It’s astonishing to think that the responsibility for writing virtually all of Morecambe & Wise’s BBC shows (both the series and the Christmas specials) fell on the shoulders of one man – Eddie Braben. Other programmes, such as The Two Ronnies, would employ numerous writers, enabling them the luxury of picking the best material from a large pool of talent.
But apart from the odd recycled sketch (such as the Grieg sketch from the 1971 Christmas Special) pretty much everything was down to Braben. And given how well received the 1971 Christmas Show had been, the pressure was on to equal or better that. Braben would later explain the strain this put him under.
The real pressure came when I was sat in front of that typewriter with all those blank pages and there was a deadline and there was nothing happening. That’s when you realised there were 20 million or 25 million people looking over your shoulder – all saying ‘make me laugh’.
In 1972 the pressure proved to be too much and Braben had a breakdown. Whilst he recovered, the scripting of the 1972 Christmas Special would be handled by Barry Cryer and John Junkin with Mike Craig and Lawrie Kinsley providing the Reindeer sketch and Morecambe & Wise contributing “additional material”.
It’s possible to detect right from the start just how much Braben will be missed. The opening crosstalk sees Eric play a number of practical jokes on Ern (a buzzer in his hand, a flower that squirts water and a telescope that leaves a black mark around Ern’s eye) whilst Ern has the last laugh by presenting Eric with a present that squirts foam into his face. It’s funny enough, but it’s difficult to imagine Braben ever writing anything like this. One of Braben’s greatest contributions to the legacy of M&W was to change their crosstalk personas, as he would later explain –
I hadn’t liked their stage persona. Eric was too gormless, in my view. Ernie was too abrasive and hard-edged. Yet, at that meeting it was obvious there was genuine friendship and affection between them. There was humility and innocence, too. None of that was being shown in their work, so I reckoned if all that could be developed, it would show a different, softer side to Morecambe and Wise.
I came back with 30 pages of material with my vision of a new, reinvented Eric and Ernie. In a way, I was caricaturing the two men as they really were. I never told Eric and Ernie that this was really a showcase for their mutual affection, because I was afraid they might become self-conscious and spoil it. Ernie was delighted with his new role. ‘At last I’ve got something to perform,’ he told me.
Until then, Eric had always referred to Ernie as his Wellmaboy. So called because as the straight man, it was his job to draw the funny line out of Eric — ‘Well, my boy, so what happened next?’ Eric would be more worldly, but as the funnyman would still bounce off Ernie, who for years had been the archetypal straight man. Now, for the first time he would have a personality of his own — he would be a playwright; conceited, pompous, and vain.
The warmth developed by Braben is largely absent from the 1972 Christmas Show (it’s notable for example that there isn’t a flat sketch – a key Braben contribution). But at least Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen are back, so it’s not all bad news. The Reindeer sketch is a highlight (even if it’s recycling the dress-up idea from the previous year) with a surprise cameo from Bruce Forsyth at the end.
One area where it seems that inspiration was running low concerns the appearances of Jack Jones and Vera Lynn. Both of their spots are identical – a chat, a song where M&W appear in the background to upstage them and then a song performed without interference. It’s a winning formula, but to repeat it wasn’t probably the best idea.
We get two plays here – Dawn Patrol with Pete Murray and Victoria and Albert with Glenda Jackson. Dawn Patrol would probably have been twice as funny had been half as long. Victoria and Albert is better, since it doesn’t outstay its welcome and there’s a nice song and dance at the end, ensuring that the show ends on a high.
Overall, the 1972 Christmas Show is something of a disappointment which serves to highlight just how important Eddie Braben had become to the M&W show. Hopefully, normal service would be resumed in 1973.