Reliving the best moments from Morecambe and Wise at the New Wolsey Theatre
PUBLISHED: 19:14 14 February 2019 | UPDATED: 09:52 18 February 2019
Ian Ashpitel and Jonty Stephens live and breathe Morecambe and Wise and recreate their easy-going humour in a brand new show. Arts editor Andrew Clarke spoke to the pair about what made Eric & Ern so great
“Bring me sunshine...” sang Morecambe and Wise, Britain’s most beloved entertainers, and they were true to their word and now actors and comedians Ian Ashpitel and Jonty Stephens are now bringing these national treasures back to life.
The pair are bringing their new show An Evening of Eric & Ern to the New Wolsey Theatre having performed to sold-out audiences at The Edinburgh Festival. For Ian and Jonty it is Morecambe and Wise’s friendship and unselfish stage craft that made them the stars they were.
“They were so relaxed together on stage, so funny, that everyone felt safe in their company. They were brilliant because they appealed to everybody...all walks of life, men-women, young-old, everybody found them funny and it’s very hard to do,” says Jonty.
Ian adds: “It helped that they were naturally funny people but their friendship, their long friendship, was an important part of what made them successful. They understood one another and they weren’t interested in stealing laughs from the other. They were just...themselves... and it was that relaxed nature which made the whole thing look spontaneous and it was that impression of spontaneity which made their act funnier still.”
Jonty points out that the pair spent 20 years working together in variety clubs before they had any television success, so they had 20 years to get to know one another and refine their routines before they were exposed to large-scale audiences on TV.
Eric and Ern played to huge audiences. Their Christmas shows were must-see moments in the Yuletide season – and they didn’t disappoint with their laid-back lunacy, bad plays and star-name guests. The 1977 Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show attracted 28 million viewers - around half the total UK population at the time.
Repeats and compilations continue to fill our screens, so filling their shoes, when the originals are so well known, is more than a little daunting. Ian and Jonty, despite looking uncannily like their heroes, get round the problem by not impersonating Morecambe and Wise but by inhabiting them. In other words it’s an acting job rather than a nerdish exercise in recreating catchphrases and vocal mannerisms. They capture the spirit of Morecambe and Wise rather than pretending they are Morecambe and Wise. Nevertheless you can be forgiven for thinking that you are watching the originals on stage when you see them perform.
Their current show – their second – had it’s beginnings at the Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds. Ruthie Henshall had seen their Olivier nominated West End show Eric and Little Ern and booked them to appear in her fund-raising concert for Bury’s Georgian theatre in 2017.
Jonty explains: “We put together a couple of new routines for our two spots and they went so well we thought, why don’t we expand these into a new show and that’s what we are touring now, so you could say An Evening of Eric & Ern was born in Bury St Edmunds.”
Ian and Jonty first worked up their Morecambe and Wise show as a cabaret act for their golf club. “It happened by accident I suppose,” Ian explains: “We first met in 1983 at drama school in Birmingham and we both play golf at The Stage Golfing Society – which is essentially a social organisation for out of work actors – and every year they do a show and they asked Jonty, who does a brilliant performance as Eric Morecambe, to do a spot. He said OK but would need an Ernie. I was stood beside him at the bar, with my short-fat-hairy legs and the rest is history.
“We’ve never worked so hard in our lives, laughs Ian, “We’ve studied and studied the routines of Morecambe and Wise, who they are as characters and hopefully now it is paying off.”
An Evening of Eric & Ern is crammed full of Morecambe and Wise’s most-loved routines, songs and sketches, and a musical guest, Becky Neale, who the pair try to upstage in classic Morecambe and Wise fashion. The show evokes memories of times when whole families would huddle around the telly to watch those fantastically festive Christmas specials.
So do the pair have a favourite Morecambe and Wise moment? Ian offers a suggestion immediately: “I love the Swiss dance routine. We do that in the show and I get to slap Jonty three times in a row. That’s my favourite, for clearly personal reasons.”
Jonty has a more reasoned response: “I have always loved the Cleopatra play wot Ernie wrote. The one with Glenda Jackson, it still makes me laugh, no matter how many times I see it. And we both love all the stuff in the flat because that’s where we get to see them as people.”
An Evening of Eric and Ern is at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich, on Wednesday February 20. Limited tickets available on www.wolseytheatre.co.uk