Eric and Little Ern bring sunshine
WHEN a young Jonty Stephens sat down with his family to watch the Morecambe and Wise Christmas special he could not have dreamed that one day he would be recreating some of their most famous comedy moments.
He and his best mate Ian Ashpitel have recently made their West End debut with a show that pays an affectionate homage to their heroes and has drawn praise from the critics as well as the comedians’ families.
The pair devised Eric and Little Ern and took it to the Edinburgh Fringe last summer, inviting friends and contacts in the business to see it and help decide whether it would be a goer in London’s theatreland.
But in fact, the show was born years ago when the actors used to do an informal routine at parties for the benefit of their friends. “I’m a huge Morecambe and Wise nut and Eric has been my hero since I was a little boy and watched with my parents,” said Jonty, who lives in Cirencester. “I’ve always done Eric and Ian just happens to have short, fat hairy legs.”
Like Eric and Ernie, the actors have been friends for many years. They were at drama school together 30 years ago and Ian was best man at his wedding.
Both are established actors. Jonty has appeared with the Royal Shakespeare Company, on TV’s Peaky Blinders and at Shakespeare’s Globe. Ian has appeared in the film Arthur Christmas, TV series Thin Ice and stage show Brighton Rock although he started out as a Royal Navy radio operator in submarines.
Together they set about doing some serious research into the lives of men who formed what has been described as probably the best double-act the country has ever seen.
“It has been a real journey of discovery,” said Jonty. “The key to both of us was to do it respectfully and in the right way. It is not mimicry, it is a portrayal. We are not impersonators, we are actors first and foremost.”
The show starts as Ernie is on his deathbed in 1999 and is visited by Eric who appears to him as a doctor. It takes the audience through the friends’ lives and some of their best gags.
“I think it is a poignant show, but fundamentally it is funny. A huge thing with them is that their humour is timeless.”
“When Morecambe and Wise were on we all sat down, grandparents, parents and kids and we all watched the same show.”
Stars like Shirley Bassey, Glenda Jackson and Elton John were happy to be ridiculed along with conductor Andre Previn, who was known for years afterwards as “Andrew Preview.”
The Christmas specials attracted more than 20 million viewers, but the last show was broadcast in 1983 and Eric died in 1984 of a heart attack following six curtain calls at the end of a show in the Roses Theatre, Tewkesbury.
It means a generation of youngsters have grown up without them. But they still manage to enjoy Jonty and Ian’s version.
“Young people don’t know who Morecambe and Wise are but are brought by their parents and grandparents and are getting it and loving it.”
One of the most important audiences was the Morcambe and Wise families and those of their writers, Dick Hills, Sid Green and Eddie Braben. It was vital to have their blessing. Two weeks before he died Eddie Braben, the man behind some of their best sketches gave permission for his work to be used in the show.
Said Jonty: “Everybody has been really kind and positive, which is hugely important to us.”
Eric and Little Ern is on at the Vaudeville Theatre until March. Visit ericandlittleern.com for more information.