Cambridge Arts Theatre: An Evening of Eric and Ern
Ever wished you'd had the chance to see Morecambe and Wise Live? According to all their reviews, this pair is uncannily close to the real thing. When Jonty Stephens (Eric) and Ian Ashpital (Ernie) made their friends laugh with a five minute impression of the comedy duo, they never realised it would lead to a whole new career as a tribute act.
How did this show get started?
Jonty: We have been mates for 30 odd years, we really are best pals. I was asked to do Eric at the Stage Golfing Society, which is a society made up of out of work actors playing golf - so it is quite busy. We were asked to do this show every year for the members at our host club in Richmond. We were going to do a 70's variety show and they knew I did Eric impressions and I said well I need an Ern and there was Ian stood at the bar. I looked at him and saw his short fat hairy legs peeking out and i thought: he will do. He said i look nothing like him and I said well you do a bit actually.
Ian: When Jonty said to me will you be Eric, I thought he was mad. But the gig went well and people in the audience said we should do something with it. Jonty was two years ahead of me at drama school. I was a mature student and had been in the royal navy for nine years so I started acting at 27 but we became in the 1980s. Back then Jonty still had hair.
When did you realise you could impersonate Morecambe and Wise?
Jonty: I have been doing impressions of Eric since I was a little boy. my dad was a big Eric and Ern fan when I was growing up in the 70s and 80s. we all just used to sit and watch them and my dad would be doing the paper bag trick around the house, which I was always fascinated with and wiggling his glasses and shouting way hey a lot.
I think that was in a lot of households, they formed a whole generation’s humour, everybody would watch them: kids, parents and grandparents. That’s what is exciting about the show we get three generations of people coming to see the show, which is lovely.
How have you managed to look so much like them?
Jonty: As time has gone on it is spooky how we have aged appropriately, because I have had to lose my hair specifically to play Eric. I pushed it our follicle by follicle over the years.
Ian: I got reviews in the paper saying what a terrible wig and actually it is my own hair.
How did you go about portraying real people? It goes further than a brief impression, doesn’t it?
Jonty: We have never worked as hard at anything in our lives so we started it from an acting point of view. Obviously we have watched absolutely everything and continue to do so really to keep making sure we are on the right lines. And we talked to people who had worked with them. We want to do them justice, If you are taking on the might of Morecambe and Wise, who were so beloved by people and still are, you want to get it right - else you are going to be in trouble. Fortunately, touch wood, we seem to be getting away with it so far.
Ian: When we decided to write the play that we took to Edinburgh - Eric and little Ern - I had to do some work on Ernie. Instead of doing an impression of Ernie I learnt about him and approached it as a portrayal. I don’t think im as accurate as Jonty is with Eric - but I try and get the essence of Ernie. He's from Yorkshire buy he has this strange mid Atlantic accent, then he goes quite posh then he’s back to Yorkshire again - that’s the challenge with Ernie
Do you perform their most famous sketches in your show?
Ian: It’s an evening of their songs, sketches and routines - some you will know and love and there will be a few surprises. We do Grieg’s Piano Concerto and memory man. Eddie Braben was their main writer, so most of the material is from him but we have written some stuff in between. We link it all together so there’s a narrative to the show.
Jonty: Most of the time the audience are saying the punchlines before we get to them. The amazing thing is that's what they love - the build up to the punchline that they know is coming. A lot of comedians now are desperately trying to do new material whereas people coming to see us want to see the golden nuggets of Morecambe and Wise. We have written some new material but the greatest compliment for that is people thought it was Morecambe and wise Material. We will take that
I love the stuff on the TV shows when it is the two of them in a bed together and Ernie is writing a play and Eric is reading the Dandy chuckling at Desperate Dan.
Before this show you took a play about Morecambe and Wise to the Edinburgh Fringe. Was it another sketch show?
Ian: The play was about their lives and relationships. It was the last hours of Ernie's life set in a hospital, remembering. Then in act two we come through the curtain and do their stand up routine.
How has being Eric and Ern for the last six years affected you?
