Fears behind the laughter on Eric and Ernie’s anniversary

Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise with their wives, Joan Bartlett and Doreen Wise in the garden of Eric's home in Harpenden.
Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise with their wives, Joan Bartlett and Doreen Wise in the garden of Eric's home in Harpenden.
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It was little more than a contractual deal, yet it cemented the stature of the greatest double act Britain would know.

Exactly 50 years ago, Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise upped sticks from the Elstree studios of ATV, where their ITV shows had made them a household name, to the White City home of the BBC.

Elton John at the piano with Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise.

Elton John at the piano with Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise.

The corporation has marked the event by releasing rarely-seen photographs of the comedians with their families and some of their guests.

Among the highlights are shots of them posing with their wives, Joan Bartlett and Doreen Wise, in the garden of Morecambe’s home.

But the pictures betray traces of an anniversary which followed almost immediately and which nearly brought down the curtain on the act.

Their first BBC series, scripted by their ATV writers, Dick Hills and Sid Green, was only just in the can when Morecambe, smoking 60 cigarettes a day, collapsed after a midnight performance at the Batley Variety Club and was rushed to Leeds General Infirmary with a near-fatal heart attack.

Ernie Wise, John Thaw, Eric Morecambe and Dennis Waterman.

Ernie Wise, John Thaw, Eric Morecambe and Dennis Waterman.

Fearing he would not work again, Hills and Green returned to ITV, leaving the future of the act in doubt.

A year later, after the inspired hiring of Ken Dodd’s former writer, Eddie Braben, they were back and on better form than ever – but the pensive expressions on the faces of Morecambe and Wise and their wives are a reminder that Eric’s health scares never really went away.

The picture of them together was taken after his second heart attack in 1979. Five years after that, at age 58, he was dead.

Other images, among 140 resurrected from the BBC archive, show them in happier times, clowning offstage with Sir Elton John, The Sweeney stars John Thaw and Dennis Waterman and the Doncaster-born Dame Diana Rigg.

Another Yorkshire performer, Harry Corbett, on whose hand rested the glove puppet Sooty, is shown with Morecambe as a life-size stand-in.

The impressionist Jon Culshaw, flicking through the pictures, said: “Eric and Ernie brought generations together and joy to so many. Their lovable brilliance is something we’ve never seen the likes of since. I look back on their programmes with enormous admiration. They’re genuinely loved.”

The Morecambe and Wise Show ran on the BBC until 1977, with a Christmas show watched by more than 28m.