Some New Jokes What I Wrote...
Eddie Braben was Morecambe and Wise's scriptwriter during their golden years at the BBC. As a show featuring a tribute to the duo opens, he tells Paul Taylor that he never really stopped writing for them
The Independent, 7 November 2001
The pitiful plays what Ernie Wise wrote were, of course, a hilarious feature of the immortal scripts what Eddie Braben wrote for the great comedy duo in their golden BBC decade beginning in 1969. Since Eric's premature death in 1984, Braben says that he's "always had Morecambe and Wise lines running round in my head, but there was nowhere for them to go". Until now. Monday night saw the opening of a show that could well provide a long-standing outlet for new Eric and Ernie gags. A charming Chinese box of an entertainment, The Play What I Wrote is the brainchild of the Right Size, (aka Sean Foley and Hamish McColl), a double act de nos jours whose warm audience rapport and essentially good-natured view of the world have drawn repeated comparisons with Morecambe and Wise - even when they have ventured on Brecht or produced material reminiscent of Beckett. In the new piece, they play "Hamish" and "Sean", a comedy duo on the brink of break-up. The pompous, stage-struck Hamish frets that he isn't getting any laughs and wants to establish himself as a serious playwright. Desperate to save the partnership, the taller, worldlier Sean tries to pass off a dodgy booking to do a Morecambe and Wise tribute show as the perfect opportunity for Hamish to mount his latest dramatic opus A Tight Squeeze for the Scarlet Pimple and to cast it with big star names. The stage is thus set for an affectionate meta-Morecambe and Wise special.
Eric used to call Eddie Braben, "the Whizzer" because, as soon as a recording session was over, Braben would rush back to his native Liverpool to get on with the terrible strain of producing, solo, the next 45-minute show. I met him during a characteristically brief three-day visit to the capital from his home in peaceful Snowdonia.
An hour in the company of this benign, gentle, Scouser is enough to make you want to renounce irony and cynicism for life. There's a quiet, unassuming integrity about him, plus a sense of unspoilt wonder that he has somehow got swept up into the hurly-burly of celebrity. When we talked, he hadn't yet seen The Play What I Wrote, but confessed that "I'm still a total ham. I've been down to the theatre to look at my name outside. I think that's great. I want a poster so I can take it home and give it to my daughters."
Eric and Ernie, and their producer John Ammonds, famously drove Braben to the point of collapse with their insistent phone conferences about changes and adjustments to the scripts. Have the wires been red-hot again, I wondered, between him and David Pugh (the producer) and Kenneth Branagh (the director) of this new venture? "No," replies Braben modestly, "if anything, it's me who's been over-enthusiastic." But with a host of "surprise celebrities" queuing to get in on the act (the names you hear bandied about range from Victoria Beckham to Sean Connery), he's having to work once more to a constant, tight deadline.
I attended a Saturday matinee preview where it was the turn of a dressing-gowned Ralph Fiennes to be humiliated in front of the velvet curtain and, as the Compte de Toblerone, in the climactic play. (The difficulties of pronouncing that august name are manna to a comedy writer. "Now Ralph..." "It's Rafe!" "Well, put some cream on it.")
The show makes the famous an offer they can't refuse without seeming a bad sport and it occurs to me that this may be the ideal way for flushing out Osama bin Laden. Could even he resist the ultimate accolade of an experience that would begin with Sean Foley muttering "Don't panic, Hamish, but there's a drunk up on the stage" and then continue with Hamish fawning all over "Sir Osmosis Bin-Liner"? Braben says that audiences warm to the sight of straight actors struggling to do stand-up, an altogether different art. "I mean, Laurence Olivier, God rest his soul, you could see when he was in The Entertainer, that he was having to act at being a stand- up." The first luminary they had on the TV show was Dame Flora Robson who provoked some off-camera mirth during rehearsals by asking if Braben was related to Lady Brabourne.
He is, in fact, the son of a butcher who had a business in Liverpool's St John's market (the same place where Anne Robinson's glamorous mother sold poultry - which doubtless raised the tone no end). When he came out of National Service in the RAF, his father "must have given me half his life savings to buy a fruit and vegetable stall for a hundred pounds". It proved not to be his vocation. "God I was terrible, terrible. I'd stand there and the fruit would be going rotten." So this shy man took to scribbling jokes on the brown paper bags.
He made his first sale to Charlie Chester with a gag that went "When Hopalong Cassidy was a baby, his mother knew that he was going to be a cowboy, because he always wore a ten-gallon nappy." The rhythm is crucial as he illustrates with another three-step gag he penned as Ken Dodd's script-writer, marking the phases like the separate lines of a song: "When I was at school,/ I used to be teacher's pet./I sat in a cage at the back of the class."
True, these early efforts are some way from the surreal, wrongfooting riffs he would create for Morecambe and Wise, but you can admire the skill with which, say, each unit of the joke lands cleanly on a picture noun. He first clocked the comedy duo by accident when he was 16 in a show at the Liverpool Empire where the boys were way down on a bill starring Lena Horne. He was not impressed.
"The one thing I can remember is Eric standing over the orchestra pit with a fishing rod that had an apple at the end of the line. And Ernie coming on and saying `What are you doing?' `I'm fishing' `Where's the worm?' `Inside the apple.' It was on that level. And then I saw them on ITV in the black and white days where I always thought that Ernie was too hard and Eric too gormless."
So when he was invited by Bill Cotton to come on board for the BBC series, he determined to reinvent their relationship. Without Braben, there could be no The Play What I Wrote, since it was his idea in the first place to turn Ernie into a bumptiously pretentious playwright, a simpleton who thinks he is a sophisticate and to make Eric more worldly, sharper-witted and so sure of his endless loveability that audiences wanted to include Ernie in their embrace. Instead of a comic and straight man, "We reached the stage where there were two comics."
A Morecambe and Wise TV special translates naturally into theatre, because the duo, who had spent years touring the halls, wanted a sense of theatre built into the show. They didn't perform on the studio floor, reveals Braben, but on a specially constructed two foot high stage and they insisted on velvet curtains. These repeatedly prove a boon in the new show, as when a giant toy dog pokes its head through the curtains to defend the interests of Sean who massages its hindquarters through the velvet. "He loves this, you know. And I'll tell you something else - the bloke who's stood there loves it, too."
If the Right Size sometimes stray further into the risque than Eric and Ernie would have done (with jokes like "I'm a forlorn Comte." "Can he say that?" What, `Comte'?" "No, `forlorn'."), Braben reckons they have the same "warmth, sincerity, and probably the greatest thing of all, a childlike innocence". They don't compete with Morecambe and Wise but re-embody their spirit.
By the end of the show, you've been bombarded with so much loopy illogic, you can hardly think straight. Seeing a notice that said, "Please replace opera glasses", I immediately thought: what with - tooth mugs? That sign led me to thinking that The Play What I Wrote is, in fact, a beautifully talented and original way of registering the fact that Morecambe and Wise cannot be replaced, while the script - to which he has so hilariously contributed - is recognition that there will never be a substitute for Eddie Braben.
'The Play What I Wrote' is at Wyndham's Theatre, London to 20 April (020-7369 1736).