Morecambe & Wise at Thames

The news that Network look to be releasing all of Morecambe and Wise’s Thames shows soon (DVD covers have appeared on Amazon) fills me with a certain amount of joy. I took to Twitter to express my delight but Twitter being Twitter it wasn’t long before somebody stopped by to tell me that the Thames era was a bit rubbish really ….

This is a widely held view, but hopefully after all the shows become accessible we might see something of a reassessment. It’s true that Morecambe and Wise’s Thames twilight years don’t match their BBC peak – but then both performers were older and slower (especially Eric, who had suffered his second heart attack in the late seventies). And no matter how good Eddie Braben was, after more than a decade writing for Eric and Ernie it’s not a surprise that sometimes things seem rather familiar.

But one thing you realise when working through the BBC era is that not everything is gold. The hit rate is pretty good, but there’s a fair bit of chaff too. For me, it’s Little Ern’s plays which are the main sticking point – had they been tight, ten minute skits then they’d pass by very agreeably (but many tend to be twice that length and are more of a trial than a treasure).

Since the regular Thames shows were only twenty five minutes, this sort of indulgence was no longer possible. Possibly the shows were shorter in order not to put too much pressure on Eric, but whatever the reason it was a positive move.

Although I watch a considerable amount of archive television (a self evident statement I know) I’m very rarely motivated by nostalgia. I’m prepared to make an exception for E & E at Thames though.

I don’t have any clear memories of their first run BBC performances (and in the late seventies, early eighties their BBC shows didn’t get repeated very often) so I really hopped on board at the start of their Thames transfer. So little things (“here they are now, Morecambe & Wise” sung to the Thames jingle and Eric walking off at the end of each show to catch the bus) still give me a little nostalgic frisson.

Fingers crossed that these DVDs don’t go into limbo like certain other Network titles (Biggles, Hollywood). Time will tell ….

The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club – 8th March 1975


Tonight’s Turns:

The Flirtations
The Krankies
George Melly with John Chilton’s Feetwarmers
Richard and Lara Jarman
Joe ‘Mr Piano’ Henderson

There seems to be a never-ending line of girl groups who are available to be wheeled on to open the show. Today it’s the Flirtations, who have an impressive history and look to be another group that I’ll need to investigate further at a later date. Put Your Hands Together is the song they perform here – all three take turns to trade main vocal lines (although it’s fair to say that some seem better suited to taking the lead than others).

The Krankies are back. It’s slightly baffling now to understand quite how they managed to maintain such a long career, given the thinness of their act (possibly it was a mystery back then as well). The formula is as before – straight man Ian (lovely ruffled shirt, sir) finds himself continually interrupted by the highly irritating schoolboy Jimmy.

A sample joke will give you a flavour of their act. “Do you know anything about general knowledge? Yes, he was a soldier”. I don’t know why, but this time round I found their shtick to be somewhat creepy.

Still, things pick up with George Melly. Along with John Chilton’s Feetwarmers he rampages through The Boogie Woogie Man. They were an act surely good enough to be top of the bill, instead of being relegated to five minutes just before the advert break. Oh well.

Considering he wasn’t a name performer, Richard Jarman (together with the lovely Lara) gets a very generous chunk of the show (some thirteen minutes). It’s a perfect example of the sort of magic act you could expect to see in clubland, utilising props which don’t take up a great deal of floorspace.

Things don’t get off to the best of starts when Richard, preparing for the egg into dove illusion, drops the lid onto the floor. But quick as a flash he picks it up and things carry on. Once this minor miracle is out of the way it’s time to concentrate on the two main illusions.  The first is the very familiar Zig Zag Girl, although back then it was more current – having been invented just a decade earlier by Robert Harbin (one of his performances can be found on Network’s London Palladium release).

The trunk illusion is much older (it was a favourite of Houdini’s) and although it’s not too hard to work out how it’s done, the trick is still a good one.  Both illusions do take a while to set up (which helps to explain why the spot was so long) although it’s a slight surprise to me that Richard was allowed the two big tricks, rather than just one.

No act could be better suited to the Wheeltappers than Joe ‘Mr Piano’ Henderson (he plays the piano, you know). ‘Mr Piano’ leads the faithful in a number of sing-alongs (including You Made Me Love You which seemed to feature every other week). Joe’s amiable pub style of playing is the ideal way to close the show. Not an edition that’s particularly high on star power, but there are worse ways to spend forty minutes.

