Gary Morecambe and Bob Golding on innocent laughs, playing over 50 characters and resurrecting a legend, by Natasha Bernal
I am sitting with the brains behind the acclaimed Morecambe play in a private room at the Richmond Theatre, where the show will start its tour on the 31st of March. The third cups of tea for actor Bob Golding and Gary Morecambe (yes, Eric’s son) and my glass of water go practically untouched as we sit back in armchairs and gabble about our favourite Morecambe and Wise moments.
Unfortunately they have never seen my favourite.
In fact, they both look bemused as I tell them, in a blow-by-blow account, of the Wuthering Heights sequence where Eric Morecambe is dressed up as Heathcliff and is tricked into marrying Cathy by a scheming Ernie Wise. It’s only when they find out that it’s on YouTube that they relax – some sketches that never made it to the Christmas specials find their home online.
It’s clear that they have done their homework while plotting the comeback of the five-year-old tribute play, which marks the 30th anniversary of Eric Morecambe’s death and kicks off its second tour this month. What they don’t know is if their work will pay off.
Bob Golding, who plays over 50 characters in this one-man biographical show, says that to prepare for the role he read “pretty much all of Gary’s books – 87 of them now?” They both start laughing, as Gary admits “it does seem that way”.
“Probably one of the best parts of researching has to be watching hours and hours of footage of Morecambe and Wise,” Bob says. “I remember saying to my wife, ‘I’m going up to the office now to research’ so she would go off with the kids and I would shut the door and then I put The Best of Morecambe and Wise on for two hours. What better research is there?”
Getting under the skin of the famous comedian wasn’t a bundle of laughs; according to long-time fan Bob, it was a challenge that involved a major transformation.
“I thought I was the luckiest man in the world really, but I did spend a lot of time on the mannerisms and things, and the voice as well which was one of the most important things,” Bob says.
Although Eric will be the focus of this one-man play that tells the story of his life, Ernie Wise will still be very present-as an animated puppet.
With insights from Eric’s son Gary, Bob hopes to capture the hearts of a new generation of theatre goers, despite many of them not knowing who Morecambe and Wise are at all. “We want to keep the legacy going,” Bob says. “We want more people to remember them.”
Gary points out that the generation that viewed Morecambe and Wise are now a dying species. “We want to keep it [Morecambe and Wise] going and bring in a new audience,” Gary says. “That’s the really big thing. It might not happen, at the end of the day we’ll die off in the next ten or twenty years and so be it, but who knows? Laurel and Hardy are still remembered,” Gary says.
In its heyday, the British duo’s Christmas show attracted big names such as Glenda Jackson, Leonard Rossiter and Shirley Bassey. In 1977 it reached its peak of popularity with 28 million viewers. It connected with an audience looking for raw and improvised sketches, an audience that is very different from those who seek laughs today.
Although on a far smaller scale than Only Fools and Horses, Morecambe and Wise has been successful in reaching out to a new audience of TV watchers who enjoy a particular brand of English humour. The three of us agreed: you can´t get more British than Morecambe and Wise.
Variety shows mostly get the short end of the stick on television – TV channels prefer to syndicate series rather than sketches because there is a story attached to it instead of depending on the fame of their actors, which is why we see more Del-Boy than Wise.
Just like the Peckham lads, however, Morecambe and Wise are not very well known outside the country. Gary says that their new fans come straight from YouTube. “There are very strange and random moments when people from abroad say ‘yes I do know them’ and you wonder how, and they say ‘the internet, YouTube’.”
Bob argues that not knowing Morecambe and Wise doesn’t mean that people won’t be able to enjoy the play. “The play travels for anyone who wants to go and watch it,” Bob says, “You can be completely engrossed in it without even knowing anything about the show.” But why would anyone go and see the life story of someone they don’t know? It’s highly unlikely.
The world has changed and the current comedy kings offer something completely different from what Eric and Ernie provided. If they were starting out now, would they have had the same kind of success?
“Oh yes,” Gary says. “It was never about the material in the end, it was just about them – that’s why they are so loved still. The shows do hold up pretty damn well, don’t they?”
