The 1971 Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show is where everything came together. Three consecutive sequences would prove to be all-time classics that have been endlessly re-shown over the past four decades.
The show opens with Eric registering his appreciation of the audience. “Lovely audience. They’ve done us proud, haven’t they, the BBC. Not bad, considering they fell off the back of a lorry. I love them when they’re like this, all drunk. Beautiful”. Eric and Ernie then discuss just how much the BBC values them. It appears that Dick Emery is top-rated, with Ern below him and Eric right at the bottom (if the size of the tankards they receive are anything to go by). Eric’s certainly dismayed with the size of his (“I’ve only got a little-un”).
The sight of M&W dressed as turkeys is something that lingers long in the memory. Presumably they decided not to do a retake at the start (where Ernie almost falls over) as it would have dulled the audience’s appreciation of their initial appearance. It’s broad stuff, but there’s some good lines, such as Eric’s “I don’t fancy lying in a tin of hot fat, on me back, with a roast potato stuck between me knees”.
There’s something missing from this show – no Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen. Frankly, Los Zafiros are no substitute. Following that disappointment, we then move into the heart of the show. The next thirty minutes or so (Glenda Jackson, Andre Previn, Shirley Bassey) are pretty much as good as it gets.
After Glenda indulges in some crosstalk with Eric and Ernie they launch into a big song and dance number, paying tribute to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. This concerns Glenda, who protests that she can’t dance a step, but she manages very well. There’s also the chance to see some familiar BBC faces (Cliff Michelmore, Frank Bough, Eddie Waring, Patrick Moore, Michael Parkinson and Robert Dougall) make quick cameos. By paying tribute to a song and dance act from the 1930’s, nobody could claim that Morecambe and Wise had their finger on the pulse of current trends, but frankly that’s not a problem. There’s a timelessness to great entertainment (whether it’s M&W or Fred & Ginger).
Next up is Andre Previn conducting Greig’s Piano Concerto, soloist Eric Morecambe. This sketch dated back to the mid 1960’s and was written by M&W’s previous writing team of Sid Green and Dick Hills. It’s a little strange that they didn’t receive a credit for this at the end (which has lead many to assume that it, like the rest of the show, had been written by Eddie Braben).
The obvious change from the original to the 1971 version is the inclusion of Andre Previn as the conductor (displacing Ernie). This does mean that Ern has less to do, but as it’s Previn who makes the sketch so memorable, this is unavoidable. As is probably well known, due to his busy schedule Andre Previn was unable to take part in any rehearsals, which worried Eric who was convinced that this whole sketch (the centrepiece of the Christmas show) would be a disaster.
As it turned out, Previn had great comic timing and it’s possible to see the point at which Eric begins to relax (“Pow! He’s in. I like him. I like him”) and realise that he was going to be fine. Another part of the sketch which works well are the shots of the orchestra in the background, who are visibly enjoying themselves as some of Eric’s lines (“Which one’s the fixer?”) clearly hit home.
Shirley Bassey’s appearance has a similar template to Nina’s appearance on the 1970 Christmas Show – a chat, a song in which her attempts to sing are sabotaged by a specially designed set that doesn’t behave and a song performed with no interference (although Nina’s was in a different order). As M&W were masters of making rehearsed moves seem like ad-libs, it’s difficult to know if Shirley Bassey’s slapping of Ernie’s face was quite the surprise it appeared to be, but it’s a nice moment nonetheless.
Her performance of Smoke Gets In Your Eyes is another clip that’s very familiar from numerous broadcasts over the years, but it still seems as fresh as ever. And a cracking performance of Diamonds Are Forever as well.
After all that, the Robin Hood play does come as a little anti-climax, although Ann Hamilton is a winsome Maid Marion and Francis Matthews throws himself into the spirit of things as King Richard.
The 1971 Christmas Special was easily the most consistent of their BBC Christmas specials to date. Could they equal or better it in 1972?