A stage version of the great comic's life set for Newtownabbey and Lisburn

26 years after Eric’s final curtain and 11 since Ernie’s, Morecambe and Wise remain Britain’s best-loved comedy double act (Armstrong and Miller? Pah. Horne and Corden? Don’t make me laugh. No, seriously, they don’t make me laugh).

On Christmas Day 1977, an astonishing 28 million people watched The Morecambe & Wise Show on BBC One. Their TV extravaganzas, which began in 1968, attracted the era’s top names as special guests – the Beatles, Laurence Olivier, Princess Anne – and their influence can still be seen today in the likes of Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer.

Eric MorecombeNow, following the success of posthumous West End plays about Tommy Cooper, Spike Milligan, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, we have Morecambe – Bob Golding’s award-winning, one-man stage show recreating the life and times of the tall one with the glasses. The production comes to Northern Ireland this month, for a three-night stand at Newtownabbey’s Theatre at the Mill. It returns in June, for a performance at the Island Arts Centre in Lisburn.

The play – written by Tim Whitnall and directed by Guy Masterson – was one of the big hits of last year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and reviews have been glowing. No less than Ronnie Corbett described Morecambe as ‘spectacularly wonderful’. Other celebrity endorsements came from Nicholas Parsons, Jimmy Carr, Frank Skinner and Barry Cryer, while Morecambe’s widow Joan and their daughter Gail also gave the show a thumbs-up.

‘It’s a biopic play spanning the life of one of Britain’s greatest comics, from his childhood all the way to his untimely death in 1984 and everything in between,’ explains Golding. ‘The first half of the play tells the audience what they didn’t know about Eric’s personal life – how he grew up, the influence of his mother, which was huge, and of course meeting and starting a double act with Ernie Wise.’

The play hurtles through the triumphs and tribulations of the famous pair, with 39-year-old Golding (a Cambridge-born actor best known as the voice of Milo and Max in Tweenies) exploiting his physical similarity to the young Eric. Golding apes the Lancastrian accent and the Morecambe mannerisms – the clenching of pipe between teeth, the pushing-up of the glasses, the twinkle-eyed double take.

Although the show focuses on the lanky, bespectacled half of the duo, Golding also plays Ernie Wise, along with a number of other characters. For scenes involving both comedians – which, as you might imagine, are quite a few – Golding came up with a novel solution. ‘Ernie is very much physically onstage with Eric throughout the whole play,’ he says, ‘but he’s a ventriloquist’s dummy. It sounds marginally disrespectful, but the way we do it is extremely affectionate towards Ernie.’

Golding dismisses the commonly held notion that only Eric was funny. ‘I’ve got a huge amount of time and Morecombe and Wiserespect for Ernie’s talents as a comedian and as a song and dance man,’ he says. ‘I think a lot of people have got confused with the role of a straight man. A reviewer in the 1970s described Eric as the funny man who was straight and Ernie as the straight man who was funny. Their onscreen persona was exactly that. They had this unique chemistry that was second to none and put them where they deserved to be at the top of the British comedy tree.’

Golding also rubbishes the idea that Eric and Ernie didn’t get along. ‘I think what happens is that people make up what they don’t know. They were very open about the fact that they didn’t really socialise together. They both had families, and what little time they did have offstage they wanted to spend relaxing with their loved ones. Their genuine friendship came across onstage, and the amount of years that they were together was a testament to that. 43 years of a partnership is not to be sniffed at – most marriages don’t last that long these days.’

Golding relished the opportunity to portray a star who didn’t suffer from the usual demons. ‘Some people have said Eric didn’t really have any addictions or darkness to his life, which I find quite refreshing. This fantastically dedicated professional was a great family man, and loved being around people all the time. The phrase we came across most in the research for this was, “Always on,” because he was very much the entertainer from the start of the day to the end of the day, and that certainly would have contributed to his health towards the end. It’s a warts-and-all, fun, entertaining journey.’

With early recordings of the comedy duo performing on radio recently discovered by Ernie's wife Dorren and aired on Radio 4, as Morecambe and Wise: The Garage Tapes, Morecambe is a timely memorial to a much-loved comedy great.

Morecambe runs at Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey, from May 13 to 15. The show also plays at the Island Arts Centre, Lisburn, on June 21.

Andrew Johnston