It does help that funny people find the play, which uses a lot of humour from the original sketches, amusing. “So many comics came to see the play originally, and afterwards they would say Eric is my hero”, Bob says, which was a surprise coming from people you wouldn’t expect to be connected to that kind of comedy, “like Jimmy Carr”.
Just as the kind of humour has radically changed, so have popular comedians. “It´s not easy at all, I think they´ve become flavours, they are still very talented. I think that Michael McIntyre is wonderful, but they have their idioms and their big screens and their production companies.
“It’s done separately from the real world. It’s a separate genre,” Gary says.
Bob nods and quickly points out that spontaneous comedy has practically disappeared. “The whole world’s different,” he says. “They are rock stars. Eric and Ernie were from the school of hard knocks, effectively. They did something wrong and had to go back and do it again throughout their career. If you have funny bones, and Eric did have funny bones—he made drinking a cup of tea funny – that’s a rare gift.”
There is a different feel to the industry, as budgets for comedy are radically changing. Bob says: “You’d never be able to do the same kind of series as Morecambe and Wise, it’s too expensive. Eric and Ernie would have been axed.”
There was less choice for audiences regarding what to watch as well – with no internet and just a few television channels, it seems a world away from today’s gadget filled living rooms.
An eccentric father always looking for a laugh
It’s undeniable that Gary has been heavily influenced by his father, who is still the focus of his life and the reason why he is involved in this theatre project. The 58-year-old has spent the last 25 years trying to get to know his enigmatic father better, participating in documentaries, writing books and now giving his insight for this play.
Watching him describe his father, he is immensely proud – it’s uncanny how much his gestures are like Eric’s as he describes him – but he doesn’t give away what he knows about his father’s off-screen life. In fact, according to him, he might not have had one.
Growing up with a comedian who finds humour in everything couldn’t have been easy for Gary, although (like his father) he takes it in his stride. “He wrote two of his best scripts when we were on holiday. He never swam so he was always sat at a typewriter. He was at the house all the time typing away and working, and still when he got up for a meal he’d have to mess around with the waiters. They didn’t know who Morecambe and Wise were, and they were like [whispers] what the devil is happening?” he says.
“On an airplane once, he tried to disguise himself. It was at Miami airport, and he didn’t want to get recognised at all so he put on a limp and a big hat, and when he was on the plane he was annoyed because he wanted to be recognised. So then he started skipping and dancing through the aisles with his sunshinedance and I was thinking well you’ve spent all that bloody time trying not to be recognised!”
Although Eric’s family might have had a problem with his constant stream of humour, his oddities were entrenched in his personality. Eric was a showman who didn’t know the show was over when the curtain had come down and he had gone home – he was willing to give a performance to anyone who would listen.
How does Gary feel seeing Bob on stage playing his father? He pauses for a second and looks at Bob. “I was very anxious the first time,” he said, “but no, brilliant. He’s very good and it’s a well-constructed play. You can’t come out and say ‘I didn’t like it’. I mean, people would think you’re very strange. We’ve never had that bad reaction.”
Bob says it was interesting when Gary’s mum Joan came to see the play. “She said it’s surreal to see a potted version of your life in two hours. That must be very odd.”
Gary agrees. “For her it was. Her attitude was kind of like well done, get over it and don’t live off me now. She doesn’t want to see her life being portrayed again and again.
“It’s not that you lose the truth, but so much is bent into that time warp that you come away thinking ‘wait a second, it wasn’t actually like that’. It’s this giant force that has crushed it into this thing.
“There is something about that stardom, where you say “oh I’ve done it, but maybe they’ve forgotten me”.
Even though the attraction of this show might be rather limited, it will try to appeal to a new generation of people who might not know who Morecambe is. If they play their cards right, they might persuade them to look him up online and remember him – and what better gift is that?
‘Morecambe’ arrives for one day only at the Richmond Theatre on the 31st of March.
Creative Commons Image Brian Rogers
‘Morcambe’ arrives for one day only at the Richmond Theatre on the 31st of March.