Morecambe; the one-man play based on the life of ‘National Treasure’ Eric Morecambe, rather than the run-down seaside town from which its most famous son took his name, first appeared at the 2009 Edinburgh Fringe to rave reviews. A longer version, with the same cast and creative team is now nearing the end of a national tour and as I hadn’t managed to catch it in Edinburgh last year I was delighted to find out a few months ago that the Carnegie Hall in Dunfermline would be one of the dates on the tour. And so it was on Friday night, that I took my seat in the theatre to find out what all the fuss was about.
I wouldn’t say I am a massive Morecambe and Wise fan, after all Eric died in 1984 on my 6th birthday. However, I grew up with the Christmas Specials which it seems were eternally repeated and I certainly have the same affection for the inimitable duo that any member of the British public over 30 has. I was certainly enough of a fan to be aware of the silly walks, the regular gags, and the paper bag trick which all appear here.
This play (now running at close to two hours – I wonder what has been added to the hour long performance of the Fringe?) is not simply a two hour long impression of Eric Morecambe. Bob Golding bears an uncanny resemblance to Morecambe as soon as he sticks his head round the curtain, with trademark black glasses and pipe and he certainly has the voice and mannerisms down, but he inhabits the character and gives him such a warmth, and goes so much deeper than the Eric of stage and screen that we already know, that you really feel it’s the man himself there on the stage.
After beginning with the BBC announcement of Morecambe’s death in 1984 (he died of a heart attack after coming off stage in Tewkesbury), the play goes back to the beginning of the story and follows the progress of John Eric Bartholomew from a school boy song and dance act playing the clubs and hotels of Lancashire with the support of his mother Sadie, to his meeting with Ernie Wise (or Ernest Wiseman as he was then) and the creation of their double act in 1940, through to their successes on both stage and on the small screen, and the happiness of his private life. The play doesn’t only focus on the successes though, we are also taken through the more difficult times in Eric’s life; how he and Ernie were called up for National Service – Ernie to the Merchant Navy and he as a Bevan Boy in the coal mines of Lancashire, and how he was invalided out of the service by a heart condition that would eventually contribute to his death. From the duo’s appearances in the seedy ‘variety’ shows of Soho where the audience were more interested in watching naked girls than their jokes, to the failure of their first appearance on television – after which one reviewer wrote that TV would become ‘the box they buried Morecambe and Wise in’, a review Eric carried with him for the rest of his life. How Morecambe and Wise never managed to crack America, despite a few appearances on The Ed Sullivan show, but their success in Britain more than made up for this.
Bob Golding really is fantastic in this role, and not only as Eric Morecambe but as all the other characters he brings into the story (Ernie appears on stage throughout the play but I won’t give away how this is achieved – Eric and Ernie even sing together several times). His job is surely made easier by the pacey script from writer Tim Whitnall which zips along for the close to two hour running time taking the audience from laughs one second to tears in the eye and a lump in the throat the next. The play is also a credit to director Guy Masterson who has got the very best from script and actor, while working with minimal set and staging.
But the really star of the show has to be Eric Morecambe himself – the boy who took his name from the Lancashire town of his birth and made his name in a partnership that lasted over 40 years. This play is a fitting tribute and celebration of the life of a man who really was ‘Britain’s Best Loved Comic’.