Morecambe and Wise: The Garage Tapes, Radio 4
Pistols at Dawn, Radio 4
A hoard of early comedy sketches shows that later classics had a long gestation
Sunday 09 May 2010
I'm Rimsky-Korsakov. I've got a brother at home – he's got a cold on his chest. We call him Nasty-Chestikov. Boom-boom. My girlfriend used to be in a circus. She chewed hammers. Was she professional? No, hammer-chewer.
Shall I stop now? In the early 1950s a comedy new wave was breaking on the shores of the Light Programme. Spike Milligan and Michael Bentine were breaking all the rules in Crazy People, later The Goon Show, while the improvised In All Directions featured Peters Ustinov and Jones in a Beckettesque road movie, driving round in a perpetual search for Copthorne Avenue.
But some of the emerging talent cleaved to more traditional comic values, as evidenced in my intro. Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise's idols were Abbott and Costello and the Marx Brothers, and it showed in their rat-a-tat routines. Apart from playing the perfect straight man, Wise took it upon himself to be the duo's archivist, and he recorded a stack of material which lay in suitcases in his garage for decades. "I don't think he ever played them back," his widow, Doreen, told Jon Culshaw in Morecambe and Wise: The Garage Tapes. "He just knew he should keep them." A wise decision, given the BBC's historic penchant for wiping stuff.
The elements we know and love from the TV shows are all there: the bad playlets, the song and dance routines, the guest stars ripe for mickey-taking, though not the stellar names of later shows. Then, it was the likes of Jack Jackson, Brylcreemed trumpeter and Housewives' Choice disc-spinner, or Brian Rees, star of The Adventures of PC 49 ("surely you remember his catchphrase 'Oh, my Sunday helmet!' "). It feels like aeons ago, not just half a century.
When the pair first tried to break into TV, in 1954, it was a disaster. For the rest of his career Eric carried round the Express review: "Is that a television I see in the corner of my living room? No, it's the box the BBC buried Morecambe and Wise in last night."
A century or two before that, Morecambe might have demanded satisfaction. Although James I banned duelling in 1614, it remained entrenched in aristocratic culture until the 19th century, as Justin Champion found out in the fascinating Pistols at Dawn. Across the Channel they began taking survivors, bleeding, straight to the gallows. In this country, while it was against the law, as long as you stuck to the duelling code, the courts would generally see you right. Steal a sheep and you'd probably hang; kill someone because he insults your mother and you'd almost certainly walk free.
By the 19th century, though, people were fed up with it, and when the Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington, met a rival in Battersea one morning in 1829, following a row over Catholic emancipation in Ireland, there was open revulsion. "No wonder the multitude break laws," the Morning Herald thundered, "when the law makers themselves, the great, the powerful and the famous, set them at open defiance." As Eric Morecambe used to say, "There's no answer to that!"
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