I've made you smile and it's a lovely feeling; Peter Elson meets Eddie Braben, the writer who helped Morecambe and Wise become comedy legends.
W HEN Liverpool comedy writer Eddie Braben's grandchildren phone him up,he pretends that he's out andhas left Spiderman to take any calls.
``They love it,although my kids tell me I'm screwing up the youngsters's education by making them say the wrong things,''he says. His children may well worry. This is the man who gave the catch phrase ``the play what I wrote'' to the British comedy canon via the Morecambe and Wise Shows.
Eric and Ernie's huge success in the mid-70s was powered by Eddie's scripts. The towering comedy talent that so many still remember was one very much shaped by him.
Eddie says: ``Eric's enduring appeal is because he's still childlike. There was a humour that did not bruise others.''
Yet when he saw them first in the 1950s at theLiverpool Empire he thought they were awful.
``Morecambe and Wise were so far down the bill that I thought they were the printers. They were painful, two kids learning the business.
``I was writing 400 a jokes a week,but they were the worst jokes you'veever heard. I was just as bad. We all cobbled along as best as we could. Even Tchaikovsky's Fourth symphony got booed off at its first performance.''
It was many years later that he came across Morecambe and Wise at the BBC. They were already big stars from the ATV commercialnetwork,but he didn't like them.
``I thought that Ernie was too hard, tooabrasive, tooAmerican and I thought Eric was silly.
``They had two very good writers called Sid Hills and Dick Green,but Eric had a heart attack and they felt he wasn't going to recover and so they signed for someone else.
``Then Eric did get better and so he and Ernie signed for the BBC,but they had no writer.
``When the BBC's head of light entertainment Bill Cotton asked how did I feel about writing for Morecambe and Wise,I said I was flattered but didn't think it would work.''
Undaunted, the wily Cotton invited them all to his office. The trio hit it off so well that they spent the day together with meals being sent in so as not to disturb the atmosphere.
After that first meeting,Cotton asked Eddie to return a week later with a script. He recalls: ``I worked like crazy for that week. I must have written 30 foolscap pages. When I gave it to Eric and Ernie, they were genuinely surprised as they'dnever worked from a precisely-worded script before.''
While agreeing it was funny, they rejected the script as it wasn't their style(the script contained the first sketch where Eric slaps Ernie).All three were apprehensive,but Cotton remained keen.
``Bill said we'lldo it on BBC 2, that way there's only 27 people watching and nobody will get hurt. It went out and it was almost not bad,'' says Braben.
Success was a double-edged sword from the start. Repeatedly travelling to London with a script to be judged became torture.
``The rehearsal room was behind Wormwood Scrubs Prison. There were three men waiting for me -Eric,Ernie and the producer John Ammonds -and I placed that work I'd sweated blood for on the table.
``There was that moment of intense silence when everyone wonders `Is this going to work? Has it dried up and all gone?'I had to sit and wait for the first harrumph of laughter, whichI'm glad to say invariably happened.''
The show's fame was boosted by being the first to send up its star guests. Eddie recalls: ``John Ammonds used to say we're trying to get so and so for the next show. It was quite frightening. The breakthrough was with the classical actress Dame Flora Robson.
``I can see myself sitting in my room in West Derby chewing my pen, thinking`Will she do this?
Won't she?'She came through the curtains wearing an Elizabethan costume carrying a football.
``She said `I'm sorry I'mlate, but a young man kept asking me if I'dbe fit for Saturday?'And Eric said `WillYou?'The audience exploded.
``I'mnot saying that was the funniest line written,but it came such a distinguished actress and after that she could do no wrong. People thought she was just like the rest of us. That was the secret.''
Eddie never went to rehearsals as his writing schedule was so heavy, with 13 major shows a year (including theChristmas special) and 16 radio shows. Thepressure on all became unbearable when the thought of people enjoying Christmas being depend ant on their reaction to the Morecambe and Wise Show. This was partly behind his decision to move permanently to a house near Pwllheli, where the family had a holiday home.
``In total we did over 100 shows with 7,000 sketches. I can watch a tape of a show now and not remember writing it. The thing that astonishes me is that they've stood the test of time.
``You'vegot to have fun. We never grow up,but we conform and pretend to be adults. I spent 28 hours a day trying to prove that you'renot.
``Long after I'vegone,I'dlike those who love comedy to still be talking about the Greig Piano Concerto sketch or the 10ft ventriloquist's doll sketch.
``When I'min busy places, seeing people everywhere,I say to myself, you may not know it but sometime in your life (even if it's been only once) I'vemade you smile. I hope this doesn't sound arrogant,but it's a lovely feeling.''
p Local Hero -Eric Morecambe, Sunday March 21,BBC1North West at 1.25pm
Eddie Braben with a prized photograph of Eric and Ernie; Morecambe and Wise in action with actress Glenda Jackson; TV producer Rob McGloughlin
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|Publication:||Daily Post (Liverpool, England)|
|Date:||Mar 18, 2004|
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