THE BOOTLEG FILES: “MORECAMBE & WISE: MUSICAL EXTRAVAGANZAS”

Unless you are British or a Union Jack-waving, tea-drinking, “God Save the Queen” cheering Anglophile, you’ve probably never heard of Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise. Who are Morecambe & Wise? I asked Joe Utichi, editor of the online British magazine Film Focus (www.filmfocus.co.uk), to explain that one for us:

“Morecambe & Wise are legends of British comedy,” says Utichi. “Along with the likes of The Two Ronnies, M&W have produced some of the finest comic output this country has ever seen. British audiences hail them as comedy Gods, or at least they should. Their show is regularly repeated on UK television and some of their sketches always make ‘Top comedy sketches’ lists.”

In 1994, the BBC issued a home video called “Morecambe & Wise: Musical Extravaganzas.” This hour-long offering highlights some of the classic song-and-dance moments from Morecambe & Wise’s much-beloved 1970s BBC television series.

Some background: Morecambe & Wise first established themselves in the UK in the early 1950s and were very popular in concert appearances and on television. TV was their metier, and they specialized in revue shows packed with crazy sketches and extravagant musical numbers that somehow veered into absurdities. Their Christmas specials charmed a generation of Britons; even the royal family expressed their delight with the duo.

Yet the team experienced bumps along the way. Film stardom eluded them – they made three low-budget features in the 1960s that failed at the British box office. American success also eluded them. Although they made frequent appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show” during the mid-1960s, American audiences never embraced their comedy and no program outside of the Sullivan show bothered to hire them as guests. Their BBC show was syndicated on American television in the late 1970s, but it was not publicized, and unlike fellow Brits Benny Hill or Monty Python they never clicked with American viewers. After a brief run, their series was forgotten by most people (but not me).

The tall, bespectacled and rather off-kilter Morecambe played wonderfully off the shorter Wise, who frequently played the befuddled butt of Morecambe’s rapier commentary. Together, they brought out the best of the high-profile guests who happily came on their show to engage in low-brow comedy and wild musical productions.

And that’s where “Morecambe & Wise: Musical Extravaganzas” works best. There are four numbers in particular which are classics of British entertainment, and at least one was responsible for a bit of Hollywood history. That was a charming if daft riff on Astaire-Rogers musicals with Morecambe & Wise sharing the dance floor with Glenda Jackson. Jackson was not a musical comedy star, by any stretch, and having her trip the light fantastic for laughs came as a shock to many viewers. As luck would have it, the producers of “A Touch of Class” saw her guest shot and were so happily surprised by her comic skills that they signed her for the movie. Jackson later won her second Academy Award for that performance, which only came about thanks to Morecambe & Wise.

But more amazing is seeing the duo bring out the comedy lioness in Diana Rigg. The high-kicking ex-Mrs. Peel showed she could sing, dance and mug with the best of them as she joined the pair in a supersonic rendition of “How Can You Believe When I Said I Loved You (When You Know I’ve Been a Liar All My Life)?” What was stunning is not that Rigg could sing and do comedy, but that she could roar into that number with such gusto as to overshadow not only Morecambe & Wise but also the original Fred Astaire-Jane Powell rendition from the classic 1951 musical “Royal Wedding.”

Elsewhere on the video is Vanessa Redgrave redeeming her musical ineptitude from “Camelot” by gamely playing a flamenco goddess in an Iberian extravaganza. And the usually insipid pop star Cliff Richard joins the comics in which they are all dressed as sailors in a wild dance extravaganza tied to the song “The Fleet’s In.” Anyone who knows Redgrave and Richard will be surprised at the uninhibited nature of their performing – it’s as if Morecambe & Wise unleashed their inner spirits and allowed them to be as zany as nature intended.

Beyond the guest star power, Morecambe & Wise could more than hold a sketch by themselves. Most memorably here, the pair get into drag for a spectacularly clumsy spoof of the “Hey, Big Spender” number from “Sweet Charity,” and later they make breakfast in a cluttered kitchen to the instrumental classic “The Stripper” (a link of sausages is worn and twirled like a feathered boa, eggs are whisked to the tune’s rhythms, and toast pops up in melodic time). There is also the bizarre but hilarious “Singin’ in the Rain” parody with Wise as the Gene Kelly character performing the number while Morecambe’s policeman watches in amazement since there is no rain present. The rain eventually comes, albeit falling only on Morecambe and not the umbrella-twirling Wise.

But there are places in “Morecambe & Wise” which will lose Americans. A lengthy dance number in which a female newscaster unexpectedly turns into a high-kicking hoofer is a lost joke since most American viewers do not realize the newscaster was Angela Rippon, a highly respected British TV journalist. And the finale, inspired by “South Pacific,” is full of men in sailor suits who elicit huge laughs from the audience at the taping but will register no reaction from this side of the Atlantic (I’ve seen this video several times and I still can’t figure out who those men are – I assume they are also BBC newscasters).

Yet the hour-long “Morecambe & Wise: Musical Extravaganzas” is absent of a few of the duo’s most celebrated numbers: their outlandishly inane encounter with Elton John (he serenades them while they are in drag as cleaning women), their disastrous attempt to help Andre Previn conduct a classical orchestra, and their intrusion as scenery movers who keep shifting the sets and even the footwear for the unflappably torrid singer Shirley Bassey. Perhaps these were included in other videos, or maybe there were problems clearing the home entertainment rights.

Also, this musical collection misses the peerless comedy sketches that Morecambe & Wise created, most notably the cockeyed plays that the artistically-inspiring Wise allegedly authored (or as he would say in his North of England accent, “the play wot I wrote”). Missing as well are examples of Morecambe’s delightfully weird malaprops (he actually referred to the Beatles’ drummer as Bongo Starr!).

From what I gather, “Morecambe & Wise: Musical Extravaganzas” was never released in the U.S. on home video. Amazon.com lists the title as being distributed here in 1988 via Bfs Entertainment & Multimedia, yet the video I own (which I obtained via eBay) is in the BBC clamshell with a 1994 copyright. The video is clearly marked as being “digitally converted and imported from the U.K.” (a fancy way of saying it was transferred from PAL to NTSC), and the video itself has a slapped-on home made label without the BBC copyright. But the quality is perfectly fine.

For those who love British comedy and are tired of all of those damn reruns on PBS or BBC America, try to locate “Morecambe & Wise: Musical Extravaganzas.” Who knows, you might even find yourself getting a good-sized laugh – after all, all of the Great Britain were laughing with Morecambe & Wise for many years!

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IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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Posted on May 27, 2005 in Features by
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