People of Yorkshire volume 3 – Ernie Wise

Ernie Wise was a famous comedian and entertainer, who formed one half of the best known comedy double act to ever grace British television. Along with his on-stage partner, Eric Morecambe they became a national institution with the Morecambe and Wise show, which ran from 1968-1983. Their Christmas specials became essential peak time viewing throughout this time and are still heralded today.

Ernest Wiseman was born on 27th November 1925 in Bramley, Leeds. He attended Thorpe Infant and junior school before graduating to East Ardsley boy’s school. Wise entered the world of show business along with his father, himself a semi-professional singer, in local working men’s clubs and music halls. Their act was called “Bert Carson and his Little Wonder.”

Wise was spotted by talent scout, Bryan Michie and recommended to impresario, Jack Hylton. In 1938 Wise was invited to appear on the Band Waggon Radio show. Two years later, aged sixteen, he first became acquainted with another entertainer from the other side of the Pennines, named Eric Bartholemew. Eric had won a talent competition in Hoylake, with the prize being an audition for one Jack Hylton. Three months later, Bartholemew and Wise were both invited by Hylton to Nottingham to take part in a revue, which is a series of short sketches and songs, often with a satirical slant, called “Youth Takes a Bow.”

The two met and instantly got along. Encouraged by Eric’s mother, Sadie they formed a comedy double act. After being briefly separated by National Service in World War II they reformed and joined the Variety show circuit in the late forties. Eric Bartholomew changed his name to the place of his birth, Eric Morecambe, while Ernest Wiseman shortened his to Ernie Wise.

Their act became an instant hit in the music halls of Britain, along with their growing work on radio, leading them to their first offer of a TV show, called “Running Wild,” in 1954. Like many music hall stars at the time, where they performed their acts to an appreciative live audience, the pair struggled to adapt to the new medium of television. The six-show run received harsh criticism, with one headline reading, “Definition of the week- TV set the box which they buried Morecambe and Wise in.”

Part of the reasoning for the dramatic failure of “Running Wild,” was put down to the fact that their material was written by in-house BBC comedy writers, rather than the duo themselves. It was a mistake that the pair vowed never to make again.

Throughout the 1950s the pair returned to the variety circuit, where they struggled to top the bill. They appeared on Winifred Atwell’s television show on ITV and then a programme called, “Double Six,” to some acclaim. In 1961 the pair bit the TV bullet once again when they hosted another show called, “Two of a Kind.” This took the form and humour of the Morecambe and Wise show that we would all become familiar with. After some initial difficulties, once again regarding the writers for the show, “Two of a Kind,” gathered momentum throughout the 1960s. Some of the running jokes in the Morecambe & Wise show started off in “Two of a Kind,” such as “Get out of that,”I’ll smash your face in,” and “Tea Ern.” Moreover they invited special guests onto the show to “insult,” them, a feature which also carried forward. “Two of a Kind” ran until 1968 when contract negotiations hit a sticking point over money. The BBC offered them the chance to perform in colour along with a healthier contract, which they accepted.

Eric Morecambe with Ernie Wise.

The move to the BBC almost did not take place. In November 1968 Eric Morecambe suffered a heart attack. During his recovery the BBC approached comedy writer Eric Braben, who had successfully written for fellow ex-variety comedian, Ken Dodd.

His influence and skill as a comedy writer made him the unofficial “third person,” in the team. He also successfully re-defined Ernie Wise’s character, from being the “straight man” of the two into by the end of the run a “pretentious and self-satisfied idiot.” One running joke was a part of the show when they said in a close up shot, “I appeared in an Ernie Wise play and look what happened to me,” before panning out to them doing a mundane job, such as bus conducting or sweeping the road.

Ratings for the show were growing fast and the Christmas specials becoming legendary. One such early one in 1971 featured legendary composer, Andre’ Previn, who had the unenviable task of leading his orchestra, along with a comically inept Eric Morecambe on the piano. Ernie Wise also kept getting his name wrong, referring to him as “Mr Preview.” This scene has become one of the most popular Morecambe and Wise moments.

By 1976 , 27 million people watched the duo dance with Angela Rippon in one of the most iconic TV moments of the decade. In fact during the 1970s it was a high acclaim to be invited onto the show, even if they had to endure the hosts mis-pronouciations of their name or even forgetting the reason why they were famous.

The duo were also famous for their song and dance routines, with their signature tune and skip dance to “Bring me Sunshine.” This song was written in the mid-sixties by Arthur Kent, with vocals from Sylvia Dee.

As time wore on and after a move to ITV in 1978 the dance routines were only performed by Wise, because of Morecambe’s ongoing heart condition.

Unfortunately in 1984 Eric Morecambe died of a heart attack, breaking up one of the best loved comedy duos in Britain. A grieving Ernie Wise took time out from showbusiness and retired for a while to his holiday home in Florida.

The following year he returned to Britain and made history by  making the first ever UK mobile phone call on January 1st 1985, from St Katherine’s Dock in East London to Vodafone’s headquarters in Newbury. This helped launch the first mobile network in the UK.

He also made several appearances on television, but never as part of his own show. These included several stints in Countdown’s “Dictionary corner,” and as a panelist on the revived “What’s my line.” On Boxing Day 1992 he was the subject of Michael Aspel’s, “This is your life,” and appeared in a 1994 tribute show “Bring me Sunshine,” hosted by Ben Elton.

However by the mid-nineties, Wise’s own health was suffering and the entertainer announced his retirement in 1995, aged seventy. Four years later Ernie Wise died of a heart attack and was cremated in Slough.

Ernie Wise had a fantastic life in showbiz, making it to the very top of UK television and providing some of the most iconic moments in British small screen history. In 2010 a statue of him was unveiled in Morley, by his wife since 1953, Doreen.

A commemoration to Ernie Wise in his birthplace of Morley. Picture: Betty Longbottom wikipedia creative commons
A commemoration to Ernie Wise in his birthplace of Morley. Picture: Betty Longbottom wikipedia creative commons

In 2015 the Royal Mail announced that the comedy pair would appear on a new set of postage stamps, the first of which were launched in April. After a lifetime in comedy, Ernie Wise is one the funniest people to be born in Yorkshire.

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