Now a new book is set to afford a remarkable glimpse inside the mind and private life of Britain's best-loved comedian. In Eric Morecambe Unseen: The Lost Diaries, Jokes and Photographs, due out next month, he emerges as a man happy in his family and marriage, but who would shut himself away for hours in his den, dictating ideas and worrying almost obsessively over scripts.
There are surprises: a fondness for Dickens and T S Eliot, and digs at his partner Ernie Wise in letters to fellow comedians. And there are hints, too, in William Cook's new book that Morecambe had begun to think his professional relationship with Wise had run its course, and that a new departure beckoned.
The book is the result of what was almost an archaeological dig through the layers of papers, notebooks and tape recordings found inside the comedian's den. For 20 years after his death in 1984, this room, where Morecambe would retreat for hours, lay untouched. Finally, Morecambe's widow decided its contents should be quarried for a book, and so Cook arrived at the comedian's home in Hertfordshire.
Upstairs was a small sanctuary, where Morecambe would retreat to write and think and watch birds through the fug of pipe smoke he would build up. On the floor was a shoebox full of old pipes, and behind the door a smoking jacket. Elsewhere was a hospital tag made out in his real name, John Bartholomew, and a season ticket forhis beloved Luton Town - all the paraphernalia of Morecambe's public face.
But there was the private Morecambe to be found too. On the shelves are joke books, books about other comedians and his favourite novels. Morecambe's son Gary told Cook: "Eric told me The Pickwick Papers was the funniest book he'd ever read. He used to read it on train journeys when he was travelling from theatre to theatre. He said he'd get strange looks from the people in his carriage because he was stifling his laughter as he read."
There were joke books covering nearly half a century of fiddling around with what worked on stage and what didn't, and address books. One even had a number for Des O'Connor, who took the brunt of many a Morecambe gag over the years. "Eric Morecambe," reads the inscription on the inside cover. "Comedian - Retired."
And there was the diary Morecambe kept between 1967, while appearing in summer season, and 1969, when he came home to recuperate from his first heart attack. An entry for September 1967 reads: "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?'"
That call never came. In 1977, Morecambe touched heights now unattainable in a multichannel age when his and Ernie's Christmas show was seen by 28 million people - more than half the population. But the heart attacks and passing years took some toll. The pair's last project - a feature film called Night Train to Murder - was a disaster. Cook writes: "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 ... 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."
Morecambe had written his first novel in 1980, and a second was finished off by his writer son Gary, but Cook discovered notes for a third, darker, novel. On the cover of some half a dozen pages is a handwritten note "Try to finish", and then an opening paragraph: "'You must try and lose some of that weight.' Madeleine looked at her husband's stomach. 'Oh, I'm not too bad." Ralph looked down at 10 pounds of extra him that wasn't there last Christmas. In five months he had put on all this weight."
Cook is careful not to read too much into these lines, as he is with a letter to Ronnie Barker dated 3 December 1983 that the recipient handed to him as part of his research. "I sat in my office this morning and looked around," wrote Morecambe. "What have I achieved? Honestly what have I achieved in 44 years in showbiz - a funny heart and a rich partner. I wouldn't mind if it had been the other way round. [Ernie] said to me the other day we should cut the scripts down, so he took out two 'oh reallys' and a 'then what happens' - all his lines."
Such letters, and all the contents of Morecambe's private jottings, are a disappointment to the scandal seeker. Nor do they offer any fodder to those who assume that all great comics must be angst-ridden geniuses. This was not Morecambe in public, and now we know that it was not Morecambe in private either. He was just a very funny man.
Eric and Ernie went into a BBC studio to record a show, and a commissionaire asked for a ticket. Eric, noting that the man, a war veteran, had only one arm, said: "Certainly not." "Why?" the the commissionaire asked. Eric said: "You've only got one arm; you can't clap."
On Desert Island Discs, Eric and Ernie were asked what they would have been, if not comedians. "Mike and Bernie Winters," said Eric.
"When I had a heart attack in Leeds," Eric said, "I was helpless in my Jensen at 1am and the only living person around me was this man who'd been in the Territorial Army. He drove my £7,000 motor car like a tank. As they wheeled me into intensive care he bent over me and whispered, 'Can I have your autograph before you go?'"