Last week, on Christmas Day, for old times’ sake – which there seems to be rather a lot of in my middle age – I watched on BBC2 a recently rediscovered early episode of Morecambe & Wise from 1970, which had previously been thought ‘lost‘.
British comedy duo Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise, a kind of ageing music hall version of Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin were for much of the 1970s a massive UK institution: their Christmas Day TV specials were far more crucial to the national psyche than the Queen’s Speech.
Their 1977 special was watched by a staggering 28 million people – more than half the population of the UK back then. That included of course my family – pubescent me lying on the floor in front of the D.E.R. rental TV, belly full of turkey, head propped up on hands, soaking it all in and making sure I didn’t miss a single syllable or pixel of this much-loved male ‘double act’.
In one scene in the rediscovered show from over half a century ago, just three years after the highly controversial (partial) decriminalisation of male homosexuality, our middle-aged chums share a double bed in their jim-jams, a Laurel & Hardyesque symbol of domestic bliss that was to become a regular staple of their TV series. (So much so that I still remember the confusion and disappointment I felt as a kid when I discovered that they didn’t in fact live together, and both had wives and kids.)
Eric (the balding one with the glasses) tries to listen to their newly-wed neighbours shagging through the wall. Coy Ernie, aghast at this display of vulgarity from his bed mate, or perhaps the reminder of the lack of fire in his own not-so-new ‘marriage’, at first pretends not to know what newlyweds might be doing on their first night of nuptials.
“Putting up curtains?” he offers when pushed for an answer.
Exasperated by Eric’s increasingly desperate attempts to eavesdrop on the neighbours, Ernie eventually leaves his pal in a huff, taking half the bedclothes with him.
“I’m going to sleep on the sofa!” he announces.
However, Eric, listening at the wall with a microphone that he seems to have sourced for exactly that purpose, hears his short fat hairy legged chum with knobbly knees knocking on the newly-weds’ door, asking “Can I help you with your curtains?”.
The Wikipedia entry for Eric and Ernie (as they were affectionately dubbed) includes a reference to the shared bed, asserting that their relationship was ‘purely platonic’. This conjugation of ‘purely’ and ‘platonic’ is a common assertion with male comedy duos, of course – but if the relationship was ‘purely platonic’, why the shared bed? Especially in an age when twin beds for married male/female couples were still common. Comedy loves ambiguity, and two men sharing a bed in 1970 was very ambiguous.
No one seems to have been more aware of this than Morecambe, who we’re told was ‘initially uncomfortable’ with the bed-sharing’ but changed his mind upon being reminded of the Laurel and Hardy precedent. Though perhaps he shouldn’t have been.
However, he still insisted on smoking his pipe in the bed scenes “for the masculinity”. Which of course only made the scenes camper.
A central concept was that the duo lived together as close, long-term friends (there were many references to a childhood friendship) who shared not merely a flat but also a bed—although their relationship was purely platonic and merely continued a tradition of comic partners sleeping in the same bed that had begun with Laurel and Hardy. Morecambe was initially uncomfortable with the bed-sharing sketches, but changed his mind upon being reminded of the Laurel and Hardy precedent; however, he still insisted on smoking his pipe in the bed scenes “for the masculinity”.