Adoring audiences across the generations will have their own answers to why Morecambe and Wise, who first started performing together 80 years ago, were such an especially memorable force in British culture.
Gary Morecambe, the son of Eric who now lives in Leeds where Ernie was born, naturally has his own ideas.
“That’s a question I probably ask myself every day, really,” he says.
“I think the one that constantly comes to my mind is that you know with Morecambe and Wise that they would still have done what they did even if they had no audience and weren’t paid for it.
“They would have still performed in the kitchen if they’d had to.
“So you trust them, and you recognise the sincerity of what they were doing. Everything else after that was a bonus in their eyes. They weren’t planning to do anything else, with or without an audience or with or without payment. That’s just what they did.
“So they were two men who grew up as boys together from the age of what, 12, 13? And just managed to turn it into this huge career.
“The other part of that, of course, being that they also just happened to be brilliant,” he adds. “So I think it’s sincerity and brilliance that is what’s made them sustain the decades.”
Morecambe and Wise (the former took his stage name from his Lancashire hometown, the latter was born in Bramley, Leeds) made their double act debut in 1941 at the Liverpool Empire, reuniting after the war. They performed at Yorkshire venues such as the legendary Batley Variety Club, but their major fame came from various television shows.
In 1977, 28 million people sat down to watch The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show on the BBC, according to an article by the corporation. The duo are so fixed in the psyche of British audiences that a number of impersonation acts have spawned over the years to capitalise on the appeal.
For Gary, none have done it quite so effectively Ian Ashpitel and Jonty Stephens, who have embarked on a tour as ‘Eric and Ern’, which will be back in Yorkshire next year.
Gary, 65, who lives in the Alwoodley area with his partner Tanya, says: “I think really since the age of five I’ve been involved with Morecambe and Wise. But really it’s been the last 10 years it’s reached a sort of different level, sort of gone through the roof a bit.
“So it’s more of a business, I always call it like a cottage industry...It’s mostly me and my sister (Gail) who run it with our agent. We watch everything that’s going on around Morecambe and Wise and we deal with all the approaches to use them in any capacity. So Ian and Jonty came along about 10 years ago with their tribute to Eric and Ernie and so, yes, I automatically got involved because I wanted to make sure they were going to do it correctly.
“They’d already started, actually, they’d begun at the Edinburgh Festival. So I suppose I went along slightly on the attack, in a way, because we’d seen other people doing stuff which, no names mentioned, but it wasn’t very good. But I was just knocked out with them straight away, both as performers and people.”
Gary thinks they are successful in the act because the pair are actors rather than comedians, so their portrayal of 1970s-era Eric and Ernie is another role they are able to perform well.
“It just encapsulated something and, every now and then, it would give me a little shiver down the spine watching them in those early days because I didn’t think there would be anyone out there who would be able to capture the whole thing and the look of them and the delivery of the lines.”
He adds: “As a country we seem to thrive on nostalgia, which is obviously to the benefit of people like myself and Morecambe and Wise. And it’s there to be looked after. But you want to look after it as a family because you want to protect it. It’s more of a protection job.”
“I did keep in contact with Ernie,” says Gary. “We’d speak on the phone quite a lot. I got closer to Ernie, really, then, with dad going like that. I always thought Ernie cut a sort of slightly sad figure once he lost his partner, which is understandable, of course, considering their body of work. So I think that we were more able to catch up, as it were, there was no work involved anymore.
“Ernie, bless him, as he got older, he loved chatting on the phone and reminiscing. So that was very sweet as well, I really appreciated that.”
Understanding his own father, though, has proved tricky for Gary.
“I’m getting further away from it, actually,” he laughs. “I don’t quite know what made him tick because I don’t know what it must be like to wake up in the morning, (and) instead of thinking about breakfast, you’re thinking about what you’re going to observe that’s funny in the day, which is how he operated.
“So maybe all these great comedians are the same, maybe they can only exist through humour. And if you analyse that further, it goes in a way from being slightly interesting and quaint to rather troubling, because it does start to impact on your health. If you’re living your life through making people laugh, it’s actually quite hard on yourself and he hated letting people down as well, so he would always have to be switched on and funny. And he was, and he was brilliant at it. I’ve never known a more natural comedian, I really haven’t.
“But that’s the truth of it, I haven’t really fathomed him out beyond that. I think there was probably a time when I was very young to when I was much older, nearer the time he died, I think there had been a kind of metamorphosis going on. I think he’d become much more Eric Morecambe as you saw him on TV. I think that became more natural in the end, that he was that character, whereas when I was very young I think dad was very different from Eric Morecambe. ”
Gary has four grown-up children of his own who are “all terribly proud” of Eric’s legacy. “They were back there in 1999 when the Queen unveiled the statue at Morecambe Bay. They were young kids then and as their grandad I think they were thrilled that the Queen should go and unveil a statue. So I think they fully recognise (his legacy) and they still send me clips off YouTube every now and then.”
The fact that they couldn’t meet him is “a great tragedy for me”, says Gary. But then, his father never liked to leave things on a downbeat note. “As my sister once put it, Gail, she said: ‘He didn’t want to leave a room with anyone not smiling’. And I think that’s very true. He wanted everyone to be happy.”
Ian Ashpitel and Jonty Stephens as Eric and Ern will come to York Theatre Royal, February 1-2; Huddersfield’s Lawrence Batley Theatre, February 9-10; Bradford’s St George’s Hall, March 31; Halifax Square Chapel, April 26; and Harrogate Theatre, April 28 -29.