Eric Morecambe

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Eric Morecambe
OBE
Born John Eric Bartholomew
(1926-05-14)14 May 1926
Morecambe, Lancashire, England
Died 28 May 1984(1984-05-28) (aged 58)
Cheltenham General Hospital, Gloucestershire, England
Cause of death
Heart attack
Occupation Comedian, actor, entertainer, singer
Years active 1941–1984
Spouse(s) Joan Bartlett (m. 195284) (his death)
Children 3 (1 adopted)

John Eric Bartholomew, OBE (14 May 1926 – 28 May 1984), known by his stage name Eric Morecambe, was an English comedian who together with Ernie Wise formed the award-winning double act Morecambe and Wise. The partnership lasted from 1941 until Morecambe's death in 1984. Morecambe took his stage name from his home town, the seaside resort of Morecambe.

He was the co-star of the television series The Morecambe & Wise Show, which for some of its Christmas episodes gained UK viewing figures of over twenty-eight million people.[1] In 2002 he was named one of the 100 Greatest Britons in a BBC poll.[2]

Early life and childhood career[edit]

Eric Morecambe was born as John Eric Bartholomew to George and Sadie Bartholomew (Sarah Elizabeth née Robinson). Sadie took work as a waitress to raise funds for his dancing lessons. During this period, Eric Bartholomew won numerous talent contests, including one in Hoylake in 1940, the prize for which was an audition in Manchester for Jack Hylton. Three months after the audition, Hylton invited Morecambe to join a revue called Youth Takes a Bow at the Nottingham Empire, where he met the then Ernest Wiseman. The two soon became very close friends, and with Sadie's encouragement started to develop a double act.

When the two were eventually allowed to perform their double act on stage (in addition to their solo spots), Hylton was impressed enough to make it a regular feature in the revue. However, the duo were separated when they came of age for their War Service during the final stages of the Second World War. Wise joined the Merchant Navy, while Morecambe was conscripted to become a Bevin Boy and began to work in a coal mine in Accrington in May 1944.

Bartholomew & Wiseman[edit]

After the war, Morecambe and Wise began performing on stage and radio and secured a contract with the BBC to make a television show, where they started the short-lived show Running Wild in 1954. They returned to the stage to hone their act, and later made appearances on Sunday Night at the London Palladium and Double Six[disambiguation needed].

Two of a Kind: 1961–68[edit]

Bronze bust of Eric Morecambe sculpted by Victor Heyfron in 1963

In 1961 Lew Grade offered the duo a series for the London-based ITV station ATV. Entitled Two of a Kind, it was written by Dick Hills and Sid Green. An Equity strike halted that show, but Morecambe and Wise were members of Variety Artists' Federation, then a separate trade union unaffiliated with Equity. Hills and Green later appeared in the series as "Sid" and "Dick".

The sixth Morecambe and Wise series for ATV was planned from the start to be aired in the United Kingdom as well as exported to the United States and Canada. It was taped in colour and starred international guests, often American. Prior to its British run, it was broadcast in North America by the ABC network as a summer replacement for re-runs of The Hollywood Palace under the title The Piccadilly Palace from 20 May to 9 September 1967.

The duo had appeared in the US on The Ed Sullivan Show. In 1968, Morecambe and Wise left ATV to return to the BBC.

First heart attack[edit]

Morecambe's son Gary wrote in his 2003 book, Life's Not Hollywood, It's Cricklewood, that his father's diaries had entries that mentioned pains in his back and arms in both 1967 and 1968. In one diary entry from 17 August 1967, when Morecambe and Wise were appearing in Great Yarmouth as part of a summer season, Morecambe noted, "I have a slight pain on the left side around my heart. It's most likely wind, but I've had it for about four days. That's a hell of a time to have wind."

Morecambe was a hypochondriac, but he rarely wrote about his health concerns, until after his heart attack. At the time, Morecambe was smoking 60 cigarettes a day and drinking heavily. He suffered a heart attack on 8 November 1968 at the age of 42, after a show, whilst driving back to his hotel outside Leeds.

Morecambe had been appearing with Wise during a week of midnight performances at the Variety Club in Batley, Yorkshire. Morecambe and Wise appeared there in December 1967 for a week, making £4,000. After that, they were booked to play a New York nightclub, the Royal Variety Performance and then eight weeks in pantomime the coming winter.

Morecambe headed back to his hotel, and recounted in an interview with Michael Parkinson in November 1972 that, as the pains spread to his chest, he became unable to drive. He was rescued by a passerby as he stopped the car. The first hospital they found had no Accident and Emergency. At the second one, a heart attack was immediately diagnosed.

