Lost episode from 50 years ago found by Eric Morecambe's son in attic

The day Eric SHOT Ernie with a stuffed POODLE: Found by Eric Morecambe’s son on a dusty reel in his attic, the uproarious lost episode from 50 years ago that launched the duo on BBC1 — and changed the face of TV comedy

  • The Morecambe and Wise Christmas shows became a national institution
  • But October debut wiped as BBC recycled videotapes, rather than saving shows
  • For 50 years, fans including Gary Morecambe assumed show was lost forever 
  • But a few months ago, Gary was poking around in attic when he found reel of film

Ello, ello! Here’s Eric Morecambe as you’ve never seen him, dressed as a policeman in an oversized helmet. And he’s towing a toy poodle on wheels.

It’s a deliriously silly image from the first ever Eric & Ernie show on BBC1 in 1970 — an episode believed lost for more than half a century. The entire show is a delight. As celebrity fans including Ben Miller and Jonathan Ross share a very special premiere, they have tears of laughter running down their faces.

Ernie is in the uniform of a suburban Seventies commuter, standing at a bus stop in a suit and bowler hat, with a furled umbrella. Eric’s trousers are two sizes too large.

At the sight of the stuffed dog with a ribbon in its hair, Ernie hoots with laughter.

‘Something amusing you, Sir?’ asks Eric heavily.

‘What’s that supposed to be?’ demands Ernie, gesturing with his brolly.

‘That’s a police guard dog, Sir.’

‘And will that protect you from a dangerous criminal?’

‘Yes, Sir. Would you care to try to hit me over the head with your umbrella?’

As Ernie gasps in amusement, Eric turns and picks up the poodle. He holds it with one hand on the dog’s pom-pom tail.

Classic: The 1972 Christmas show with Eric Morecambe, superstar Glenda Jackson and Ernie Wise (pictured from left to right)

‘All right, if you insist!’ Ernie raises his brolly, PC Eric pulls the tail — and three shots ring out from the dog’s rear end. Ernie falls down dead. Eric walks away, patting the dog’s head.

The audience, made up of established comics, are thrilled and proceed to analyse every moment of the scene. ‘That’s not what I expected. Which is what good comedy is,’ says Eddie Izzard.

‘I would just draw your attention to the baggy trousers,’ says Ben. ‘Nothing is by accident in a Morecambe and Wise sketch. That first laugh, which is purely for the policeman’s trousers, that’s even before the dog comes on — he’s already one up!’

‘What’s interesting is the pay-off,’ says actor Derek Griffiths. ‘Could you have guessed that?’

The black and white sketch is just one of a series of gems in the 45-minute original show, first broadcast on October 8, 1970, to an audience of 14 million.

The duo moved to the Beeb from ITV in 1968, but they were cautious, preferring to record in colour for a smaller audience on BBC2 initially.

Switching to BBC1 was a risk — and not only because the main channel was still stuck in black and white. Eric and Ernie had never forgotten their first TV experience in 1954.

One acid-nibbed reviewer watched their debut and declared it a career-ending flop. He defined a television set as ‘the box they buried Morecambe and Wise in’.

Their friend and gag writer Barry Cryer says Eric carried that cutting around in his wallet for years, as a reminder of why every show had to be as good as they could make it.

In the end, the leap to BBC1 proved a huge success. Following the special in October, they recorded a Christmas broadcast that won an audience of 20 million.

Young funs: Starting out aged 14 around 1939. The duo moved to the Beeb from ITV in 1968, but they were cautious, preferring to record in colour for a smaller audience on BBC2 initially

The Morecambe and Wise Christmas shows became a national institution, drawing superstar guests such as Glenda Jackson, Andre Previn and Shirley Bassey. The nation still doubles up with laughter at repeats every year.

But penny-pinchers at the Beeb were more concerned with saving a few quid by recycling videotapes, rather than saving shows for posterity. The October debut was wiped.

For 50 years, fans including Gary Morecambe, the comic’s archivist son, assumed the show was lost forever. All that remained was a copy of the script. But a few months ago, Gary was poking around in the attic above his father’s office at the family home when he discovered a reel of film. The box on the label had peeled off and there was no projector in the house that fitted the spool.

Here’s the sketch what they wrote! 

The show sticks to a Variety format, with appearances by singer Paul Anka and jazzman Kenny Ball — so the producers have an excuse to show rare clips from Eric and Ernie’s stage act, too.

That brings back extraordinary memories for me. I saw them, with my parents, when I was no more than eight years old.

There’s film of them walking out on stage, and it’s just as I remember it — Eric was taking bows, Ernie was dancing and bobbing like a boxer, and the cheering went on and on, until Eric leaned into the microphone and silenced the theatre with a single syllable.

‘Ah,’ he said. That’s all it took — hush descended. Everyone knew the next word he spoke would double us over. He held the pause, glanced at his watch, and then looked in alarm at Ernie. ‘Have we got time for any more?’

Then he turned and surveyed us. ‘Have we got a show for you tonight, folks! Have we got a show for you tonight!’

And then another sidelong, nervous look at Ernie. ‘Hey, have we got a show for them tonight?’

They were doing all the nonsense gags that music hall audiences loved. ‘We’ve got a chap coming on,’ announced Eric, ‘that can swallow’ — and here his voice rose to a shout — ‘a four foot sword!’

‘What’s clever about that?’ asked Ernie.

‘He’s only three foot tall!’ And with that, Eric leant back in the stance of a midget sword-swallower who has pinned his own foot to the floor.