Mike Yarwood’s Christmas Show (1982)


Although Mike Yarwood was one of the kings of 1970’s light entertainment television, his profile has remained fairly low during the last few decades – mainly because few of his shows are commercially available or receive television airings.  Selected Morecambe & Wise and Two Ronnies Christmas Specials pop up in the schedules each year, but Yarwood (whose 1977 Christmas Special achieved a record rating of twenty eight million – just narrowly beating that year’s Morecambe & Wise show) has tended to remain trapped in the archives.

Maybe this is due to concerns that some of his impersonations are too obscure for modern audiences or possibly his brand of humour just seems too bland and middle of the road.  I’d love to see a run of his work for the BBC in the 1970’s – as that’s generally held to be his strongest – but as it’s not available the next best thing is the DVD It’s Mike Yarwood.

Released by Fremantle in 2007, it contains four shows that he made for Thames between 1982 and 1984 as well as a documentary from 1984 – Mike Yarwood: This Is Him.  The documentary is by far the best thing on the DVD, as it offers a well-observed insight into both the man and the mechanics of how his television programmes were put together.

It’s possible to sense from the 1984 interview material that he knew his time was nearly up.  Like Morecambe & Wise, Yarwood’s move from the BBC to Thames wasn’t the happiest of periods in his professional life.  Thames had the practical resources to match the BBC, but for both M&W and Yarwood the spark seems to have gone.  In M&W’s case it was age – Eric Morecambe’s health became a major limiting factor – whilst Yarwood struggled with the brave new world of the 1980’s.

Many of Yarwood’s favourite subjects (especially Harold Wilson) were no longer central figures in British culture – although that didn’t prevent him from continuing to mimic them.  As he struggled to find new people to add to his act, there was also the question of material.  In the This Is Him documentary, Yarwood comments that he could never impersonate anybody he didn’t like – and his gentle mockery would seem increasingly out of place as the alternative comedy boom of the 1980’s wore on.  The next generation of impressionists, such as Rory Bremner, offered more caustic political commentary which was a world away from Yarwood’s style.  Struggles with stage-fright and alcohol were other reasons why Yarwood gradually faded from the public view.

Like Stanley Baxter, Yarwood was a king of makeup and sometimes this was necessary to sell the illusion of his impression.  Mike Yarwood’s Christmas Show, broadcast in 1982, opens with him dressed as Matthew Kelly on the set of Game for a Laugh.  Without this, it would be impossible to guess from the voice alone who he was impersonating.  Yarwood was quite happy to mock this, as later in the show he hands over to himself dressed as Bob Monkhouse, who offers this tribute to the star of the show.  “The man with a million voices – every one exactly the same.”

He seemed to have been a generous performer though – witness the sketch where he plays Prince Charles.  Suzanne Danielle is Princess Diana and the pair are interviewed by Selina Scott.  Danielle gets several of the best lines and the biggest laughs (it’s easy to imagine some of his contemporaries wouldn’t have been happy with this and would have insisted on some rewrites to redress the balance).

Christmas at the White House sees Yarwood play Ronald Reagan, Sammy Davies Jnr, George Burns and Frank Sinatra.  This sequence offers more proof that his style remained rooted in previous decades (he could have impersonated Davies Jnr, Burns and Sinatra in the 1960’s or 1970’s just as effectively).

During the last ten minutes he does some stand-up impersonations in front of the studio audience.  There’s few props (just the odd hat and chair) but it’s easily the best part of the show.  His subjects remain established figures – Bob Hope, Ken Dodd, Max Bygraves, Frankie Vaughan, Dave Allen – but there’s something about his direct connection with the audience that works really well.

Had there been more of that (and less of the elaborate make-up) then the show would undoubtedly have been better, but Mike Yarwood’s Christmas Show is still a diverting way to spend fifty minutes.

Duty Free (YTV 1984)

L-R - Neil Stacey, Joanna Van Gyseghem, Keith Barron and Gwen Taylor
L-R – Neil Stacey, Joanna Van Gyseghem, Keith Barron and Gwen Taylor

Incredibly popular in its day, Duty Free is a series that has aged pretty well. Yes, it’s predictable stuff, but the regulars (particularly Keith Barron and Gwen Taylor) are so good that they can, and do, lift the sometimes thin material.

The first series is by far the best, particularly once Amy (Taylor) discovers her husband, David (Barron) has been involved with Linda (Joanna Van Gyseghem).

Rather endearingly, David and Linda’s affair never seemed to have progressed beyond holding hands and the odd clinch. Like the Carry On films, frustration is the name of the game.

But after Amy learns the truth, Taylor has some wonderful scenes that have a little more depth than might have been expected. Gwen Taylor is the star player throughout the run, and never more so than here.

The second and third series tend to stretch the love triangle to breaking point, but they still have their moments.

Not ground-breaking then, but certainly an enjoyable watch.