Vic Reeves to star in drama about Eric and Ernie's early years

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The Independent Online

When the child performers John Eric Bartholomew and Ernest Wiseman first met on the "song and dance" circuit of the 1940s, they instantly formed a friendship which was to last for more than four decades.

Under their stage names Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise, the pair soon forged a double act in Britain's music halls and their onstage chemistry led them to become one of the nation's most celebrated comedy duos.

Yet it is their early friendship, of which little has been documented, that is to provide the bulk of the storyline for a BBC2 drama starring the comedians Vic Reeves and Victoria Wood.

The one-off drama, currently being filmed in north west England, was conceived by Wood. "We may think of Morecambe and Wise as that brilliant and much-loved double act but I've always thought that a film about their days as child performers in variety and their struggles to establish themselves would make a fantastic story," she said.

Timothy Bricknell, the programme's producer, said both men's families had been consulted for research purposes. "This is really a story of how their friendship came to be. Not many people know they were child performers; Eric was 13 when he met Ernie, who was 14. What makes them so special and part of the reason why the British public loved them for so many years was because of this genuine friendship," he said.

One of the central storylines of the drama, which is due to be broadcast at Christmas, will be the formative influence that Morecambe's mother, Sadie – played by Wood – cast on her son's early career. "His mother thought he had a natural talent and she decided she would encourage him... She loved the theatre and she wanted him to have a more exciting life," Mr Bricknell added.

The comedians will be played by three pairs of actors to capture them as child entertainers, teenagers and grown men. Reeves, who has often been compared to Morecambe, both for his brand of comedy and his physical appearance, is cast in the role of his father, George.

Morecambe and Wise met in 1941, when they were separately booked to appear in the impresario Jack Hylton's revue Youth Takes a Bow. They formed a double act after the Second World War and became such intimate friends that they incorported sketches of sleeping in the same bed as part of their act on stage, as the comedy duo, Laurel and Hardy, had done before them.

Their partnership was cut short by Morecambe's sudden death in 1984. Gary Morecambe, Eric's son, described the drama as "the greatest possible tribute to the double act". It will span across 20 years, focussing on the strength of the bond between the two men, which enabled them to overcome their first disappointing foray into television in the 1950s.

Beginning in the late 1930s, the drama will end in 1954, the year of Morecambe and Wise's first television series Running Wild, and a decade before they were established as an extraordinarily popular comedy act in the 1970s; when the biggest celebrities of the day felt it an honour to be invited on to their weekly television show for cameo appearances.

The first episode of Running Wild led to a particularly damning newspaper review which Morecambe is said to have carried around with him for years afterwards as a humbling reminder. The cast includes Bryan Dick as the adult Ernie Wise and Daniel Rigby as Eric Morecambe. It is written by Peter Bowker and the director is Jonny Campbell, whose work includes Shameless and Ashes To Ashes.