969 to 1980, with the exception of 1974, Eric and Ernie were regular Christmas guests, welcomed into our living rooms as predictably as charades and a large tin of Quality Street.
This Christmas we’ll have Morecambe and Wise on our TVs again in Morecambe & Wise in America, the documentary by UKTV Gold hosted by Jonathan Ross about the comedy duo’s attempt to break the States, featuring footage never before seen in the UK.
This all gets us to going back in our minds to those festive specials who used to so love watching on our screens at this time of year. Who can ever forget that festive special where a chorus line of BBC presenters, including Michael Aspel and Barry Norman, abandoned all newsroom solemnity to high kick their way through the show-stopping number There is Nothing Like a Dame? This Christmas special attracted a staggering 28 million viewers, making it one of the top 25 most-watched programmes of all time on British television.
Perhaps the most memorable of all the Christmas specials was the 1971 show starring the distinguished conductor André Previn – or André Preview, as Eric insisted on calling him. We howled with laughter as Eric (stepping in for the indisposed Yehudi Menuhin) proudly minced his way to the piano for his solo performance of Grieg’s Piano Concerto, repeatedly failing to make it for his opening cue. We laughed even more hysterically when André had to jump up and down to cue Eric in from behind the piano lid.
When Eric finally started to play, André accused him of playing ‘all the wrong notes’, only to be told in no uncertain terms that he was ‘playing all the right notes – but not necessarily in the right order’. Revealing a hitherto unsuspected flair for comedy, Previn performed the whole sketch without a hint of
a smile. André Previn later appeared in the 1972 special as a bus conductor in a feature called ‘I worked with Morecambe and Wise and look what happened to me’.
Another star who took Morecambe and Wise’s gentle mockery with unruffled good humour was Shirley Bassey. She continued her rousing rendition of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes while her hosts frantically tried to keep the scenery from falling apart behind her. Even when her stiletto got wedged in a polystyrene step and she ended up wearing Eric’s boot, Bassey didn't miss a beat. She later revealed that she couldn’t stop laughing during rehearsals and thought she’d never be able to pull the whole thing off with a straight face.
But Eric and Ernie didn’t always resort to music to send up their celebrity guests, as Glenda Jackson found out when she agreed to appear in the 1971 Christmas special. The duo directed her in Antony and Cleopatra, persuading her to utter the immortal lines: “All men are fools. And what makes them so is having beauty like what I have got.” Even the Forces’ sweetheart Dame Vera Lynn didn’t escape their leg-pulling in the 1972 festive special. When Eric gave her a flamboyant introduction, it gradually became clear that he thought she was another wartime legend, Gracie Fields.
The Morecambe and Wise Christmas specials were undoubtedly a great excuse to have fun, but sometimes they revealed an entirely different side to a famous personality. In 1976 Angela Rippon gave viewers a shock when she left her news desk to reveal a pair of shapely legs that could high kick with the best of them. Her turn proved to be one of the most memorable dance routines in the show’s history.
The Morecambe and Wise special was moved from its traditional Christmas Day slot in 1981 and ended for good in 1983 – just a few months before Eric died of a heart attack after appearing at the Roses Theatre in Tewkesbury. Nevertheless, their festive specials gave us more than a decade of hilarious Christmases and left us with memories that will keep us chuckling for a lifetime.
Thank you, boys, for all the laughs what you gave us – you are truly much missed!