Graham McCann: Morecambe and Wise bring us sunshine – and a lesson in comic timing

It is not only nostalgia that brings the great British double act to our Christmas screens, but respect for their art

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BBC2's forthcoming biopic about Morecambe and Wise, Eric and Ernie, ends soon after the double act re-emerge from the disappointment of their British television debut in 1954. The most notorious review came as a definition: "TV set: the box in which they buried Morecambe and Wise." The irony is that the review proved correct: the place we turn to when we pay our respects to them is not a physical site, but, rather, the small screen.

Younger readers will be forgiven for assuming that Morecambe and Wise – unlike puppies – are just for Christmas, because the memory of when their seasonal specials were national viewing events tends to summon up their spirit most strongly over each year's festive period.

But their impact on British television was far greater than that. Their series and their specials fixed several generations firmly and devotedly in front of the TV set. This is why the medium now keeps returning to mourn them.

Eric and Ernie is the latest of the many graveside garlands to be laid by the box in the corner. It is the first, however, to feature a "dramatisation" of the double act, which has worried those painfully aware that the BBC has "previous" when it comes to dubious biopics.

BBC Four's 2008 Curse of Comedy season, for example, turned a platitude (most people are unhappy sometimes) into a puzzle (why are comedians unhappy sometimes?), and seemed incredibly proud of itself for doing so. To note just a couple of the many canards contained in these lazy public misinformation films: the actors who played Steptoe and Son always hated each other (they did not), and Tony Hancock's ex-writers, Galton and Simpson, took perverse pleasure in watching his sad decline (they most certainly did not, and Galton was so angered by the suggestion that he punched the playwright who made it).

Mercifully, Eric and Ernie (overseen by Victoria Wood, whom no one would want to punch) is nowhere near as mythomanic as any of these previous showbiz biopics. Charting the origin and formative years of the double act (stretching from the late 1930s to the mid-1950s), the drama follows the young Eric Bartholomew of Morecambe and Ernest Wiseman of Leeds as they meet, become a duo, change their names and then get knocked down and get up again more often than a Chumbawamba lyric as they refuse to give up their showbiz dream.

The film suffers from the grimly inevitable fact that neither Daniel Rigby, as Eric, nor Bryan Dick, as Ernie, is able to convey what made their real-life counterparts so special. It is ironic how playwrights protect their own authorship so carefully while treating other people's identities so casually. But taken as a fondly nostalgic "once upon a time" tribute it works rather well. The supporting performances are decent, the period detail precise and the photography superb. Simplified and romanticised, the story slips down smoothly like a festive sweet sherry.

The unfortunate thing about the production is that it underlines yet again the fact that today's programme- makers prefer to commemorate their past instead of learning from it. This is a particular pity in the case of Morecambe and Wise, because there are lessons to be learnt.

The first one is that rich and authentic experience is invaluable. The answer to the question "What do they know of TV who only TV know?" is a simple one: nowhere near enough.

One of the irritating aspects of the BBC biopic is that, rather like Shakespeare's Justice Shallow cheerfully cataloguing all of the dust-encrusted dead, it seems so eager to define this double act strictly within the sepia-tinted context of a bygone era: screening the X Factor generation a quaint little slide-show of seaside talent contests, smoky northern clubs and ancient-looking music-halls. This, however, is missing the most pertinent point. Forget about the type of venues: what is much more important is that Morecambe and Wise made full use of whatever options happened to be available. They found people to charm. Yes, the old days of the variety circuit have long gone, but venturing out in search of live, uncontrolled and sometimes uncontrollable audiences is still possible and worthwhile before any fame and hype drains much of the danger away. If you really want to know if you're good, then you need more than an obliging floor manager holding up a sign saying "Applause" in front of a non-paying audience.

Unlike the studio-reared hothouse flowers of today, Morecambe and Wise served a long apprenticeship in their craft. They did so in front of volatile but discriminating audiences who never "gave it up" unless they deemed something worthy of honest applause.

The consequence was that Morecambe and Wise had to cope with all the many misses as well as the hits, and came to find a wide range of ways to win loud and heartfelt laughs. So, when they finally established themselves on the screen, they were worldly wise and ready for anything. Whereas television's current double act, Ant and Dec, can sometimes look like blanched munchkins when over-running "Live Tucker Trials" edge them rudely out of their comfort zone, Morecambe and Wise always knew how to react and adapt: they relished the chance to transform a crisis into a comic triumph.

Another lesson we can take from them is that professionalism is genuinely important. Morecambe and Wise put to shame most of their contemporaries, let alone their successors, by how long and hard they prepared for every fresh performance. They then followed each effort by subjecting themselves to the most rigorous and excoriating self-critiques.