Jonty: Eric is my hero, so to be portraying him is a real thrill and when you are performing the material of morecambe and wise to a packed theatre it's a wonderful feeling for us and hopefully for the audience. I hope it takes them on a nostalgic trip to when they were watching it with their loved one and maybe people who are no longer here, it is a very emotional thing for the audience.
Ian: This has really taken over our lives for the last six years. After we took our play to Edinburgh, we were spotted by P and O cruises who asked us to do a tribute act. We thought we would give it a go for a couple of weeks anyway years later we are doing this show.
How do the audience react to you both?
Ian: I think a lot of people sit down and think, ‘go on then, I dare you’ and hopefully by the end they are pleasantly surprised. People have told us that after ten minutes they feel they are watching the real Eric and Ern, if that’s true then our job is done.
It's like a warm blanket going around you, that’s what people have said. We are not pushing the envelope, there are no Brexit or Donald Trump jokes. There’s genuine belly laughs at the ends, tears are streaming down their faces and the whole audience have a shared experience.
There’s also an emotional connection with the audience because we all grew up with Morecambe and Wise so it takes them back to watching with mum and dad, sisters and brothers, when we watched them live on television.
Do you feel a responsibility to the real Morecambe and Wise?
Jonty: We feel a huge responsibility. Nobody loves Morecambe and Wise as much as me and Ian and we want to do them justice. We hope for that for the two hours of the show we transport people back to those times when you huddled around the telly and watched the show with your mum dad and grandparents and you all laughed at the same thing.
Ian: It is such a big responsibility because they are so loved and because everybody grew up with them. When you do the paper bag trip people say oh that was my dad’s trick. We even do a soft shoe shuffle. Eric and Ern had this little dance routine for years, so we had a choreographer come and teach us to do it. It took me about a week. I said to the choreographer how long would it take a professional dancer to learn this? A day? He said about ten minutes. It took me a week!
Does it matter that people have heard the sketches before?
Ian: They know what punchlines are coming and the more they know what is coming the more they laugh. Especially with “playing all the right notes, not necessarily in the right order”, when that comes out there is a massive cheer. It is incredible - it is an absolute joy to do the show.
How did Morecambe and Wise’s family react to the shows?
Ian: Eric Morecambe's family, Gail and Gary, they have become good friends. His wife Joan is 96, she saw us in the west end. Gail and Gary are involved in the show so every script is passed in front of them and they approve everything we do. If we write something new it is in their style - it doesn't jar with Morecambe and Wise. They are lovely people and they have been very supportive and helpful.
Sadly Doreen, Ernie’s widow, has passed away.
What have you learnt about them as people off stage?
Jonty: Somebody described them as working class gentlemen. They never lost sight of where they came from they never stopped appreciating that the public was the reason they were so successful they always had time for people. Celebrity is a very strange thing, some people are famous for being on something for two minutes whereas Eric and Ernie grafted for 20 years before they got any success so they were in their 40s when they started to make it. The insight to Eric is he was a lovely man and a comic genius but he would have been nothing without Ernie. Morecambe and Wise, that's the key you can't have one without the other.
Ian: We have never heard anything bad about them. Ernie could be a bit grumpy sometimes but from what we hear Eric was never off. If he went to a newsagents for a paper he would do a routine, any time he went anywhere he was never off which kind of contributed to his heart condition. Ernie was a it more laid back and could separate himself from it. They were nice people.
What’s it like being part of a double act?
Ian: You can't fake that friendship - Jonty and I have been mates for 30 years, although before we did this show we had never worked together. We had separate acting careers but I was best man at his wedding.
There was a lovely interview with Morecambe and Wise and this BBC interviewer asked what makes you successful. Eric said, ‘I make him laugh and he makes me laugh’, and that’s what Jonty and I have - this connection that carries onto the stage.
- An Evening of Eric and Ern. Cambridge Arts Theatre, June 27 and 28. Tickets from £20. Box office cambridgeartstheatre.com
More by this authorAlex Spencer