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My Life with Mr Sunshine by Doreen Wise.

YOU stumble on her at first by accident, an elegant blonde woman walking slowly down a country lane, staring at the ground, lost in sorrow. Beside her, making half- hearted passes at rabbits, lopes a slightly overweight Scots terrier. These are the two living creatures Ernie Wise loved most of all.

Doreen Wise finds these early-morning walks an ordeal. Since Ernie died three months ago, she dreads meeting people unprepared. They mean well, of course.

"Ooh, we do miss him," they tell her as they pat Molly the dog. Tears well up in Doreen's eyes. "Not half as much as I do," she says.

They'd been married for 46 years, all through the early days of struggle to when Ernie, together with his partner Eric Morecambe blossomed into the greatest comedy double act Britain has ever produced. In all that time, they hardly spent a night apart.

Doreen keeps finding little tokens of love as she roams the rooms of their home by the Thames. Today, it was the card from a bunch of flowers he sent her one Valentine's Day.

"A host of golden daffodils," Ernie had written. He remembered it came from a famous poem by Wordsworth or Longfellow or somebody. Ernie, who wasn't very tall, had signed it "Shortfellow." He knew it would make her laugh. Underneath he wrote, "Love, Ern" and there was a row of kisses.

Up there in those quiet rooms, so empty without him, she also discovered an old newspaper article in which he'd said that his very favourite place in all the world was the stretch of riverbank just outside their house. It was there, a few days ago, that she scattered his ashes. Just Doreen, and a few of their closest friends.

Doreen had prepared the lunch, a cold buffet. They had a glass of wine and they talked about Ernie.

Then she took his ashes through the back garden gate. "It's not very nice," she says, "carrying your loved one in a pot."

The dust that was Ernie Wise blew among the alders and weeping

willows. Some she poured into the river. "It's tidal, you see," Doreen explains. "Eventually it goes down to the sea, and then all over the world. So Ernie will be everywhere, everywhere I'll ever go."

Ever since he'd had the first of the final series of heart attacks while they were on a cruise to America, Ernie had wanted to come home. Home to the garden he tended for hours on end, home where it could be just the two of them.

When he'd been flown back to Britain, he had been rushed straight to hospital but, on the day he died, the doctors were going to allow him out for a couple of hours.

"We were going to have tea together, sitting in the garden," Doreen says. "He was so looking forward to it. It meant so much to him. He couldn't talk about anything else.

"That morning, when I woke up, it had been raining. I felt a bit uneasy, I don't know why, so I rang the hospital. `He's fine, he's the same as usual,' they told me. A few minutes later they rang back. `We think you should come right away,' they said."

DOREEN leapt into the car for the 20-minute drive to the Nuffield Hospital in Slough. When she arrived, she knew by their faces she was too late. "I went into his room and he was lying there in bed. I so wanted to kiss him and cuddle him. So I did. I put my arms around him and he was still warm.

"After a while I left, and the doctors, who were very kind, asked me if I wanted to go in again. They suggested that it might not be a good idea. I knew they were right. I had said goodbye and I realised that the person in that room was not really Ernie any more because he had gone."

When he finally came home, on the day of the funeral, it was in his coffin.

The last words they had spoken to each other was the day before his death. "I said, `You look so nice and comfortable, do you want a little sleep?' And he said, `Yes, you go and enjoy yourself'. It was so like him. He never thought of himself, just me and Molly."

The dog's ears prick up at the mention of her name. "You're getting fat, aren't you Molly?" Doreen chides. "Ernie used to walk with her for miles and miles," she says. "They were great pals. She went to see him in hospital.

"She was a dog rescued from an appalling home where she'd been terribly treated. Locked in a room for five days, then thrown out of a window.

"But, in a way, that's a good thing now. She doesn't pine as much as she might do. To her, being fed and looked after are the important things." Molly's tail wags like a metronome. "But you keep a close watch on me now, don't you Molly? You don't want a lose another one."

We're sitting in the front room, half-watching Wimbledon on TV, but talking, not really concentrating. Then Doreen points to an empty chair. "I nearly lost Ernie in that chair, you know. Not once, but three or four times."

You suddenly realise just how ill he was, ever since he had his first stroke back in 1993.

"When he had an attack, it was dreadful. The ambulancemen would arrive and give him an injection straight into the heart. They call it Code Blue, apparently, which means they've actually gone and they have to get them back. They go all stiff and their eyes stare. It was like that with Ernie.

"He had another attack in the car. It was a Mercedes sports car and there was so little space in it that they had to fight to get him out. We got rid of it after that.

