Ian Ashpitel admits it’s a question he and Jonty Stephens often ask themselves.
Just why are Morecambe & Wise so popular still, nearly 35 and 20 years after their respective deaths?
“It’s just extraordinary really” says Ian who is Ernie to Jonty’s Eric in An Evening of Eric and Ern at Chichester Festival Theatre on December 2.
“We keep coming up with different ideas, but really it is all about their relationship, their friendship. They met as boys and became friends first before Eric’s mother said to them when they were mucking about ‘Why don’t you become a double act?’”
Oddly, something similar happened to Ian and Jonty when they were in a restaurant with Jonty’s girlfriend. Her response to their mucking about was that they should also be a double act. And so it has turned out…
“Ernie was a big star in his own right, and Eric was a child star. And they complemented each other. Eric couldn’t even make a cup of tea. He had no idea about the bills and about the responsibilities of life. He was just Eric being funny all the time. But Ernie knew what was happening and had a sense of responsibilities.”
The story even goes that following Eric’s death, Ernie was distraught that he, Ernie, had let down Eric’s mum. He had promised her all those years ago that he would look after Eric:, “Afterwards, Ernie never really made it on his own. There were several things. He did Edwin Drood in the West End, but he didn’t know his lines. It didn’t work.”
The lovely thing now, portraying them on stage, is that people will come up to Ian and Jonty with their own memories of the two.
“But really their success was that relationship… and the material. And at the time, BBC voices were posh voices, and Morecambe & Wise were accessible. They were working-class gentlemen…”
Ian and Jonty have got permission from writer Eddie Braben’s estate to use the original material. Braben was key in shaping the Morecambe & Wise we know now: “He did the Eric and Ernie flat scenes. He wrote it like a mini sitcom, and it was Braben who put them in bed.”
Initially Eric objected to sharing an on-screen bed with Ernie: “Eric said to him ‘I am not doing that!’ but Eddie said that it was good enough for Laurel & Hardy, and Eric said that if it was good enough for Laurel & Hardy, then it was good enough for him… but he insisted on getting into bed with a pipe! And you can see so much Laurel & Hardy in what they do. I almost find myself going ‘Hmm, hmm’ like they did, and Ernie touches his tie a lot, which is also like them.”
For both Ian and Jonty, it is the story of their own lives as well: “There is a box set, something like 16 DVDs, and it has got it all right from the black-and-white stuff through until 1984 when Eric died. And when I look at it, it is like my own life passing before my eyes. I grew up watching them.
"And the humour still stands up. Some of the flat scenes, there is a little bit of padding, but there are golden nuggets in there, and that’s we were are doing, the nuggets, the classics and some of our own material .”