Eric, Ernie and Me
A year ago, I read The Book What I Wrote, the memoirs of Morecambe and Wise writer Eddie Braben. I knew very little about Eddie other than his name, and that is probably more than most of the British population. Many would assume Morecambe and Wise wrote their own material, if it was written at all. As Eddie said, “People thought they made it up as they went along”.
The truth, as detailed in his very funny book, was far more interesting. Eddie might have produced light, life-affirming comedy, but he did so through a writing process that was often torturous.
The first issue was the workload. In some years, sitting in the back bedroom of his Liverpool home, Eddie was writing the vast majority of six episodes and a Christmas Special. And these were long episodes, fifty minutes of sketch comedy, which meant overwriting to see which ones came out the other side.
Then there was the external pressure which grew exponentially as the show become entrenched in the national consciousness. From the guest stars, to the tabloid front pages, to the question Eddie was endlessly posed as he walked around Liverpool – “Who’s on the Christmas Show, Eddie?” – and, finally and surreally, to a private performance for the Royal Family at Windsor Castle where the Duke of Edinburgh told Ernie Wise that the Royals had shifted Christmas Dinner in order to not miss the show.
It was the Christmas Shows that brought the biggest burden. As viewing figures rose to insane levels (the final BBC Christmas Show of 1977 was watched by over 28m people, more than half the population), Eddie felt an overbearing responsibility. “People were judging their whole Christmas by how much they enjoyed the show”, he wrote.
For Eddie, a genial family man who only visited London for rehearsals and filming before escaping back to Liverpool on the sleeper, the pressure and overwork led on two occasions to nervous exhaustion that saw him forced to take months off to recuperate.
This was what attracted me to the story, the contrast between some of the most iconic British television comedy of all time and the darker, less romantic journey of the writer who delivered it. And all this is in ERIC, ERNIE AND ME. It has been an absolute joy to make – an amazing cast, brilliant director, producers and crew, and the BBC have been highly supportive throughout.
Most pleasing of all has been the reaction of the Braben family. In the Spring, I travelled with the producer Ben Farrell to Pwllheli on the north-west Welsh coast to meet Eddie’s widow Dee, and ever since the family have been both hugely supportive and a source of detail large and small that made it into the final script.
There were many moments when I felt the daunting weight of history. Such as receiving the original shooting scripts, copied for me from the BBC archive, and the appended daily filming schedule with its afternoon tea break and the arrival times on the set of Mr. Morecambe and Mr. Wise. Then there were my meetings with Barry Cryer, another of the show’s writers (brought in with John Junkin during Eddie’s two health-induced breaks). And, finally, when the 95-year-old Ernest Maxin (who produced the show’s final years) came to our screening at the BBC Radio Theatre. Afterwards, I asked if the actor playing him was handsome enough. “Just”, he replied.
ERIC, ERNIE AND ME was a thrill from start to finish. It goes out on Friday 29th December, at 9pm on BBC4. I hope that you enjoy it.