Yet the reason for this phone call wasn't just another showbiz anniversary. After 20 years, Eric's widow, Joan, had been clearing out her husband's study - a room that had lain dormant since he died in 1984. This may sound odd, but it made sense to me. There was all sorts of stuff in Eric's study - photos, letters, joke books, diaries. It sounded as if there might be some sort of book in it, a book like the one I'd done a few years before about Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. So I asked Joan and Eric's son, Gary, if I could come over and take a look around.
Children of celebrities can be notoriously difficult to deal with. Living in the shadow of their famous parents, they often lead troubled (and troublesome) lives. Gary had even written a book about it called Hard Act To Follow (with Peter Sellers' son, Michael). But if Eric was a hard act to follow, Gary never let on to me. Getting to know him taught me quite a bit about his late, great father. Like his dad's public persona (and unlike virtually every other writer I've ever met), Gary was a man without a trace of side or spite.
Even so, it still felt strange driving to Harpenden, a suburban commuter town in Hertfordshire, to rummage through the desk drawers of a man I'd never met. But it wasn't because I was star struck - quite the opposite, in fact. What was strange about this trip was that it felt completely normal. Quite unlike Peter Cook, Eric Morecambe had always felt like someone I'd known all my life, and so, bizarrely, turning up at his family home seemed like an entirely natural thing to do.
This, I realised on my way to Harpenden, was the nub of Eric Morecambe's humdrum genius. Everyone thought they knew him. He wasn't like Tony Hancock or Spike Milligan, or any of the other comics I'd admired from afar. Unlike those tormented clowns, there was nothing remotely odd about him. He didn't seem like a celebrity. He felt like one of the family - your family, and mine. In fact, there was only one thing about him that was at all unusual - a God-given gift for making strangers laugh like old friends. But what would I find when I rifled through his personal possessions? Would the private Eric be just as chirpy as the public one? Or would I discover a darker side?
For someone like me who grew up in the 1970s, the "golden age of television", Morecambe & Wise were the shining stars at the top of the showbiz tree. No other act came close to matching their immense appeal. In today's world of satellite and Freeview, where we flick through countless channels before deciding to watch a DVD instead, it's difficult to overstate how big, how ubiquitous they were. The Morecambe & Wise Show ran on peak-time telly for over 20 years. More than 28-million people watched their 1977 Christmas special. Their fans ranged from members of the Royal Family to members of the KGB. And yet they seemed so ordinary. This apparent paradox, I discovered later as I sifted through the flotsam of Eric's study, had a lot to do with where they came from. For although Eric's ghost still flickers in the corner of the living room, in every festive clip-show and TV-countdown of comic greats, his timeless, classless humour was a throwback to a gentler age.
John Eric Bartholomew was born in Morecambe in 1926, the only child of a happy-go-lucky council worker and his kindly but determined wife. From his dad, Eric inherited a sense of fun and a flair for song and dance. From his mum, he inherited intelligence and drive. Since he was hopeless at school, she put him to work on Lancashire's thriving variety circuit, where he eventually won a place in a touring show, alongside a child star called Ernie Wise.
For the next 10 years, Eric and Ernie bounced back and forth from show to show: summer season, pantomime, circus - even nude revue. Eric's mum travelled with them, scrubbing floors to pay the rent. In 1952, Eric married a singer, dancer and comic's feed called Joan Bartlett, and after Ernie followed him up the aisle in 1953, their joint career took off. By the mid-Fifties they were regulars on the radio. By the early Sixties they had their own hit show on TV. In 1967, aged 41, happily married with two teenage children, Gail and Gary (and subsequently an adopted son, Steven), Eric moved into the house I'm driving to today.
At first glance it doesn't look like much - not from the main road at least. It's detached but fairly modern and unpretentious. The front lawn is neat but nondescript. Most of the garden is around the back. There's an outdoor swimming pool, but it's nothing fancy. In fact, the most remarkable thing about this house is that it's so unremarkable. It's a place you'd be pleased to live in, but it's hardly the sort of place you'd associate with a comic legend. Like Eric, it feels safe and comforting, without a hint of ostentation. From the moment you arrive, it feels like somewhere you've been coming all your life.
More than 20 years since he died, from a heart attack, aged just 58, Eric's personality still lingers in every corner of his comfortable home. There's a framed photo on the piano of him hobnobbing with the Queen Mother, and for a moment you wonder how on earth Eric, our Eric, got to meet the Queen Mum. "To me it always seems as if Eric's only just gone," Joan tells me, still slim and pretty, over 50 years after she was crowned Miss Margate and Miss Kent. "It never seems to me that it's been 20 years." She says she still half expects to see him pop his head around the door.
