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The Importance of Ernie
on 9 October 2011
The public may be more aware of Eric Morecambe's showier role, but Ernie Wise was one half of Britain's most successful double act, contributing as much to the pair's success as his partner. His importance has been downplayed in recent years - indeed, there are times you could be forgiven for thinking that Morecambe must have been a solo act - so it's good news that a biography devoted to Ernie has just been published.
My recommendation, however, at least for fellow devotees, has to be a qualified one. This is because while the book certainly offers a fuller picture of Ernie's life post-Eric than I have read elsewhere, drawing on interviews with his widow Doreen, there's no getting away from the fact that much of the main part of the book, namely the pair's rise to fame, will already be familiar, thanks to the proliferation of books about the pair. Additional details and observations newly supplied by Doreen and other interviewees do illuminate certain aspects of an oft-told tale, but we're not exactly talking blinding revelations on every page.
Inevitably, then, it's the bookends - earliest days and declining years -which will be of most interest to diehard fans. Those early days have been covered in the past, but I don't think I've read elsewhere of Ernie's family's attitude to his cash-making potential: Doreen, uniquely placed to judge, sees Ernie's early years as a kind of slavery, that his childhood was stolen from him, explaining his later enjoyment in the "toys" which his success bought him.
The account of the later years serves to redress the balance of a mean-spirited documentary about Ernie, although it doesn't shy away from sadder moments: a member of the Edwin Drood cast talks of Ernie retreating to his dressing room when it becomes clear the show is going to fail, although the finger of blame is also pointed at the American production team who apparently decamped en masse immediately after the reviews instead of staying around to fix things.
This book does give you a clearer sense of Ernie than in other books to date: his relationship with his father and the forces in his early life which shaped him; the central importance of his marriage; his unselfishness as a feed; his unflappability as a negotiator on behalf of Eric and himself. To reclaim a phrase from that notorious documentary, let's hope that this book serves to remind readers of the importance of being Ernie. But there's no doubt you'll enjoy it as a whole a great deal more if you haven't already read one of the many joint biographies out there.