At last, after all those years of the same old snippets, clips and best-of compilations, the BBC is finally honouring their greatest ever comedy stars by releasing complete series of their work. Each show is intact - including musical breaks, giving us a gloriously nostalgic trip back to that not-so mythical Golden Age of Television.
Now, as these series are released in sequential order, we will have the chance to see their work in context and watch them develop from being merely superb comedians to being the truly great ones we all know and love. I can guarantee that even ardent fans will not have seen most of this material before, unless they caught the original broadcasts.
Presented here is:
- what little remains of M&W's first BBC series from 1968 (not counting their earlier, lost series from the 1950s): about 25 minutes of Episode 6 in black and white. The material and presentation are very similar to their ITV Two of a Kind series - indeed the Two of a Kind theme tune was still being used for both these series, one of several features which will surprise those only familiar with their later BBC work. Guest star Edmund Hockridge (not a name you hear much these days) joins in the tiresome Desert Song finale. This scene ends with 'the boys' removing their robes and thanking the audience for watching. No song or fat lady!
- The four episodes, each 45 to 50 minutes long, of Series 2 from 1969. This is where the real treasures are to be found. Everything we came to cherish in their shows is here in rough, unpolished form. The change to colour gives the shows all the immediacy of their best known work; the picture quality is excellent throughout.
This series was made after Eric recovered from his first serious heart attack and it seems to have done him the world of good: he is in cracking form. On his first entrance, he shouts down to his heart, 'Keep going!', at once drawing our attention to his physical vulnerability and to his zest for life. Maybe his brush with death gave an added emotional level to the pair's work too: suddenly the audience realised how much they loved him and how lucky they were to have him.
As the series progresses we can clearly see the influence of Eddie Braben, their finest writer: Ernie becomes less brash and sarcastic, more childishly pompous and pleased with himself; more earnest, in fact. Eric becomes more dominant and daring in his comedy. He also seems to adlib more, though as ever with these two it is almost impossible to 'see the join': to work out what is genuinely spontaneous and what is only rehearsed until it looks spontaneous - the mark of really great comics. At one point Eric chides Ernie in highly technical terms for mis-timing a laugh: 'Don't build when the laugh's not there!' he scolds. Conversely, when Ernie effortlessly picks up a cue line after one of Eric's geuinely adlibbed excursions, Eric touchingly says, 'Thanks for bringing me back,' before carrying on with the dialogue. That moment reveals precisely why they were so potent as a team and gives the lie to the ignorant dismissals of Ernie, which you used to hear quite a lot, as a second-rater who rode to fame on Eric's talent.
The guests in Series Two are Peter Cushing (here is the genesis of the long-running gag about him not being paid), Juliet Mills (who looks like she is having a hilarious time in their sketch together, rather than taking it all very seriously as their stars later did and which was much funnier), Edward Woodward and musical guests such as Moira Anderson, Kenneth McKellar, Vince Hill, Bobbie Gentry and of course, Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen, who provide surprisingly effective and fun 'up' music in each show.
I saw no sign of Susan Hampshire and Frankie Vaughan though they are mentioned on the cover.
The colour shows all end with the utter delight of Bring Me Sunshine, which never fails to bring a tear to the eye. The first show actually has an extended, two-verse version of the song and I suppose must have been the first time they ever performed it.
This is one series of releases that is going to get better with each new volume. I regard it as one of the most important events in British comedy history. Buy it!