When Morecambe and Wise garnered around 28 million viewers on Christmas Night 1977 it proved to be the zenith of television light entertainment. A decade earlier the duo had been a solid but not sensational success for ITV. More than anyone else it was their writer, Eddie Braben, who had changed their fortunes. BBC's Head of Light Entertainment Bill Cotton had had the idea of placing Braben with them, and turned a success into a legend.
Braben initially had little zest for the pair, having seen them once as a teenager where "they were so far down the bill I thought they were the printers." He remembered them leaving the stage to a "country lane silence", and while he felt they'd improved after a stint on radio, by the time they'd reached ITV he found Ernie too abrasive and Eric too gormless. But when he met the pair in Cotton's office in 1969, he realised what their act was missing: the warmth they clearly felt for each other.
The pair found Braben's work hilarious but out of their comfort zone, but changed their minds on the night of the first studio recording. Eric walked on, having recently suffered a coronary, looked at his heart and said "keep going you fool". It was, unusually for Braben, an old gag, but it was a new approach for the duo. Soon they were the biggest comedy stars in Britain.
Eddie Braben was born in Liverpool in 1930, the son of a butcher who had a stall in St John's Market. As a child he was bewitched by radio comedy, and after leaving school, while working on the fruit and veg stall his father had bought for him (an occupation he hated but one which surely honed his talent for punchy patter), he wrote 500 jokes a week in his spare time. From the start he was a workaholic and a ruthless judge of his own abilities, often writing 10 pages and tearing nine up. He saw all jokes, even one-liners, as mini-plays, and strove to make them as uncluttered as possible. He sold his first one to Charlie Chester for two shillings and sixpence.
Before Morecambe and Wise his most fruitful partnership was with Ken Dodd, who he regarded as "the funniest stand-up in the world". Dodd's style would have tested the stamina of any writer, telling eight jokes a minute in shows that lasted several hours, but the pairing was a glorious success, and led Braben into a prosperous television career. Throughout his life radio remained his first love, however, and in the 1970s, while writing for Morecambe and Wise, he found the time to perform himself in The Worst Show on the Wireless (1975), The Show With Ten Legs (1978) and The Show with No Name (1984), and held his own impressively alongside old pros such as Bill Pertwee and younger ones including Alison Steadman.
After 15 years with Dodd, the Morecambe and Wise years were even more arduous, but the lines and sketches they produced charmed a nation and every subsequent generation. Braben's relentless work ethic led to a nervous breakdown in 1972, and with the pressure taking its toll on Morecambe, too, in 1977 the team decided to drop their regular series and concentrate on the Christmas Show. But rather than easing the pressure it increased it. Braben was working 16 hours a day on the script and collapsed after suffering hallucinations. Amazingly the show, which seemed bound to be a disappointment after such anticipation, was a masterpiece. By the end of the decade Braben had won four Writer's Guild Awards, but was never interested in the bright lights of London, escaping on a train back to his beloved Liverpool immediately after every script meeting. "I'm a romantic and to me Liverpool is Disneyland, the city at the end of the yellow brick road," he once said.
Morecambe and Wise were seduced away by Thames Television with an enormous sum of money and the prospect of film work. Bill Cotton learned of their defection via his secretary, and was devastated. "It felt just like a divorce," he later recalled. Braben was unhappy about the move but even more unhappy when Cotton refused to let him go too, insisting that he was bound by his BBC contract. It was Cotton's sure-fire way of sabotaging the Thames series. Eventually Braben and Cotton confronted each other in an office at Television Centre. Braben headbutted Cotton and Cotton retaliated by clobbering him with that most Seventies of blunt instruments, a soda syphon. Braben left to join the pair at Thames but by then it was too late, and Morecambe and Wise would never scale the same heights.
Braben, however, never stopped working. Throughout his career he wrote for David Frost, Jim Davidson, Ronnie Corbett, Mike Yarwood, even Ant and Dec. He claimed that after Morecambe's death in 1984 he was unable to stop writing material for the pair, but had nowhere to place it. It finally found a home when he collaborated with Hamish McColl and Sean Folley on The Play Wot I Wrote, the West End success of 2001. The opening night was one of many that climaxed with a standing ovation. It flabbergasted Braben but came as no surprise to anyone else. Braben was as much a national treasure to the British public as Eric and Ernie.
Edward Braben, writer and performer: born Liverpool 31 October 1930; married Dee (three children); died Liverpool 21 May 2013.
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