Life and career
Morley was born in Holborn, London, England. He claimed that his father "was at Oxford and spoke nine languages" but he died young, and he was orphaned age 11 when his mother and stepfather died of tuberculosis. He attended Whitstable Grammar School in Kent. London County Council sent him to the Royal Navy training ship HMS Exmouth, which was moored at Grays. Here, he broke bars of chocolate to sell to his peers. He joined the Royal Fusiliers at 14 and played french horn in the band. During the war he became a captain in the Royal Army Service Corps, organising entertainment for the troops and fighting in Dunkirk.
Morley started his career in the entertainment business in 1945 when he resigned his commission to managing a travelling show in Scotland, and then, in 1946, joined the Mecca organisation as a publicity manager. In 1949, he was able to introduce ballroom dancing onto BBC television through the Come Dancing programme, encouraging viewers to visit Mecca's dance halls.
In 1952, he was Mecca's general manager of dancing, and was made a director in 1953. With Mecca, Morley helped to populise bingo which was played at Mecca venues throughout the United Kingdom. He changed the company from a small catering and dancing firm into a leading entertainment and catering company in the UK. It employed 15,000 people and covered dance halls, catering, bingo, gambling, ice-skating rinks, bowling alleys, discos and several restaurants. The company also provided catering and entertainment services for several of the biggest football clubs in London; Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur.
Morley was a confirmed supporter of Margaret Thatcher and also had political ambition. A resident of Herne Hill, he nearly won in the 1979 general election, slashing the Labour Party 7,500 majority of Sam Silkin to a mere 122 at his local Dulwich, south London, having previously stood in the October 1974 election, where the Tory vote fell by 2.1%.
Morley had adapted the seaside beauty contest into fashion shows at Mecca dance halls; he developed this into a national beauty pageant and a TV concept. 'Miss Festival of Britain' was started in 1951 as a promotional tool for Mecca and once international contestants arrived in London for the event, the press dubbed it 'Miss World', initially holding the competitions in Mecca halls. The first competition coincided with the Festival of Britain. When an American rival Miss Universe contest was launched, Morley turned Miss World into an annual event held every November, initially at the Mecca owned Lyceum Theatre and later in the Royal Albert Hall. It was first televised in 1959, and became a popular fixture with Morley's announcement of: "I shall announce the result of Miss World, in reverse order".
The pageant was watched by 27.5 million in Britain at its peak in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1970, flour bombs were thrown at the compere, Bob Hope, by protestors. Morley answered his critics saying, "If it is shameful to women, then the best thing they can do is turn it off". The competition raised more than £30 million for charity. In 1983 he floated Miss World Group on the Unlisted Securities Market of the London Stock Exchange, keeping a 51 per cent stake. To counter feminist critics of the show, he tried to reduce the emphasis on the bathing-costume round and emphasise the girls' other attributes by drawing attention to their "poise, personality, talent, figure, facial beauty, deportment, ability to be interviewed and so forth". Although the terrestrial TV channels no longer broadcast the show in Britain, it remained popular worldwide, and in 1997 was capable of attracting a TV audience of 2.5 billion across 155 countries.
The competition — and its related events such as Miss United Kingdom, Miss England and Miss Scotland — could generate great earnings and Morley controversially acted as agent to the winners, keeping them under tight supervision. On one occasion (Miss World 1973) he dethroned the winner who he thought had acted improperly.
Morley had married his wife Julia in 1960 after meeting at a dance hall. In 1968, she took over the day to day running of Miss World and, following Morley's death in 2000, became chairman of the pageant.
At the age of 63, Morley completed the London Marathon despite a damaged hamstring, and supported both the Variety Club of Great Britain and Variety Clubs International, the latter as president in 1978.
On 9 November 2000, the day after the contestants first paraded at the Millennium Dome in preparation for the 2000 Miss World finals, he had a heart attack and died in the Princess Grace Hospital, west London. A service of thanksgiving was held in the Guards Chapel, Wellington Barracks, with the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Edinburgh being represented. He left an estate valued at £2.6 million, and was buried in West Norwood Cemetery, London.
- Obituary: Eric Morley, p. 25, The Times, 10 November 2000.
- Mr Eric Morley; Memorial Service. The Times, 4 December 2000.