Wise Cracks with Morecambe and Wise

For the emerging comedian and media savvy Marxist Alexei Sayle, heroes fell in the 70s when he discovered that sometimes comedy is no laughing matter

I grew to love Morecambe and Wise without ever quite knowing it was happening. The pair, a British comedy institution for decades, seduced me with their obvious affection for each other, the joyful silliness of their material, and their refusal, unusual for comedians of the period, to exploit racism and misogyny. Yet two separate events eventually led me to see Morecambe and Wise, not as a lovable duo adored and revered by tens of millions, but instead as the tools of those who would bring into being a darker and more sinister world.

In 1973 I was, like many of my peers, partial to a Marxist-Leninist movement of the Chinese, rather than the Soviet, persuasion. We were the first generation of college-educated, working class youngsters who wished to differentiate themselves from their parents through purchasing.

Unlike your typical communists, we were highly consumerist in our outlook, and the Sunday supplements – particularly those of The Observer and The Sunday Times – were our Little Red Books. Furniture from Habitat, knives by Sabatier, Le Creuset pans, pasta-making machines from Italy – these were the icons of our ideology. As Maoists, we were supposedly dedicated to the violent overthrow of capitalism, but we were also creatures of our place and era. In our dialectic, the people must be served – preferably stuffed with consumer durables.

The articles in the Sunday supplements were of secondary interest, but I did notice in The Observer one weekend a portrait of Morecambe and Wise by the critic and dramaturge Kenneth Tynan. It was not at all a bad piece, though I found the author’s assertion that “Ernie is a comedian who is not funny, while Eric is a straight man who is funny” an idiotic inversion written only to sound clever. What disturbed me was that Tynan, a consummate self-publicist (the first man to say “fuck” on British TV), was aware that what he was doing was epochal.


Up until that point popular culture such as the work of Eric and Ernie had largely escaped examination by Tynan’s ilk: members of the critical elite, the academic world and the arts establishment. This had meant that the mass entertainment genre known as “variety” had been able to develop, for good or ill, in an entirely unselfconscious way, free from exegesis. But upon reading Tynan’s article I thought to myself, “There’s something wrong with this.”

I had an unfocussed sense that this was the beginning of what did indeed come to pass, an age of endless, stupefyingly serious critical examination of things that had formerly been considered simply entertainment. From now on, nothing fun could be done without a growing number of people parsing it for its true significance. At first, this new ponderousness was dominated by journalists searching out other popular figures to use as subjects for long pieces. Then academia ploughed in with PhD students producing impenetrable theses on the semiotics of Rod Hull and the hermeneutics of Emu. Today we have the cacophony of the Internet, resounding with deconstructions of Monty Python, Hammer Films and skiffle (or your better examples).

The second harbinger of evil could be more easily ascribed to “the lads” themselves. It occurred on the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show of 1977, when the song ‘There is Nothing Like a Dame’ from the musical South Pacific was performed by a cast featuring Morecambe and Wise and a troupe of BBC news readers. I was at home in Liverpool for the holidays, and it was all anybody could talk about. “Wow!” people would say, “did you see that Morecambe and Wise number with the news readers last night, wasn’t that brilliant?” And I’d reply, “No, it wasn’t.”

“In our dialectic, the people must be served – preferably stuffed with consumer durables”

Until then the news was a sober and serious business brought to you by respectable and solemn individuals who treated the whole enterprise with honour. Suddenly that was no longer the case.
Now the news is just another branch of show business, and newsreaders are simply egotists like everybody else in that industry promoting their own celebrity and bereft of professional propriety. “This is a very slippery slope we are heading down, people!” My warnings went unheeded. By then, Eric and Ernie were considered way beyond criticism and I was told to keep quiet if I knew what was good for me.

In falling out of love with Morecambe and Wise I was also perhaps following a deeper genetic imperative. My parents had a melancholy relationship with entertainers in that they expected these people inevitably to betray them. They had not always felt this way. Indeed, in the late 1940s and early 50s they’d revered anybody in the performing arts whom they saw as “a progressive,” i.e. a person who broadly supported my parents’ aims as members of the Communist Party: a fairer society, racial tolerance, world peace – all that good stuff.

When the anti-communist purges of the 1950s tore through Hollywood, my mother and father became deeply upset as artists they’d formerly revered – directors such as Edward Dmytryk and Elia Kazan, the actors Larry Parks and Lee J. Cobb and the screenwriter Budd Schulberg – denounced former colleagues to the House Committee on Un-American Activities in a craven attempt to save their own skins. From that point on my parents were a couple of show business Miss Havershams never able to trust in a performer again.

As a teenager I considered myself immune from my mother and father’s emotional highs and lows. I viewed entertainment as a realm separate from politics, a refuge from the troubling tides of reality and anxiety. I never thought I could believe in specific entertainers so much that they could betray me. I was wrong.

Illustration Tim McDonagh

Alexei is a comedian, writer and actor