In some ways it was an unlucky house. Eric suffered his first heart attack only months after they moved in. He had his second heart attack in 1979, right here in the kitchen. Yet although he could easily have afforded somewhere far grander, he never really thought of moving. You can see why. Unlike a lot of celebrity cribs I've nosed around, it actually feels like home. There's a lovely view at the back, across the golf course and over open fields beyond, where Eric would go fishing or bird watching. Sometimes he'd just sit at the window with his binoculars, and watch the birds fly by overhead.
We go upstairs, past a full-length portrait of Eric in the stairwell, and into a small room - barely more than a box room - where Eric would retreat to read and write. Gary recalls him hunched over his typewriter, lost in a fog of pipe smoke, and two decades on, that sense of restless industry endures. On the floor is a shoebox full of old pipes, with blackened bowls and well-chewed stems. There's his Luton Town season ticket. Here's a hospital tag, made out in his real name, John Bartholomew, so he wouldn't be pestered by fellow patients hunting autographs. On the back of the door is a velvet smoking jacket, like a prop from one of Ernie's dreadful plays.
As you'd expect, there are stacks of joke books (The Complete Book of Insults, Twenty Thousand Quips & Quotes) and stacks of books about other jokers, many of them American, from silent wags like Buster Keaton to wise guys like Groucho Marx. But it's the novels on the shelves (Dickens, Wodehouse, Richmal Crompton) that tell you most about Britain's best loved joker. Like his favourite author, Charles Dickens, Eric had an intrinsic bonhomie that his fans found irresistible. But like Dickens, his humour was born of hard times and had its sinister side. "Eric told me The Pickwick Papers was the funniest book he'd ever read," says Gary. " He used to read it on train journeys when he was travelling from theatre to theatre, from digs to digs. He said he'd get strange looks from the people in his carriage, because he was stifling his laughter as he read."
We walk down the narrow landing, to Eric's old bedroom. The overflow from his study is strewn across the floor. There's the giant lollipop which was his trademark when he started out in showbiz - a 12-year-old vaudevillian in beret and bootlace tie. There's a clapperboard from The Intelligence Men, the first film he made with Ernie. And here's the ventriloquist's dummy that was the highlight of their live show. I don't know about you, but I always find these dummies pretty spooky. Maybe Eric and Ernie's slapstick schtick wasn't quite as cuddly as it seemed. There are heaps of photos all around us, some dating back to Eric and Ernie's first turns together, as teenagers during the war. With his boyish good looks and eager grin, Ernie looks just the same. Eric, on the other hand, looks painfully thin and curiously feminine, with high cheekbones and a full head of dark wavy hair.
There are piles of newspaper cuttings - countless rave reviews, even the odd stinker: "Definition of the week: TV set - the box in which they buried Morecambe & Wise." That was from their first (and last) TV flop, Running Wild. You wouldn't think Eric would be troubled by self doubt, however bad the write-ups. But although he always laughed off hostile notices by saying the hardest thing to find was yesterday's papers, he carried this hatchet job with him in his wallet until he died. Here's a profile of Eric by Kenneth Tynan in The Observer: "Whatever happens, there will be no more where he came from. Because they started so young, he and Ernie form a unique link between pre-war vaudeville and contemporary television."
This is all good stuff, but it's not what I'm really looking for. Where are Eric's notebooks? Where's the stuff he wrote himself? Where was the evidence that would reveal the more contemplative man I had begun to find?
We scour through cardboard boxes full of old programmes and playbills, featuring "Those Up And Coming Stars - Morecambe & Wise", but Eric's notebooks aren't there. We return to the study and here they are, as if Eric's hidden them to play a prank, in a tidy pile behind the door. There's his address book - a Who's Who of vintage British showbiz, from Ronnie Barker to Tommy Cooper. There's a number for Des O'Connor, the patient butt of so many put-downs, plus sporting pals like Dickie Davies and Jimmy Hill. There are numbers for Ernie (of course), their writer, Eddie Braben, their producer, John Ammonds, and the British Heart Foundation, an association that ended with Eric's third and final, fatal heart attack in 1984. "Eric Morecambe," reads the inscription, in his own hand, on the inside cover. "Comedian - Retired." Was this just a joke, or was it yet another sign of the more melancholy Eric?
Eric never retired - he never got the chance. He died backstage at the Roses Theatre in Tewkesbury, straight after the curtain call for his first (and final) solo show. But what his notebooks reveal is that although he had no intention of retiring from show business completely, he was already moving away from comedy towards an entirely different line of work.
Eric and Ernie's last job together was Night Train to Murder, the feature film with which Thames lured them away from the BBC. For Eric, who'd always dreamed of making a great movie, this creepy comic caper was a bitter disappointment. "I think that did break Eric's heart," Joan told me. "He couldn't believe that anything could be so bad." There was no prospect of them breaking up completely, but this rare failure confirmed Eric's hunch that his 40-year partnership with Ernie had run its natural course. Eric always used to say that comics peaked between 30 and 50. Now he was in his late fifties, with enough money to last a lifetime. Eric and Ernie's Thames TV shows were a lot better than their Thames movie, but it was clear their best work was behind them. What I learnt here in Eric's study, turning the pages of these notebooks, was that Eric's untimely death didn't cut short his double act with Ernie so much as his solo career as a serious writer.
