New Year’s Day, always the most inert day of the year, both in the VG household and seemingly also in telly programming land. Endless repeats of lower-rung kiddie films here, a dash of The Sound of Music there. But step away from the Potter, people, there is shockingly something new yet still decent on. Let joy (and the last of the selection box) be unconfined!
Eric and Ernie (BBC2) is a biopic (the type of thing which I have loved ever since an unfortunate collision with Abba: The Movie at the age of 7 from which I shall most likely never fully recover) depicting Morecambe and Wise’s meeting on the child performers circuit and eventual mutation into the double act that proved them so much well-deserved success (I laughed more at their sketch with Elton John in the Christmas Special shown before Eric and Ernie than I have at almost anything else throughout the year).
The script is probably the best I’ve seen in any drama in months. It manages to be poignant without being too sappy and deeply witty without being irritating. It is also sadly old-fashioned by modern telly standards in that every line is there to furnish the story and flesh out the characters, rather than just to fill time or pile on the cliché (controversially, I won’t even exclude Downton Abbey from that stinging criticism. Whilst hardly of the London’s Burning standard, the excellent Upstairs Downstairs only served to highlight Downton’s total lack of historical linguistic accuracy. But that’s another blog, I suspect…). “You can’t play Cowboys and Indians all your life, Eric!” “Can’t I?” This being a portrayal of Morecambe and Wise’s early years before their untold success in the 1960s and 1970s, there are also clever little nods to the future without overdoing it in that way that biopics often do, such as the scene where young Eric and Ernie are forced to top and tail in bed whilst both wearing matching striped pyjamas and also the derogatory reference to Des O’Connor.
Along those lines, the interplay between the characters is excellent too. I really believed in how fond Eric and Ernie were of each other. Daniel Rigby (Eric) and Bryan Dick (Ernie) are both absolutely outstanding. It seems unfair to pick one out over the other, but the way in which Rigby captures Morecombe’s vocal tics (“haa-heeey!”) and mannerisms bordered on frightening at times. In fact, all of the performances in this drama are faultless. Jim Moir (aka Vic Reeves, though using his real name for acting purposes here) does funny and thoughtful in equal measures. And nobody does good-natured bonhomie fuelled by quiet sadness like Victoria Wood, whose idea this drama was in the first place. The scene where Eric waved her off on the train having just dispensed with her services as their manager had me in absolute pieces, yet didn’t resort to the histrionics that so often stain modern television programmes. There’s also a nice turn from Reece Shearsmith as Ernie’s thwarted father, though his black face (stage make-up, I hasten to add) made it seem as if he’d popped out during his tea break from his League of Gentleman days as Papa Lazarou. The shouts of “Hallo Ern! You’re mah wife now!” still resonate around VG Towers 24 hours on.
The drama also handles the shift in tone from the roustabout early days to Morceambe and Wise’s disastrous television debut in 1954. I usually hate dramas that use doomy music to signpost the doom to come, but it was really effective here. Excuse the self-promotional for a minute, but as an occasional stand-up comic myself they got the sense of clouds gathering that often hangs over performers when you know that (in this case for reasons nothing to do with you) brickbats rather than bouquets are unavoidably on the horizon absolutely spot on. Similarly, the scenes where the two chaps are booed off and pelted with rubbish in Scotland are also sofa-chewingly authentic. The tensions between the two men, largely to due with Eric’s laziness at promotion, are realistically portrayed without being too melodramatic. A programme that isn’t afraid to wear its big heart on its sleeve. And actually laugh-out-loud funny. Are you watching, Walliams and Lucas?
All in all, a real Christmas treat. As a friend of mine put it, “why oh why oh why wasn’t this the big Christmas programme?”. As Our Man In The North has very effectively blogged here, there was certainly little other competition. Anyway, better late than never. Bravo, BBC2!
Posted by Velocity Girl (with thanks to Jo The Hat for inspiration for the title!)