The making of Morecambe - an interview with Gary Morecambe & Bob Golding
By Teddington People | Friday, February 07, 2014, 16:01
It's been 30 years since the premature death of Eric Morecambe, one half of Britain's most popular double acts. In its heyday, the Morecambe and Wise show attracted audiences of 28 million viewers, an achievement that has rarely been beaten. In 1984 Eric died of a final heart attack after having suffered his first in his early 40s, just after the pair's first BBC series together.
Pictured here: Gary Morecambe and Bob Golding. Photo credit: Paul Clapp.
To mark the anniversary, the Richmond Theatre will be staging a brand new production of Morecambe, the Olivier award-winning West End play, that celebrates his life. The production, which sold out at the Edinburgh fringe five years ago, stars Bob Golding who was nominated for an Olivier Award for his performance as the man who played all the right notes but not necessarily in the right order. He started out in rep theatre, becoming a voiceover artist for children's TV programmes before landing the role as Eric Morecambe.
Since its release Bob has become a firm family friend to the Morecambes, particularly Eric's son Gary, who lives in Teddington.
Here, Teddington People talks to both Bob Golding and Eric's son Gary to find out more about the play.
From the Tweenies to playing Eric Morecambe on stage. How did you get here?
Bob Golding: As a jobbing actor you go where the work takes you and children's TV was part of that. But most of my work's been in comedy which I've always been a huge fan of and Eric Morecambe's one of my heroes. At any time in my career, if anyone asked me to play one of my heroes I would have grabbed it with two hands so it's really been luck if I'm honest. And this is one of the milestones in my career that I'm most proud of.
You play 55 different characters in the play. What's that like?
Bob Golding: That's right. Morecambe's a one man play and yes I do play all the characters that feature in Eric's life. It was a difficult thing for Tim Withnall, the writer, to get around. He'd continuously be thinking about how we'd do Eric talking to other characters and how that would look. It's done at quite a lick though. It starts and then its non stop.
Gary Morecambe: Yes, I came away thinking I'd seen loads of people.
Bob Golding: You were really drunk at the time though weren't you? Being serious though, it was difficult. In the play Ernie is a ventroquilists dummy. It sounds dismissive but if you see the play, we champion Ernie as much as we do Eric.
Yes, I was wondering how much of a role Ernie would play and how he'd feature. Can you describe their relationship and how it's portrayed in the play?
Gary Morecambe: Their 43 year working relationship is testament to how important they were to each other. Most marriages don't last that long. When Eric had his first heart attack, Ernie kept working and everything he earned he gave to Eric.
Bob Golding: Exactly. So when the play first started showing, I was really keen to let people know it's not just about Eric. People have asked how you can do a one man play about him but it's not just about him. It's about his life and the people in it. And there were many people in it. Bruce Forsythe pops up at one stage.
Gary Morecambe: There's lots of gags all the way through and lots of nods at their work and sketches.
Bob Golding: We were very mindful of the fact that we didn't want to do a greatest hits show though. The first half of the play is about their early struggles which were vast. I think a critic once said they were the slowest overnight success in showbiz history. They had so many knock backs but they had this inherent talent and were able to dust themselves off and carry on.
Gary Morecambe: That's why a double act worked so well. When one of them was down, the other brought them back up again. My father always said double acts were great because you could use the other person to give you a lift. For a solo act there's noone else there.
And what about Eric himself? What parts of his life do you focus on?
Bob Golding: We get into the fun bits and bits about Eric growing up. He was undoubtedly a handful wasn't he? (Gary agrees). Entertaining builders on the street when he was young. His Mum, Sadie, was very canny in developing the talent she picked up on and she pushed him that way. But it's also punctuated with landmark moments so it's not all good. Like having his first heart attack and the death of his parents come into it.
Gary Morecambe: I've seen it 3 times and every time I've always come away feeling a certain sadness. I mean he died prematurely and that's pretty much where the play ends so you're going to get to that feeling.
Bob, how much pressure did you feel to get Eric Morecambe exactly right?
Bob Golding: At first, I was more worried about learning song lyrics and responding to cues. It was only when we went to Edinburgh that it hit me. I was playing one of the nation's comedy heroes and people like Nicholas Parsons, Barry Cryer and Lionel Blair were actually coming to see the shows. If I got it wrong there they were sitting with daggers in the wings potentially. Happily it worked out. And that's a testament to the play. It's an incredibly respectful journey of Eric's life. It not just about his career but how he managed to reach us all with that crazy comedy.
Gary, how much input did you have?
Gary Morecambe: I was traveling in Asia at the time but I'd heard about it and then I met up with Bob after it was launched. We held a couple of notes sessions where I told them where I thought they should make more of some things and less of others.
Bob Golding: Oh yes, I remember that. And then we ignored it. No, seriously, we acknowledged it and it was important for us to get it right and do Eric justice on all levels. You're a stickler for dates and times aren't you?
Gary Morecambe: I just feel if you're going to do it, you should do it properly. For audiences I suppose it doesn't matter if you're five years out but because it's about my father's life these were details that mattered to me.
But I could also separate myself and watch the audience and I felt I could tune into what they were thinking. They're remembering a time when they were sitting down with their parents, remembering Christmases, and a lot of people come out with tears in their eyes. I think a lot of the success of the production is tied into nostalgia and people's memories of that time. It's a kind of therapy.
Gary, how would you describe the play's impact on your own memories of your Dad?
Gary Morecambe: I've always said, what you saw on screen we got in diluted form. My dad was relatively normal but still very much in that show biz world. For us, it was like living in the twilight world of Morecambe and Wise. So, although he could never switch off - "always on" was the phrase he and Ernie used - it was never manic. But we have some great anecdotes. My sister Gail has stories of when boyfriends would call up and my Dad would say: "I'm sorry there's no phone here," and he'd just hang up. So there was always that kind of banter in the house.
And finally, Bob, what about the song? Do you sing it at the end?
Bob Golding: We do "Bring Me Sunshine" and it's in the play all the way through in different guises. There's a point on Eric's 21st birthday where Sadie wrote him a letter telling him he doesn't need her anymore. He's got Ernie, now go and be brilliant. And whilst Eric is reading that letter there's a little acoustic version of the song - a little inkling of what's going to come later when we do the full version. And of course the song was always going to be there. But we don't end with it. We end with a Bobby Darin song called "The Curtain Falls" which is an emotional song. And that's where the play ends as that's where Eric's life ends.
That's why people come out with tears. They're not necessarily just tears of sadness but also tears of what joy Eric brought to their lives.
Morecambe will play the Richmond Theatre for a one night Gala Performance to launch the UK tour on Sunday 30 March at 7.30pm.
Book tickets here.