After leaving hospital, Morecambe gave up his cigarette habit to start smoking a pipe, as he mentioned that he was trying to do in August 1967. He also stopped doing summer and winter seasons and reduced many of his public engagements. Morecambe took six months off, returning for a press call at the BBC Television centre in May 1969. In August of that year, they returned to the stage at the Wintergarden Theatre in Bournemouth, and received a four-minute standing ovation.

With the BBC: 1968–78[edit]

While Morecambe was recuperating, Hills and Green, who believed that Morecambe would probably never work again, quit as writers. Morecambe and Wise were in Barbados at the time and learned of their writers' departure only from the steward on the plane. John Ammonds, the show's producer, replaced Hills and Green with Eddie Braben. Theatre critic Kenneth Tynan stated, Braben made Wise's character a comic who was not funny, while Morecambe became a straight man who was funny. Braben made them less hostile to one another.

Morecambe and Wise did annual BBC Christmas shows from 1968 to 1977, with the 1977 show having an estimated audience of 28,385,000.

With Thames Television: 1978–83[edit]

In January 1978, the pair left the BBC for ITV signing a contract with the London station Thames Television.

Morecambe suffered a second heart attack at his home in Harpenden, Herts on 15 March 1979, which led to a seven-hour heart bypass operation by Magdi Yacoub on 25 June 1979. At that time, Morecambe was told he only had three months to live.[3]

Morecambe increasingly wanted to move away from the double act, and into writing and playing other roles. In 1980 he played the "Funny Uncle" in a dramatisation of the John Betjeman poem "Indoor Games Near Newbury", part of an ITV special titled Betjeman's Britain. Produced and directed by Charles Wallace, it spawned the start of a working relationship that led to a follow-up in 1981 for Paramount Pictures titled Late Flowering Love in which Morecambe played an RAF major. The film was released in the UK with Raiders of the Lost Ark. In 1981, Morecambe published Mr Lonely, a tragicomic novel about a stand-up comedian. He began to focus more on writing.

Morecambe and Wise made a series for showing during the autumns of 1980 to 1983. They also appeared together recalling their music hall days in a one-hour special on ITV on 2 March 1983, called Eric & Ernie's Variety Days. During this time Morecambe published two other novels: The Reluctant Vampire (1982) and its sequel, The Vampire's Revenge (1983).

Morecambe and Wise's final show together was the 1983 Christmas special for ITV.

Morecambe and Wise worked on a television movie in 1983, Night Train to Murder, which was broadcast on ITV in January 1985. Continuing his collaboration with Wallace, Morecambe also acted in a short comedy film called The Passionate Pilgrim opposite Tom Baker and Madeline Smith, again directed by Wallace for MGM/UA. It was released in the cinema with the James Bond film Octopussy, and later, WarGames. Wallace and Morecambe were halfway through filming a fourth film when Morecambe died. It was never completed.

Death[edit]

Morecambe took part in a show hosted by close friend and comedian Stan Stennett at the Roses Theatre in Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, on a Sunday evening in May 1984. His wife, Joan, who was in the audience, recalled that Morecambe was "on top form".[4]

After the show had ended and Morecambe had first left the stage, the musicians returned and picked up their instruments. He rushed back onto the stage to join them and played various instruments making six curtain calls. On finally leaving the stage as he stepped into the wings, he collapsed with a third heart attack. He was rushed to Cheltenham General Hospital, where he died five and a half hours later, just before 4 am on 28 May 1984.[5]

His funeral was held on 4 June at St Nicholas' Church in Harpenden with the principal address delivered by Dickie Henderson. After a private cremation service at Garston, Eric's ashes were later returned to the church for burial in the Garden of Remembrance.[6]

Personal life[edit]

Eric Morecambe married Joan Bartlett on 11 December 1952. They had three children: Gail (born 14 September 1953); Gary (born 21 April 1956) and Steven (born 1970 and adopted in 1974). In his leisure time, Eric was a keen birdwatcher, and the statue of him at Morecambe shows him wearing his binoculars. The RSPB named a hide after him at the nearby Leighton Moss nature reserve (refurbished in 2012) in recognition of his support. Morecambe was the nephew of, and named after, the rugby league footballer John "Jack" Bartholomew.[7]

Morecambe was sympathetic to the Conservative Party and sent a message of support (along with various celebrities) to Margaret Thatcher during the 1979 European Campaign.[8] His message ended, "God bless you, Maggie, and good luck in the European Campaign and it is your round next."[9]

Legacy[edit]

