Stars recall Little Ern's big contribution

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The Independent Online
ERNIE WISE, the underrated straight man in Britain's most famous comedy double act, finally gained centre stage yesterday.

Celebrities turned out at a crematorium in Slough, Berkshire, to pay tribute to "Little Ern", who was famous for being the "short, fat, hairy legs" - and not a lot else - of Morecambe and Wise. The comedian died earlier this month aged 73, after a heart operation.

But yesterday, the son of a railway porter who started in showbusiness at 13 as a clog dancer was lauded for his own comic genius. There had been too much concentration on Eric Morecambe's contribution, said the former Channel 4 chief executive Michael Grade, delivering the funeral oration.

"Let us be clear. They were equal partners in the comic genius department," he said.

Together, he said, they created a "comic chemistry that can only be explained as a divine process". Each was vital to the other. "Morecambe without Wise? It's unthinkable. Like trying to create a table without legs, short, fat, hairy or not."

Angela Rippon, the former newsreader who became a star after dancing on a Morecambe and Wise Christmas show, said: "Ernie was such a very generous, kind man. You have to be generous to be a straight man to a comedian like Eric Morecambe, who always gets the laughs."

Also among the mourners were Rolf Harris, Wendy Craig and the comedian Tom O'Connor. The television presenter Michael Barratt said: "My one regret is that I did not appear on the show. It was the ultimate accolade in Britain at the time."

The tone of the funeral was of a passing era. Even the autograph hunters were in their 70s. Teddy Johnson, runner-up with Pearl Carr in the 1959 Eurovision Song Contest, sang Ernie Wise's favourite song - Henry Mancini's "Shadow of Your Smile".

Joan Morecambe, Eric's widow, stood alongside Doreen, Ernie's widow, reading messages on the floral tributes. "Eric and Ernie formed one of the most perfect friendships," said Mrs Morecambe. "I don't think there will be a double act like them again."