Ernie Wise – Life, Career & Death

Ernie Wise was a famous comedian and entertainer. He formed one half of the best known comedy double acts to ever grace British television.

Along with his on-stage partner Eric Morcambe, they became a national institution with the Morecambe and Wise show which ran from 1968 to 1983. Their Christmas specials became essential peak time viewing throughout this time and are still heralded today.

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Growing Up

Ernest Wiseman was born on the 27th of November 1925 in Bramley, Leeds. He attended Thorpe Infant and Junior School before graduation to East Ardsley boy’s school.

Wise soon entered the world of show business along with his father who was a semi-professional singer. His father performed in local working men’s clubs and music halls. Before long, Wise and his dad created an act called “Bert Carson and his Little Wonder.”


Spotted by a Talent Scout

Wise was soon spotted by a talent scout called Bryan Michie who recommended Wise to impresario Jack Hylton. In 1938, Wise was invited to appear on the Band Waggon Radio Show.

The Beginning of Morecambe & Wise

Two years later when Wise was just sixteen, he first became acquainted with another entertainer from the other side of the Pennines called Eric Bartholemew. Eric had won a talent competition in Hoylake, with the prize being an audition for one Jack Hylton.

Eric Morecambe with Ernie Wise.

Harsh Criticism

Similar to many music hall stars at the time performing 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 material being written by in-house BBC comedy writers rather than the duo themselves. It was a mistake that the pair vowed never to make again.

Returning to the Variety Circuit

Throughout the 1950’s, the comedy 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 on a programme called “Double Six.”

In 1961, the pair bit the TV bullet once again. They hosted another show called “Two of a Kind” which took the form and humour of the Morecambe and Wise show that we would all become familiar with.

After some initial difficulties regarding the writers for the show, “Two of a Kind” gathered momentum throughout the 60’s. Some of the running jokes in the Morecambe & Wise Show started here 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 which was another feature 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.

The Move to the BBC

The move to the BBC almost didn’t 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.

Braben’s influence and skill as a comedy writer made him the unofficial third person in the team. He successfully re-defined Ernie Wise’s character from being the “straight man” of the two into a “pretentious and self-satisfied idiot” by the end of the run.

One running joke was 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.” It then panned 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 were becoming legendary. One of these shows in 1971 featured legendary composer Andre Previn.

He had the unenviable task of leading his orchestra with a comically inept Eric Morcambe 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.

An Iconic TV Moment

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 1970’s, it was a high acclaim to be invited onto the show even if they had to endure the hosts mis-pronunciations of their name or even forgetting the reason why they were famous.

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

The Death of Eric Morecambe

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

Unfortunately, in 1984 Eric Morecambe died of a heart attack. One of the best loved comedy duos in Britain were no longer. 

A grieving Ernie Wise took time out from show business. He decided to retire for a while at his holiday home in Florida.

Making History

The following year, Wise made a brave decision and returned to Britain. He made history by making the first ever UK mobile phone call on the 1st of January 1985.

He called from St Katherine’s Dock in East London to Vodafone’s headquarters in Newbury. This helped launch the first mobile network in the UK.

TV Appearances

Wise also started making several appearances on television but never as part of his own show. These included several stints in Countdown’s “Dictionary Corner”, and as a panellist on the revived “What’s my line.”

On Boxing Day in 1992, he was the subject of Michael Aspel’s “This is your life.” Wise also appeared in a 1994 tribute show “Bring me Sunshine” hosted by Ben Elton.

The Death of Ernie Wise

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

By the mid-nineties, Wise’s own health was beginning to suffer. The entertainer decided to announce his retirement in 1995 at the age of 70.

Four years later, Ernie Wise died of a heart attack and was cremated in Slough.

A Yorkshire Legacy

Ernie Wise had a fantastic life in showbiz. He made it to the very top of UK television and provided us with some of the most iconic moments in British small screen history.

In 2010, a statue of him was created and unveiled in Morley by his wife, since 1953, Doreen. Five years later in 2015, the Royal Mail announced that the comedy pair would appear on a new set of postage stamps. The first of these were launched that April.

After a lifetime in comedy, Ernie Wise is one of the funniest people to be born in Yorkshire.