Funny Ha-Ha: Stephen Smith Meets the Gag Man Who Brought the Sunshine to Morecambe and Wise. (Humour)
Smith, Stephen, New Statesman (1996)
For all George Orwell's uncanny prescience about the impact of television on our lives, he is completely hopeless on the urgent question of Christmas specials. Leafing through the seasonal editions of the TV guides -- as stuffed with synthetic and hormone-altering sweetmeats as any factory-reared broiler -- I couldn't help wishing that Orwell's minatory mugshot was glowering back at me from the top of a column in the Radio Times; that it was George instead of, say, Jeremy from Airport who was previewing this year's selection of bumper editions and feature-length spin-offs. I feel sure that if you were to apply Orwell's analysis of telly to the festive schedules, the result would be as illuminating as a lighted taper in a faggot of winter fuel. Over the holiday period, the tele-screen comes into its ambivalent own, as both the dominant influence in the household and its nerve-soothing pacifier.
But as we can't hear from Orwell on broadcast entertainment in midwinter, the next best thing is the man who was responsible for the most popular Christmas specials on British television. The BBC's series of The Morecambe and Wise Show that rooted 28 million of us to our chairs in our holly-decked sitting rooms in the 1970s were written by Eddie Braben. Now that comedy programmes often boast more writers than jokes, this is striking as an incredible feat of single-handed gag-manufacture.
When Braben claims that the Eric and Ernie television annual was "enormous, monumental", he says so with a shudder. He also says, "I'll never forget something that Spike Milligan told me: 'You weren't given a contract, you were given a sentence.' And it was absolutely true." Critics of a high Orwellian tradition, deploring the effects of television, may take a grim satisfaction from learning that Braben couldn't watch his stuff, either. In a rare interview, the heroically diffident writer twists in his chair at the memory of Christmas night in front of the set. "I watched the show like this," he says, and before my eyes he stiffens into a human washboard.
Like Eric Morecambe himself, Braben was always afraid that he had heard his last laugh. After national service, he began his working life on a stall in St John's market in Liverpool, and he stayed in touch with his audience in a way unknown to the moderators of focus groups. …