Eric wrote his first novel in this room in 1980, while recovering from heart bypass surgery. Mr Lonely was a remarkably accomplished debut, but what was most surprising was its misanthropic tone. Its hero (or anti-hero) is a thoroughly unpleasant (and unfunny) comic called Sid Lewis, who somehow makes the leap from club compere to TV superstar. The first half of the book is a nightmare vision of what might have become of Eric if he'd never hit the big time. The second half is a cautionary tale about what the big time could have done to him if he hadn't been such a decent chap. Published in 1981, this dark novel was well received, but Eric shrugged off the praise, saying he wouldn't have made it into print if he hadn't already been famous. However his next two books (a jolly pair of children's stories about a reluctant vampire) were both successfully published in translation on the Continent, where Morecambe & Wise were virtually unknown.
Eric's children's books were a lot closer to the Eric we all thought we knew, but on this desk when he died was the first half of another grown-up novel which showed every sign of being even better than the first. Like Mr Lonely, Stella was about the bleaker side of show business, but unlike Mr Lonely, it had a highly sympathetic central character - a feisty yet sensitive aspiring starlet called Stella Ravenscroft who (unlike Sid Lewis) bears a curious resemblance to Eric himself. Gary finished off the book in here (it was published in 1986), the stale smell of his dad's pipe smoke still in the air, but although he did a decent job, Eric's original manuscript, beaten out in block capitals on a clunky old manual typewriter, remains a tale of what might have been.
With Stella still unfinished when he died, I hadn't expected to find any other fiction, but in this room I found the beginning of another story that even Gary had never seen. It was only a fragment, but it was clear that Eric had not abandoned it. "Try to finish," reads a hand-written note on the front page. Even in its incomplete form, it's an intriguing insight into a side of Eric that Morecambe & Wise fans never saw. As I sat there reading, I realised that my view of Eric was changing. Behind the breezy public image was a more serious, thoughtful man, with more than his fair share of doubts and fears. The health concerns he describes are distinctly autobiographical, but the simmering tension between husband and wife (a world away from his own marriage) reveals the power of his imagination and his growing prowess as a writer.
And then there were the diaries. Eric only kept a diary for a few years, but he kept it during a pivotal period of his life. When he wrote the first entry, in 1967, he was still slogging away in summer season. When he wrote the last entry, in 1969, he was back here, recovering from his first heart attack. It's intriguing to read what he really thought about these events at the time, rather than the way he looked back on them with hindsight. The same impish sense of fun remains, but his private voice is a good deal graver and more reflective. "I've got a wonderful wife and two great children, houses, money, almost everything," he wrote in September 1967, a year before his first heart attack. "Sometimes it worries me. I feel something's got to give. I know what Harry Secombe meant when he said he's worried that one day the phone will ring and a mystic voice will say, 'Thank you, Mr Secombe. Now can we have it all back?'" Morecambe's youth had straddled the Depression, the Second World War and the demise of music hall, and no amount of success could assuage the feeling that fame and wealth were both fleeting, and, on some deep level, undeserved. That's why he kept working, even after two heart attacks, and the thing that gave way was his health.
Finally, there were the joke books. Some, in childlike copperplate, date back half a century. Others, in geriatric scrawl, look like they were scribbled down yesterday. Reading these hoary old one-liners, you can't help marvelling how Eric did so much with so little (Ernie: "Have you got the maracas?" Eric: "No, it's the way I walk"). Until Eddie Braben came along, and turned their act into a sitcom, most comics would have died a death reciting these sort of step-pause-gag groaners. Braben injected fresh intimacy into Eric and Ernie's front of curtain patter, but even without his tender input, their act was always about the warmth of their relationship, rather than the wit of their routines.
I was about to pack up and go when I spotted a line in Eric's ungainly hand that looked out of place amid these corny puns and pratfalls. "I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled." It's from "The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock" by T S Eliot, one of the saddest poems I know. I went downstairs. Joan had made us tea and biscuits. Even without Eric, the living room felt warm and homely. I didn't want to leave.
A few months later, I went back to Harpenden to talk to Joan about Eric. "You can't explain it," she said, when I asked her why so many people felt they knew him. "You can't explain why people remember him as if he's still part of their lives." The house felt just the same. It reminded me of Saturday afternoons when I was a kid, playing Subbuteo on the living room floor, waiting for Final Score. Before I left, I went upstairs for a final look at Eric's study, but now the room was empty. Everything had been packed away.
'Eric Morecambe Unseen - The Lost Diaries, Jokes & Photographs', edited by William Cook, is published by HarperCollins on 3 OctoberReuse content