Eric's funny but Ernie's got to go: BBC told Morecambe to dump Wise if he wanted to make it in televisionProducer argued they were 'stuck in a rut and too reliant on outdated gags'The pair initially struggled to make an impression on television1954 comedy show called Running Wild flopped because it was reliant 'on second-rate artists and fourth-rate writersThey eventually found fame on television in the hit 1961 show Two Of A Kind
22:03 GMT, 1 December 2012
As Morecambe and Wise, they were the nation’s best-loved comedy act, their Christmas extravaganzas regularly pulling in audiences of more than 20 million.
But BBC chiefs initially believed Eric Morecambe would have a much better chance of TV stardom if he dumped Ernie Wise and went solo.
The damning appraisal, delivered just two years before the duo finally found fame on commercial television, was discovered in the BBC’s own archives.
Unwise words: Initial reviews said Eric Morecambe (top) should dump partner Ernie Wise
In a letter to a scriptwriter dated June 5, 1959, John Ammonds, one of the Corporation’s comedy producers who had previously worked with the stars on radio, ruled out a TV series.He argued they were ‘stuck in a rut and too reliant on outdated gags’.
He wrote: ‘After seeing Morecambe and Wise the other week in their show [in] Blackpool, I am not at all sure as to their strength on a TV programme.
‘They are still working to old gags and in my opinion, frequently working the wrong type of material. They are quite a disappointment to me because when I first worked with them in this region on sound, I thought they had a great future.
‘It is even more depressing than it seems because they are quite happy to jog along as they are doing at the moment.
The damning appraisal was delivered two years before before the duo found fame on commercial television
‘I always thought Eric Morecambe was a funny man and still think that he could be very successful on vision but only if he could be detached from Ernie, who I think is a big weakness. I really cannot see them making the grade in a TV series.’
Morecambe and Wise, who began performing together in 1941, enjoyed success on stage and radio, but initially struggled to make an impression on television. A 1954 BBC comedy show called Running Wild was panned by critics and led one reviewer to define a television set as ‘the box they buried Morecambe and Wise in’.
Other letters in the archives show that the duo feared that the failure of Running Wild would have a detrimental impact on their careers as live performers. They tried to quit the show before it had finished its run.
In a letter dated June 17, 1954, the pair’s agent, Frank Pope, told Ronald Waldman, the head of light entertainment: ‘I called my clients into my office to see me this morning in view of the television broadcast they did last night and to say in my personal opinion this was the worst performance I have ever witnessed my clients giving, not because of their inability but plainly because the material etc supplied for them to appear in was most unsuitable and inadequate.
‘On behalf of my clients, I must refuse them being allowed to appear for the last of the six television broadcasts in their contract. You will appreciate my clients’ main livelihood depends upon theatrical engagements and they cannot possibly afford to jeopardise any further their reputation in this market.’
In a memo dated April 23, 1954, Waldman said the show flopped because it was reliant ‘on second-rate artists and fourth-rate writers’.
Morecambe and Wise eventually found fame on television in the hit 1961 show Two Of A Kind, which was made by commercial broadcaster ATV.
Making the grade: Morecambe and Wise, who began performing together in 1941, enjoyed success on stage and radio, but initially struggled to make an impression on television
The pair eventually found fame on television in the hit 1961 show Two Of A Kind
In 1968, they transferred to the BBC and began what was to be the most successful part of their entertainment career.
Ironically, given his earlier dismissal of the duo, Ammonds played a key role in the success of the show and is even credited with devising the famous dance routine that brought each episode to an end.
The pair’s subsequent partnership with comedy writer Eddie Braben produced some of the most memorable moments in television.
He teamed the comics with Glenda Jackson, who starred as Cleopatra in ‘a play wot Ernie wrote’; Shirley Bassey, who tried to perform Smoke Gets In Your Eyes in an evening dress and a pair of Eric’s boots; and Andre Previn, who was given an unorthodox master class by Eric.
The Morecambe And Wise Christmas Show became the TV highlight of the year and the 1977 edition, which featured a dancing Angela Rippon and some of the BBC’s best-known personalities in a tribute to the musical South Pacific attracted 28 million viewers.