Statue of Eric Morecambe in Morecambe, Lancashire, England
  • A larger-than-life statue of Morecambe, created by sculptor Graham Ibbeson, was unveiled by the Queen at Morecambe in July 1999 and is surrounded by inscriptions of many of his favourite catchphrases and an exhaustive list of guest stars who appeared on the show.
  • In the English town of Harpenden in Hertfordshire where Morecambe and his family lived from the 1960s until his death, the public concert hall is named after him, with a portrait of Morecambe hanging in the foyer. Eric often referred to Harpenden in his comedy, with a band once appearing on the show named The Harpenden Hot-Shots and in a Casanova sketch he introduced himself as Lord Eric, Fourth Duke Of Harpenden "and certain parts of Birkenhead". Eric was the guest of Honour, and performed the opening ceremony at the 75th Anniversary Fete of St George's School, Harpenden. Commenting openly to the headmaster, after his opening speech, "Right, now that's over, can we go and get an Ice Cream".
  • In 1999 Morecambe was voted the funniest person of the 20th century in a British internet poll; Eric pulled in 26% of the votes, beating his contemporary performer Tommy Cooper and Monty Python member John Cleese to the coveted position.
  • A West End Show, The Play What I Wrote, appeared in 2001 as a tribute to the duo. Directed by Kenneth Branagh, each performance featured a different guest celebrity, including Kylie Minogue, who was said to be particularly keen to participate. Guest stars included Roger Moore, Nigel Havers and most notably Prince Charles, who was a fan of the duo.
  • The Play What I Wrote later transferred to Broadway, and was only moderately rewritten to allow for the fact that Eric and Ernie were virtually unknown in the U.S. save for a handful of performances on The Ed Sullivan Show in the 1960s, prior to their big success. The show toured the UK in 2003.
  • In 2003, Morecambe's eldest son Gary released "Life's Not Hollywood, It's Cricklewood", a biography of his father from the point of view of his family, using family photos and extracts from previously unseen diaries. The book revealed Morecambe as a toned down version of his on-screen persona, prone to occasional bouts of mild depression and overwork.
  • In a 2005 poll to find The Comedian's Comedian, he was voted as the fourth greatest comedy act ever by fellow comedians and comedy insiders.
  • Kenilworth Road Stadium, the home of Luton Town F.C., has a suite named after Morecambe; he was a vociferous supporter and one-time president of the club and voiced his enthusiasm on the television, often shouting Luton For The Cup! and once brandishing a sign mid-way through a sketch with Glenda Jackson to much applause and cheers. He once appeared wearing a Luton rosette on the show.
  • JD Wetherspoon opened a public house called The Eric Bartholomew in Morecambe on 4 April 2004.
  • In 2007 the author William Cook produced the book Morecambe & Wise Unseen which charts many of the early career moves of both Morecambe and Ernie Wise. It focuses largely on their time struggling to make a living prior to their break into television in the 1960s and is illustrated with many personal family photographs and previous unseen views of the act.
  • At the Roses Theatre in Tewkesbury, the Eric Morecambe Room is used by local and national companies for conferences and meetings.
  • There is a bird hide named after him at Leighton Moss RSPB reserve, which is on Morecambe Bay, near Carnforth, Lancashire.[10]
  • The play Morecambe was created as a celebration of the life of Eric Morecambe. It played at the Edinburgh fringe festival in 2009 and subsequently transferred to London's West End before embarking on a UK tour in 2010.

Further reading[edit]

  • Mister Lonely (Novel) by Eric Morecambe (1981) ISBN 0-413-48170-0
  • Morecambe & Wise – Graham McGann (1999)
  • Life's Not Hollywood, It's Cricklewood – Gary Morecambe (2003) ISBN 0-563-52186-4
  • Who Killed Eric Morecambe? – Charles Wallace (Nov 2012) ASIN B00A4COP64

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Eric Morecambe: Growing up with a comic legend", The Guardian, 17 October 2009
  2. ^ "100 great British heroes". BBC News. Retrieved 15 February 2014
  3. ^ TVAM interview with Morecambe, 18 April 1984
  4. ^ Joan Morecambe, Morecambe and Wife, p. 180 (1985)
  5. ^ Morecambe & Wise, Graham McGann, (1999), p. 300
  6. ^ "Eric Morecambe (1926-1984) - Find a Grave". findagrave.com. Retrieved 13 June 2013. 
  7. ^ Tom Mather (2010). "Best in the Northern Union". Pages 128-142. ISBN 978-1-903659-51-9
  8. ^ http://www.margaretthatcher.org/archive/1979-cac-releases-1.asp
  9. ^ http://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/18571C4EE5504F98867695BDF539C16E.pdf
  10. ^ "Eric Morecambe's daughter brings sunshine..". Westmorland Gazette. 2012. Retrieved January 25, 2013. 

External links[edit]