"Anyway, he didn't do much driving after his first stroke. He was afraid of making a mistake. He didn't want people shouting at him and yelling, `You silly old fool, what are you doing on the road?' It was a shame really, because he loved cars."

Nothing prepares you, of course, for losing the love of your life. It never could. The moment, when it came, was indescribable. But, deep down, Doreen realised years before that Ernie was living on borrowed time.

"Mentally, you steel yourself for it.You know he could go at any moment. But we were determined to fill our lives with as much happiness as we could. We didn't care where we were as long as we were together.

"It was the simple things we loved. He'd go swimming or cook a barbecue. His were the only sausages I could ever eat and that was because he would talk so much he'd forget about them and burn them to a cinder.

"We spent most of our time in the garden or in the house, just lolling around, but we were content."

Everyday life goes on around us - a plumber arrives to mend a dripping tap, there is a buzz of a mower in the garden - but it all seems to be happening somewhere else. Here, there is just the three of us; me, Doreen and the unseen Ernie.

His presence is everywhere. Framed photographs of him look down from every wall, different, yet always the same, with that cow's lick hair of his and that cheeky grin like a schoolboy who has just won a conker match.

IN the study there is a life size bust of him, a head made by one of the millions of fans who adored him, in this case a merchant seaman, who on long sea voyages studied pictures and chiselled it out of concrete.

It is uncannily lifelike and smiles down at us as we come in. "Sometimes I give it a little kiss," says Doreen. When she goes out for a minute, I sneak a look. Sure enough, there are little smears of pink all around the concrete lips.

Ernie was 73 when he died and Doreen is five years younger. They come from a generation that has learned to cope, to make the best of things. But sometimes she is overtaken by waves of grief and anger.

"Why him?" she repeats through scalding tears. "Why him? So many horrible people survive, don't they? Ernie didn't have a jealous bone in his body. He was a gentle soul. He was kind to everybody.

"He hated people being violent to each other on television, or programmes about cruelty to children and animals. He would get so upset that if I saw anything like that coming, I would switch channels so he wouldn't see it."

She is blessed with friends who help pull her out of these moments of abject despair. Rolf Harris lives just across the river and four days after the funeral, he rang her up. "Doreen," he said. "You and I are going to the cinema tonight. It's OK, it's a comedy, it'll cheer you up."

Doreen breaks into a peal of laughter. "Well, I checked in the paper what film it was. It was called Waking Ned. It's about a bloke who dies and his friends pretend he's still alive because he's won the Lottery.

"I rang Rolf back. I said, `Rolf, do you know what this film is about?' He said, `Don't worry, you'll be all right, you'll be with me.' So we went.

"Well, I didn't appreciate it all that much when they put the false teeth back in the corpse, but there you are. Anyway I got through it, and I was glad I went. Afterwards we had fish and chips."

Doreen also went to BAFTA night last month to collect a special fellowship award on Ernie's behalf. The bronze mask is on the sideboard next to her.

YOU can't stay hidden for ever, can you?" she says. "You have to go over the cliff at some point, otherwise you'll never do it. I was nervous going up to make my speech, and then I looked down from the stage and Michael Grade was in tears, everyone was crying.

I didn't feel so bad then. I thought `If I break down, I'll be in good company'."

Since Ernie's death, tributes have poured in. Doreen is grateful, but not carried away.

"People have said the nicest things over the past three months. I only wish they'd said them to his face when he was alive. Some people seemed to take pleasure in knocking him, putting him down, belittling his contribution to the act.

"That's why we didn't really have a lot of show business friends. The ones we had, like Rolf, we treasured. The others came from all walks of life.

"The thing about real friendship is, you don't have to work at it. You don't speak for months on the phone but they still love you just the same. We could spot fair-weather friends a mile off and we had nothing to do with them."

As usual there was just the two of them on that final cruise last winter. They were on their way to the sunshine, to their holiday home in Florida on Broken Sound, which Ernie delighted in calling Broken Wind.

Omens abounded. As a gag, Ernie would stroll the decks wearing a Titanic T-shirt. "Do you think that's a good idea?" Doreen said, but his fellow travellers loved it.

"Gee where'd ya get that shirt?" they'd ask him and Ernie would reply, "At the bottom of the sea."

He began to feel ill on board. When they got ashore, his condition worsened and he was rushed to an American hospital.

The doctors said that his only chance of survival was a triple heart bypass and even then it was 50-50. I said, `There's no decision for me to make - give him the chance of life'."

Soon after the operation a representative of the Wise's medical insurance company turned up at the hospital. Doctors later told Doreen that as soon as he arrived, he started to quibble about money.

