HE died in 1984.
But I still have Eric Morecambe’s telephone number in my reporter’s contacts book.
Placed there in shaky handwriting in the late 1970s when I was a young cub reporter on the Luton News.
Asked by my news editor to call Eric to talk about a local charity event the comedy legend was involved with.
At the time, Morecambe and Wise were the biggest stars in the land.
Let alone our circulation area.
And like the rest of the nation, I was a huge fan of their TV shows and Christmas specials, which attracted close to 30m viewers.
So you can imagine my teenage nerves as I carefully dialled the number of Eric’s family home just a few miles away from the newsroom.
His wife Joan answered and took pity on my stumbling attempt to explain who I was and what I wanted.
“He’s in the garden,” she said.
“I’ll go and get him.”
Hours seemed to pass before I heard the sound of footsteps at the other end of the line.
Growing ever louder by the second before Eric picked up the phone.
“Hello?” said a familiar voice.
My moment had come: “I’m sorry to trouble you Mr Morecambe…”
“No you’re not,” he laughed, “or you wouldn’t have rung.”
Before spending several minutes answering every question I had.
In later years I also interviewed Eric’s comedy partner Ernie Wise.
As well as Eric’s son Gary.
But I’ve never forgotten the day I rang Eric Morecambe.
The last time I ever began a telephone conversation with the words: “I’m sorry to trouble you…”
Regular readers of this blog will know that I went on location during filming of BBC2’s wonderful New Year’s Day drama Eric & Ernie.
You can read my first feature here.
The second is in today’s Manchester Evening News and below.
It’s a brilliant, life-affirming film.
Do not miss it.
“THERE’S always a pressure when you’re trying to represent a character that’s unanimously loved,” smiles Daniel Rigby.
“People say things like, ‘I definitely loved Eric Morecambe more than my own dad.’ Things like that,” he adds.
Both Daniel and co-star Bryan Dick are thrilled to be playing Morecambe and Wise, perhaps the greatest ever comedy double act.
But as they take a break from filming Eric & Ernie (BBC2, New Year’s Day, 9pm) in Stockport, they admit to being nervous about how their performances in the finished drama will be received.
Written by Hazel Grove screenwriter Peter Bowker, it tells the story of how the duo first met as young boys and takes it up to the 1950s, after their first TV series was a big flop.
Daniel and Bryan need not have worried. They shine as the grown-up stars learning their craft on endless tours of variety theatres, long before they became national treasures.
“They were at the height of their fame in their mid-40s when they had already been doing variety for 30 years. It’s extraordinary. They had decades in the business before they reached the heights that we know them best for,” says Daniel.
Victoria Wood co-stars as Eric’s mother Sadie with Jim – Vic Reeves – Moir as father George. “I never knew anything about Eric’s relationship with his mum and how influential she was in Eric and Ernie getting together and Eric getting into showbusiness.
“He’d have much rather have had a quiet life and stayed in Morecambe, working for the council. She was the one who gave him the necessary kick,” explains Daniel.
Sadie took young Ernie under her wing. Bryan says: “She effectively adopted him. Ernie had been travelling around on his own, aged 13, going from gig to gig. She thought of him as a second son in many ways.”
Both actors have captured the essence and chemistry of the young Morecambe and Wise in this affectionate and heartwarming story. Daniel recalls: “When I first heard about the audition, I thought, ‘I don’t look anything like him.’ But then looking more at pictures of Eric when he was younger, I think there is a resemblance.
“I didn’t have any voice training. I just tried to listen as best I could. What was most useful to me was watching documentary footage of him because a lot of the drama takes place in his normal life and he’s just behaving as he would.
“I think Bryan had a harder job because, as I’ve discovered, everyone’s got an Eric Morecambe impression. Ernie’s a bit more difficult.”
Although Ernie was mainly the straight man comedy feed for Eric, Bryan insists both men were as important to the act as each other. “Ernie was one half of the greatest comedy double act of all time. It wouldn’t have existed without equal contributions from them both.
“And in the later years, the dynamic wasn’t simply feed and comic. When Eddie Braben started writing the shows, Ernie took on a character which was, in itself, pompous and very comic.”
Daniel describes Eric as a naturally funny man. “He just had funny bones and he loved to entertain people. He was always trying to make people laugh. He also eventually found his own voice as a comic, allowing more of himself as a person to come into the act.”
The Manchester-based production used several theatres in the north west as period locations, including The Plaza in Stockport. Producer Timothy Bricknell says: “They’ve done such a careful job restoring the place to its 1930s’ heyday, we hardly had to do anything to it.
“We filmed at the Winter Gardens in Morecambe, which we used to depict the Glasgow Empire. And we’ve got lots of scenes on trains, filmed on the East Lancashire steam railway.”
Eric & Ernie learned their trade in a very different world to today. “You get to hone your act. You’re given a chance to perfect what it is that you do,” says Bryan. “Now we live in an era of, ‘If it doesn’t work, get rid of it.’ And actually they went away for a few years and re-jigged their act before they actually had another stab at TV.
“There’s no sense that they didn’t earn all the adulation that they got. They worked for years and years. Today we live in an environment where celebrity is an end in itself. Whereas theirs was as a result of the fact that they’d honed their talents over so many years.”
Those hoping for a “tears of a clown” expose will be disappointed. Eric and Ernie were lifelong friends until Eric died in 1984. Ernie died in 1999. “There wasn’t a dark side to them. What you see is what you get,” maintains Daniel.
“They weren’t tortured comedians. Obviously they struggled and were poor and had to work really hard to get where they got to. But there wasn’t anything like that.”
Adds Bryan: “And they just genuinely loved each other, as well.”