Next week Ian Ashpitel and Jonty Stephens’ Eric And Little Ern will open in the West End, bringing their moving homage to comedy legends Morecambe and Wise to its biggest audience yet. Here the performers exclusively reveal the journey that led to this affectionate – not to mention critically acclaimed – double act performance arriving in London, and the inspiration they discovered in unusual places along the way.
We first met at drama school nearly 30 years ago and have been close friends ever since. I had done A Levels, Ian had been a radio operator on submarines in the Royal Navy, so very similar really…
We were asked to do Morecambe and Wise in a revue style piece for our friends in The Stage Golfing Society about 10 years ago. I’d always done impressions and Eric [Morecambe] was a favourite, and Ian just happened to have short fat hairy legs. It was great fun and went down well with the audience. Last year we were asked to revive it and we put a lot more thought and rehearsal time into it. We found we loved writing in the style of the boys. To our delight it went down really well again. We thought we’d written about 10 minutes, but it ended up lasting 20 with laughs! Our friends in the business encouraged us to do something with it as they felt we captured the spirit of Eric and Ernie.
So we set out on the journey of writing and creating Eric And Little Ern, a labour of love for us both. We were very mindful of writing something that was respectful to the memory of them and we wanted it to show how close they were and why their relationship endured for such a long time. They were closer than brothers, together from the age of 13 until Eric’s untimely death in 1984. We were lucky enough to gain permission to perform original material by the original writers, Dick Hills and Sid Green, and also the work of Eddie Braben, who wrote for them at their peak in the 70s. We’ve interwoven this into the first half of the show so it’s part of the narrative.
The thing that interested us both the most was their relationship, why it worked on and off the stage and why had it stood the test of time when so many others went by the wayside. We had to get them talking to each other about what had happened throughout their lives. The challenge here of course is that Eric died 15 years before Ernie sadly left us. I had grown up in old people’s homes as my mother was the matron. As a boy, I used to sit and talk to the residents and listen to their fascinating stories. This would be the late 60s and many of them had lived through both World Wars. There was one old boy in particular I took a shine to. He’d spent most of his life working on farms and of course being a soldier in both wars. One day I saw him in the middle of the room talking to an imaginary – to us – person. It was as if he was reliving moments from his life in the middle of the room. This then became a starting point for our show.
The play opens in the Nuffield Hospital in Slough in 1999 and covers Ernie’s last hour. We hope we can shine a light on their talent and share their joy and laughter with a live audience, for those that know them and hopefully a new audience who have never enjoyed them before. Taking on the might of Morecambe and Wise is a huge task and one which we didn’t take lightly. Getting to Edinburgh was our first aim. After we got there, it just went mad with great reviews and sold out shows. The love people have for Morecambe and Wise is huge, you can feel that when you’re performing. An awful lot of young people came to see us with their parents and grandparents. A new generation of Morecambe and Wise fans, we hope.
As a child the big event of the week was all the family sitting down and watching The Morecambe And Wise Show. Tears of laughter rolling down the cheeks, desperately trying to perfect the paper bag trick. Everybody watched Morecambe and Wise. There will never be a double act like them; they are unique in their success and longevity. Still on our television screens today in the repeats that are constantly aired. The great thing is, they are still as funny today as they were 30 odd years ago. Comedy gold is timeless.