APPARENTLY he said, `Why bother to do this operation on a 73-year-old man? It's a waste of time.' All he cared about was the cost. You get to a certain age, and people don't give a damn about you."

In the months following the operation, Doreen spent every day at Ernie's bedside. From December to March, she clocked up 4,000 miles in a hire car just going backwards and forwards from the hospital.

Eventually doctors told her she must take a day off, or she'd crack up. "Every day, I lived with uncertainty. One morning he'd be up, the next he'd be down, but if he squeezed your hand it made your day. I'd go out of that hospital walking on air."

The dark days were very dark indeed. In their entire married life, Doreen had only known Ernie to lose his temper once, when he was teaching her to drive and she smashed an indicator while she was reversing. Now, to her bewilderment, his sunny personality underwent a disturbing change.

"He began to swear terribly. It was something I'd never known in him before. Someone would come in to take him somewhere and he would say, F*** off, I'm not f****** going.' He hated those words. He was normally so proper.

He wouldn't even stick his tongue out when the speech therapist asked him to, because he thought it was rude.

The doctors told me that a lot of patients started to swear during treatment, They didn't know if it was the mental stress or the chemicals in the drugs. Even little old ladies who you wouldn't think knew words like that began to eff and blind like dockers."

Then there were the irrational fears. "Towards the end he became afraid of people. It broke my heart to see it. He had spent his life making people happy, and now he believed they were out to hurt him. He wouldn't sleep at night. `They come in at night and mug you,' he would say. He didn't know who `they' were, but to him they were real. He would lay awake until I arrived, and then I would hold his hand and he would drop off."

But even in his pain, Ernie's humour didn't desert him. "He didn't suffer fools gladly. He made his feelings known. If a visitor was boring him, he'd get hold of his sheet and slowly pull it up over his head, like a dust cover.

HE had a speech therapist because his voice was affected by a stroke. He'd pretend to whisper so she had to put her head closer and closer to his. Then, when she was a couple of inches away, he'd shout, `Are you deaf?' at the top of his voice."

A running joke in their marriage was Ernie's insistence that it was Doreen who ran the show and gave all the orders. Before they sold it, because Ernie became too ill to sail it, the cabin cruiser bobbing on its moorings outside their house was called the Lady Doreen.

"Ernie wanted to call it Sergeant-Major Doreen but I wasn't having it." Now she was called on to intervene when life in the American hospital became fraught. A lot of it was due to the language difficulty.

"There was one nurse who kept asking him to move his `tush.' Ernie wouldn't do it because he couldn't understand what she meant.

"I told her that in England that part of the body is called a bum or a backside. `Believe me,' I said, `this man only responds to certain words of command.'

"The nurses absolutely adored him. They'd say, `He's a lovely little fella, our English patient.'

Since he died, I've had letters from all of them. There was one nurse, a Chinese girl, who got on particularly well with him. Ernie was on a strict diet, but he'd say to her, `When I get better and I can eat properly, I'm going to have a Chinese meal.' She said, `When you do, I'm going to cook it for you.'"

But all Ernie really wanted to do was return to Britain. "Nothing else mattered to him. I kept assuring him that we were going home soon, and from then on, whenever I came through the door, he'd say, `Ready yet? - have you brought the cases."

Eventually Doreen arranged a

a private flight. Two doctors, a nurse, Doreen and Ernie were taken across the Atlantic in a specially-adapted Lear jet. Ernie was on a stretcher which was laid along one side of the cabin.

He loved flying, and spent the trip staring out of the window. They stopped twice to refuel. He saw the skyscrapers of New York, and icebergs floating off Newfoundland. They landed at Northolt, the RAF station in North-West London, and Doreen had another shudder of premonition because that was where Princess Diana's body was brought in from Paris.

Ernie was taken to hospital in Slough. "In the ambulance, I said to him, `You're back're home'."

Back to where it started...where the journey began that would lead to fame, true love and finally death. Back to where - even though Morecambe and Wise ended as a double act when Eric Morecambe died of a heart attack in 1984 - people still shouted his name.

Eric and Ernie met by chance when they were both appearing on a variety bill in Swansea. They formed a double act which took off gloriously with their long-running TV series in the 1970s and 1980s when their Bring me Sunshine signature tune was on everyone's lips. In terms of personal riches, though, it came at the wrong time. Their income - only pounds 4,000 a show at the BBC - was eaten up by 83 per cent taxes.

Ernie and Doreen still lived in some style. They bought and converted a mock Tudor house which Ernie nicknamed "Hollywood-on-Thames" and which estate agents now value at more than pounds 1 million. They put in a swimming pool. Ernie treated himself to a yellow Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow which he called "my aren't-I-doing-well car."