They considered any chance to entertain people to be a serious privilege, and they never wanted to waste it. The likes of Peter Kay might benefit from remembering this the next time that they deign, after much obsequious media pomp and circumstance, to go through the motions again as though their mere presence is some kind of extra-special treat.

Nor should it be forgotten that the team behind Morecambe and Wise never stopped pushing them to keep improving instead of over-indulging and over-promoting them for their early promise. When they moved to the BBC at the end of the 1960s, they were assigned John Ammonds, a hugely experienced and astute producer strikingly sharp of ear and eye; Eddie Braben, one of the most assiduous and inspired of comedy scriptwriters, and Ernest Maxin, an indefatigably imaginative musical-comedy specialist, to drive the double act in a new and better direction. In stark contrast to many of today's prematurely anointed greats, who produce their own shows and pick up Baftas at a rate that most of us accumulate junk mail, Morecambe and Wise were always encouraged to stay hungry and humble:

Interviewer: "'What exactly do you do for a living?"

Ernie: "We're just entertainers."

Eric: "Just."

They also kept on aiming for a broad audience. It has become an unexamined assumption within the television industry these days that one has to choose between producing good work for a niche audience and mediocre work for the mass. It is a bit like the dour old Presbyterians of the 18th-century Scottish Kirk insisting that any budding entrepreneurs must choose between preserving virtue or accumulating wealth. Just as Adam Smith showed that there was a chance that one could marry wealth with virtue, so Morecambe and Wise proved that it was possible to combine the highest quality with the broadest appeal.

To say that they tried to entertain people without resorting to pointless expletives or obscenities is these days, sadly, to suggest that they were bland and "safe". They were not. What they did was to craft such clever, playful and funny performances that everyone appreciated them, regardless of background or education. That, in fact, took considerably more thought, skill and effort than peppering the act with the "F" word and insulting the old and infirm.

The likes of such self-conscious and scattershot sensationalists as Frankie Boyle, had they ever encountered Eric Morecambe, would soon have realised that, in private, if provoked, he could have out-sniped them sharply into submission, and no "straight man" around today would surpass Ernie Wise for speed of thought, sensitivity or disciplined comic technique. Morecambe and Wise, had they been so inclined, could easily have been just as "edgy" and alienating on TV as today's Channel 4 post-pub "boundary pushers".

Their strong reluctance to do so certainly had nothing to do with an absence of ability: the opposite was the truth. The only reason Morecambe and Wise aimed to entertain the nation, rather than the niche, was that they did not want to leave anyone out.

Morecambe and Wise were as decent as they were talented. If that causes some of today's television executives to snort and sneer, more fool them. These were two working-class people who had lived through a depression and a world war, and grown up wanting simply to lead good lives while entertaining all of their fellow citizens.

It showed. The final lesson to be learned from this most distinguished of double acts is that audiences deserve to be treated with genuine respect. The record number of 28.8 million people who watched The Morecambe & Wise Show on Christmas night in 1977 knew that they were being entertained by two great performers who truly cared. "It is your audience that counts," they always said, "not you." And they always meant it.

Everyone who watched, recognised, appreciated and cherished that spirit. That is why Morecambe and Wise were loved. That it is why they still are loved.

And that is why it is well worth trying to learn from Morecambe and Wise rather than merely paying our respects at their mausoleum.

Can we say that here? The gags that get the big laughs, time after time

On music:

Andre Previn: "What were you playing just then?"

Morecambe: "The Grieg Piano Concerto."

Previn: "But you're playing all the wrong notes."

Morecambe: (Stands, and grabs Previn by his lapels) "I am playing all the right notes. But not necessarily in the right order."

On motoring:

Customer: "I'd like a fitment for my wife's car."

Shopkeeper: "What make?"

Customer: "Female."

On form:

Morecambe: "Can we help you, young sir?"

Peter Cushing: "I am Cushing."

Morecambe: "Well, that's a nasty habit for a start."

The play what I wrote:

German officer: "Next time you try to escape, you will be shot at dawn."

Morecambe: "I'm not worried. I don't get up till nine o'clock."

On the look-out:

(Morecambe stands at window. A police siren is heard.)

"He's not going to sell much ice cream going at that speed."

Culture vulture:

Morecambe: "Tennyson. I remember him. Plays left-half for Wrexham."

The old ones are the best:

Antiques seller: "I do have a beautiful pair of bronze miniatures."

Customer: "Well, we've all got our problems."

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