Early days of Morecambe and Wise revealed

Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise learned their showbiz skills the hard way and in his fascinating new book author Louis Barfe charts their route to stardom

Friday, 20th August 2021, 3:45 pm
Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise on the beach at Blackpool in 1953
Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise on the beach at Blackpool in 1953

There’s a heading in each Who’s Who entry for ‘Education’. While the young Eric Bartholomew attended Lancaster Road Junior School and Euston Road Senior School, by his own admission, he didn’t learn very much at either Morecambe establishment.

He claimed that he spent most of his time avoiding lessons and ‘smoking anything I could ignite’.

His real education came above the Plaza cinema at Mrs Hunter’s dance classes, and at venues like the Jubilee Club on Torrisholme Road, where the boy who would become Eric Morecambe performed as a precocious teenage entertainer.

Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise on the wicket at Stanley Park, Blackpool, in 1957

Morecambe in the 1930s was an ideal place for a young lad with talent to grow up. Come the summer, the town was alive with shows. The Arcadian Theatre was where Aldi now stands, home to Ernest Binns’ Arcadian Follies concert party. Florrie Forde was a regular at the Tower, while on the West End Pier, Frank A Terry’s Pierrots packed them in year-after-year.

However, it was at ‘pies and peas’, charity shows where the performers were paid with their dinner, that Eric Morecambe began his climb to the top.

In February 1937, aged 10, Eric received his first newspaper notice, in the Lancaster Guardian, for his appearance with his dance partner Molly Buntin, emulating Fred and Ginger at a fundraiser for a new church at Cross Hill. Prompted by his mother Sadie, Eric went on to develop a solo act built around a song made popular by the American-born male impersonator Ella Shields.

The lyrics of the song concern a fellow happy to let the world think he’s an idiot if it lets him get away with living life as he pleases, which seems a fairly neat summary of the comedian’s lot.

Ernie Wise on stage as a young performer in 1938

“I’m not all there,

There’s something missing,

I’m not all there,

So folks declare.

They call me Looby, Looby,

Nothing but a great big booby […]

I know they think I’m slow

But let them think, let them think. I don’t care.”

To accompany the song, Sadie kitted Eric out with evening dress trousers that were too short for him, a tailcoat, a beret, and a large sixpenny lollipop. Eric hated the song and the get-up, but it proved popular with audiences in Lancashire, familiar with the ‘gowk’ act of George Formby Senior, playing the simpleton who knew more than he let on.

This, along with impersonations of Fred Astaire, the Crazy Gang’s Bud Flanagan and the blackface entertainer GH Elliott, was the act that Eric took to an audition for the bandleader Jack Hylton in Hoylake in early 1940, aged 13.

It was a hit, leading to further auditions in Manchester and London, and finally a place in Hylton’s touring show Youth Takes a Bow. Hylton was a canny operator, and wherever his shows went, he made sure there was a local angle for publicity.

When the show was in Morecambe, Blackpool, Preston or Manchester, newspapers wrote of Lancashire’s own Eric Bartholomew as the star of the show. When the show was in Yorkshire, the top billing seamlessly passed to a young lad from Leeds.

Whereas Eric had been drilled to play the idiot, Ernest Wiseman had become a sophisticated song and dance man in miniature, modelling himself on Jack Buchanan. When Eric first met Ernie Wise, as he had been renamed by Hylton, he thought the Yorkshire tyke was a bighead.

Wise had been with Hylton since early 1939, and was already a broadcasting veteran, even appearing on BBC television from Alexandra Palace.

However, Eric had Sadie with him as chaperone, while Ernie was out on his own. Sadie soon realised that Ernie was a little boy trying to survive in an adults’ world.

Before long, Eric realised that his mother was right about his cocky counterpart, and they were soon inseparable friends.

Eric and Ernie passed the long railway journeys between towns making each other laugh. When Ernie was unable to find digs one night in Oxford, Sadie invited him to share a room with her and Eric. She came to regret this slightly, as the pair wouldn’t shut up.

In order to get some peace, she suggested they take their private jokes and work them into a double act. Eric was delighted to have his mother’s encouragement to find something new. By now he was approaching 15, discovering girls and the act with the lollipop was cramping his style.

As embarrassing as the ‘gowk’ act was, it was still an earner. Eric’s father George was on £2 a week with Morecambe Corporation, whereas Eric was on £5 a week with Hylton. Even after Sadie had paid 30 shillings for the week’s digs, there was still three pounds and ten bob left. A pound went home to George, and five shillings went to Eric for pocket money.

Eric and Ernie’s double act was ready some months before they got a chance to perform it. Hylton’s producer Bryan Michie told them that they’d get a chance when someone was ill, but the rest of the cast proved to be of distressingly robust health.

However, in August 1941, one night at Liverpool Empire, the opportunity arose. The audience had no idea that they were witnessing the birth of a comedy phenomenon, and to be fair, Eric and Ernie didn’t know that either.

Most of the act was, to put it politely, borrowed from Abbot and Costello, but it went down well enough. There was only one problem. Bartholomew and Wise sounded like a chemist’s shop.

Bryan Michie suggested Barlow and Wise, then Bartlett and Wise (which could have proved interesting some years later, when Eric married Joan Bartlett). American jazz singer Adelaide Hall was a guest star touring with the show, and it was her husband, Bert Hicks who came up with the answer.

Eddie Anderson, the black comedian who played Jack Benny’s butler on the radio had taken a place name as his stage name, becoming Rochester. Hicks asked Eric where he came from, and on hearing the answer, declared it to be perfect. For professional purposes, it was goodbye to John Eric Bartholomew, and hello to Eric Morecambe.

Sunshine and Laughter: The Story of Morecambe and Wise by Louis Barfe is out now published by Head of Zeus priced £8.99.