YET Morecambe and Wise were hardly overpaid, compared to what lesser comics are getting now. The stories that he died a millionaire are simply rubbish, says Doreen. She doubts if the true figure comes to half that.

At their peak, 27 million viewers tuned in to watch them. The Queen was a fan and then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, took part in one of their sketches.

Guest stars jostled to get on with them, but it was the screen relationship between bespectacled manic Eric, and "Little Ern" with the short, fat, hairy legs which so captivated the audience.

Away from the cameras, they were totally different people. Ernie was placid, cheerful, easygoing. Eric had a darker, more complex and tortured personality.

"I'd travel with them when they were on the road, so I saw it at first hand," says Doreen."Eric would either be laughing and joking or he'd burrow deep inside himself. He used to get terrible moments of depression and there was no getting to him then.

"One summer season, we had caravans next to each other on a site in Weymouth. Ernie and I were in one, and Eric, his wife Joan and his kids were in the other.

"The rest of us would go to the beach, but when he was down, Eric would stay in his caravan the whole day on his own. He hated the water. He'd put on his trunks, but he'd never go in swimming."

Their TV characters were also a long way from the truth. Ernie gained a reputation for miserliness, because on screen "Little Ern" was always careful with his money.

"In fact," said Doreen, "Ernie was extremely generous. He lent a lot of money to friends, and gave them as much time as they needed to pay it back. He wasn't a sucker though. If they didn't repay it, he didn't lend them any more."

Ernie would play up to his supposed trait of meanness. "We had a poodle once called Charlie," says Doreen. "He would sit next to Ernie while he was working in his study. Whenever Ernie wrote a cheque and tore it from the stub, Charlie would let out this terrible howl of pain. `Whoooooaw,' he would go, like a banshee in agony.

Ernie loved it. He'd tell Charlie, `Don't worry, I've still got enough to buy your biscuits.'

"One year we went on holiday and got all our holiday snaps taken in front of banks. Ernie was really happy with the one taken in Sicily because it made it look like we had influence with the Mafia.

"Everywhere we stopped, he'd say, `Oooh, look, another bank, get your camera out.' He revelled in the fact that people thought he was obsessed with money."

Really though, it wouldn't have mattered if there'd been a bank in the background or not. Ernie loved Doreen so much that all he wanted to do when they were away was take pictures of her.

Theirs was a true rarity, a showbusiness romance that lasted. Doreen was a dancer appearing in the same show as Ernie. She was 16, he was 21. It wasn't exactly love at first sight. "I thought he was very old. You do at that age. He was very cheeky too. I used to hide in shop doorways when I saw him coming.

"When he took me out I thought his hands would be all over the place but they weren't. He was very good mannered. One night he said to me, `Would you mind if I kissed you goodnight?' and I said, `Yes please'."

WHEN they married, Doreen still had her doubts. "I remember walking down the aisle and thinking, `If it doesn't work out, I can always get a divorce'."

Instead their lives together opened like a flower. Their decision not to have children was made so that they would never be parted from each other. "We'd seen a lot of showbusiness couples who spent most of their lives away from each other when children came along, because the woman stayed at home while the man had to keep on travelling to earn a living. We didn't want that to happen to us."

Now he is gone and she is facing life without him. She looks out onto their lawn, where a woodpecker is feeding her young, and the emptiness seems to overpower her.

Does she believe they'll ever meet again? She doesn't think so. "In my heart of hearts, I do believe death is final, though once, in Malta, I did see a ghost and in Leeds, in a place that was supposed to be haunted, I came over all clammy and cold.

"Incidentally, Eric Morecambe swore he saw a ghost in Blackpool. He came into our room in terror one night and threw a mattress at the foot of our bed. He was frightened to sleep on his own. `Oh yeah,' I said. `Any excuse.'

"Perhaps there is a soul, perhaps scientists will discover a place where all our souls go. Then again, probably not. But even if that's it and Ernie has gone, the life we had together was worth all the pain. If I'd known how it was going to end, I'd have still done it all over again."

As for the future, it stretches away into the distance with all its possibilities. Will she stay in their house or will she leave? She shakes her head; she has no idea.

"We had a neighbour once, an eccentric old lady, who used to act very strangely and send us solicitors' letters accusing us of all sorts of things we never did.

"Perhaps I'll turn out like that in the end. A nutty old dear, stalking the house. `Watch out,' the people in the village will say. `Watch out for the Widow Wise'."

NEXT WEEK: The real Eric and the childhood Ernie never had
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Copyright 1999 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Features
Author:Wise, Doreen
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jun 27, 1999
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