All the catchphrases came out, and each one earned a cheer: ‘Now there’s a novelty! There’s no answer to that, is there?’ And with a cough, ‘Arsenal!’

And, of course, the moment came when Eric grabbed Ernie’s fringe, lifted it and declared, ‘You can’t see the join. That is one of the best you’ve ever had, that. Arrived this morning all the way from Axminster.’

Gary sent the mystery movie to specialist restorers who could retrieve and digitise the contents — and crossed his fingers.

What came back surpassed all his expectations. He sat down to watch it with his sister Gail and mother, Eric’s widow Joan.

A camera crew was there too, so we’re able to see their reactions as they view this time capsule for the first time.

The episode relies heavily on some of Eric and Ernie’s favourite sketches from their years treading the boards in Variety —starting with a routine they called The Moustache Seeds.

The fact they’re falling back on these old favourites is a sign of how much they wanted the BBC1 breakthrough to work: they’re using their best, most tried-and-tested material.

Eric saunters on, sporting a magnificent Edwardian ‘tache. It looks like two loops of candyfloss stuck to his upper lip.

He’s smoking a pipe (Eric was Pipeman of the Year, 1970) and both are sporting paisley shirts and ties … though that’s not a gag, just a sign of the times.

‘I know why you’ve grown that,’ Ernie crows. ‘Because you’re getting middle-aged.

‘You want to present a new image. You want to look all young and trendy.’

‘I’ll belt you,’ warns Eric.

Ernie keeps goading: ‘You’re losing it on top, so you’re making up with it with that moustache. You’re going bald at the front.’

‘I’M NOT!’ bellows Eric. ‘SHADDUP!’

‘Baldie Morecambe,’ Ernie taunts him, which cracks up Gail in her armchair: ‘You always called him baldie and he used to fall about laughing,’ she tells her brother. Eric gets the last laugh. He unpeels his moustache, sticks it on Ernie’s lip and tells him to grow it long, ‘so you can tie it on top of your wig on a windy day’.

Then he produces a packet of seeds and convinces his short, fat, little friend that they’re ‘moustache seeds’… guaranteed to grow luxuriant facial hair.

It’s a lovely old routine, one the duo had probably been doing (with variations) since they were barely old enough to shave: Morecambe and Wise were a vaudeville double act even in their teens.

And Joan thinks her husband was practising for the stage well before that. Born in 1925, he used to slip out of the house when he was just three years old and show off to passers-by.

Another music hall special is one of the episode’s highlights. It uses the theatre curtains, or tabs, that were so much part of their act.

As Ernie chats to the audience, there’s a tremendous crash.

Eric crawls halfway out from under the curtains. The set backstage has collapsed, he says, and his legs are pinned under the timbers.

Ernie tells him to keep the audience entertained, while he grabs a saw to effect a rescue. 

For 50 years, fans including Gary Morecambe (pictured in 2017), the comic’s archivist son, assumed the show was lost forever. All that remained was a copy of the script

There follows the sound of sawing and Little Ern’s shouts from behind the curtain. Eric keeps trying and failing to tell a story, with his face contorted in agony. Finally, he’s free. His feet appear under the curtain… next to his head. Ernie has sawn his legs off.

Ben Miller watches the routine, convulsed with laughter. ‘Ernie is the ventriloquist,’ he points out, ‘and Eric is the doll.’

The one-liners are a joy. ‘And now, ladies and gentlemen,’ announces Ernie, rubbing his hands, ‘it’s request time.’

‘Please get off!’ requests Eric.

The show also features one of their trademark sketches in bed — not part of their stage act but a new tradition, invented for them by writer Eddie Braben. We get a glimpse of Eddie, a former dustman, at his typewriter in an office with zebra-skin wallpaper (why was Seventies decor so terrifying?).

Eddie explains why he has the boys sharing a bed: ‘They are closer than any two brothers I’ve ever met. They may not know this, but they are.’  

This bedtime, they’re listening to the radio, each with one earphone, but the noisy neighbours are a distraction.

When the moans and bumps become too much to ignore, Ernie explains that the couple in the next flat are newlyweds. Eric, the eternal child, doesn’t understand. Eventually, Ernie gives up and says their neighbours must be trying to hang a pair of curtains… an explanation that seems perfectly sensible to Eric. ‘Why didn’t you say?’ he asks. It’s this innocence that lets him get away with a risque gag in another sketch, one that sees Ernie in a hospital bed. 

Eric Morecambe pictured with Ernie Wise. A few months ago, Gary was poking around in the attic above his father’s office at the family home when he discovered a reel of film

Eric comes visiting and the nurse (played by Ann Hamilton, one of their favourite actresses) takes him to one side. ‘I can let you have ten minutes,’ she says.

‘That’s very kind,’ Eric replies. ‘Where shall we go?’ Ann giggles breathlessly to see that sketch again. ‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ she says, crying with laughter. I’m going to make my mascara run in a minute. They were so lovely. I was a nobody and they treated me like royalty.’

You can’t blame her for shedding a tear. There’s never been a more loved double act on British TV.

And the closing song, as they dance off to Bring Me Sunshine, will bring a lump to any throat.

Actress Bonnie Langford, another fan who has watched the footage with a broad grin, suddenly finds herself welling up: ‘Makes me feel emotional. Cos they’re so lovely. And it’s just pure entertainment.’

‘That’s what they did,’ agrees fellow devotee Jonathan Ross.

‘Every week, they would bring you sunshine. That’s why the song is so perfect. And that’s why they were the best.’

Morecambe & Wise: The Lost Tapes, ITV, Wednesday, July 28, 9pm.

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