Christmas TV and why the decline of comedy classics like Morecambe and Wise is no laughing matter – Andrew Vine

Comedians Eric Morecame and Ernie Wise, and their TV progrmame. were the Christmas highlight for many families.
Comedians Eric Morecame and Ernie Wise, and their TV progrmame. were the Christmas highlight for many families.
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THERE used to be a Christmas ritual in my family home that was shared with millions of others all over the country.

On the evening of Christmas Day, after the pile of washing up left over from dinner was dried and put away, and the tin of Cadbury’s Roses or Quality Street was doing the rounds, all attention turned to the television.

The humour of Ernie Wise (left) and Eric Morecambe (right) is much missed.

The humour of Ernie Wise (left) and Eric Morecambe (right) is much missed.

Everyone was there – uncles, aunts, cousins – every chair taken and the children on the floor because there weren’t enough seats to go round.

Then the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show started, and our living room was filled with laughter. We lived in a terraced house, and could hear the people next door laughing as loudly as us.

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And if you happened to put your head outside, you could, faintly, pick up the sound of laughter all along the street.

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I wish Christmas television was like that now, as good, as honest, as funny. It was a joyous, unifying thing, an age when entertainers like Eric and Ernie, or Tommy Cooper, felt like members of the family, daft uncles who created laughter without any hint of malice in their comedy.

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Just how unifying was demonstrated by the last of the Morecambe and Wise BBC spectaculars, in 1977, when 28,835,000 people watched – a record for a comedy show that still stands – which was well over half the population of Britain at the time.

Programme-makers can only dream of comparable viewing figures now. And it wasn’t just Eric and Ernie. Earlier that same evening, impressionist Mike Yarwood had got 21m viewers, and other shows over Christmas attracted huge audiences, including Yorkshire’s own Last of the Summer Wine, which was watched by about 18m.

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A few years later, Only Fools and Horses proved to be the last hurrah for those vast audiences, uniting 24m viewers in laughter.

My mind goes back to those Christmas nights in front of the box, not only because of the family memories so wrapped up with them, but because festive telly isn’t what it once was, and the lost golden age of entertainment looks all the more shining when compared to what’s on offer now.

Flicking through the schedules for this year leaves me distinctly underwhelmed. Yes, there are umpteen channels to choose from instead of the three we had then, but quantity doesn’t equate to quality.

It isn’t that programme makers aren’t doing their best to produce good shows, it’s just that somewhere along the way the knack for sprinkling a touch of the magical has been lost.

The audience is more fragmented than it used to be, and there is less consensus about what counts as family entertainment. The sitcom Mrs Brown’s Boys is one of the BBC’s biggest hits in that area, but I can’t be the only one who finds its endless reliance on swearing for laughs off-putting.

There can be no coincidence that one of the most popular shows is likely to be Strictly Come Dancing, which in its glitter and essential good-heartedness is a throwback to a gentler edge when families could sit down together safe in the knowledge that there will be nothing to offend.

The collective groan of disappointment that went up on social media when the Christmas schedules were unveiled showed a wistful nostalgia for the great days when the specials were keenly anticipated and a must-watch for millions.

Instead, the trailers are full of grim-faced actors from soaps, with teasers for EastEnders and Coronation Street promising a fare of misery and even violence for their biggest episodes of the year. No thank you very much. That’s the last thing I want to watch at a time of year that’s all about goodwill.

A dive into the DVD box-sets stacked up in the spare bedroom beckons in my home to fill the gaps in the schedules, safe in the knowledge that those coming round for Christmas love the old stuff just as much as I do.

Eric and Ernie, of course, mangling Greig’s Piano Concerto to the mock outrage of Andre Previn, and Shirley Bassey descending a staircase in a shimmering gown set off by a large
black boot which has replaced one of her shoes.

All of us know these routines off by heart, but that just makes them feel more like dear old friends. There are others too, just as familiar and equally beloved – Del Boy and Rodney, the Walmington-on-Sea Home Guard of Dad’s Army, The Two Ronnies.

Still hilarious all of them, the comedy embodiment of the good cheer and generosity of spirit that these few days should be about. And more than that, for many others as well as me, I’m sure, intertwined with precious memories of family. A happy and peaceful Christmas to all.