What Gordon needs now (whatever happened on Thursday night and Friday morning) is a bit of radio therapy. I don’t suppose he had time to listen to The Vote Now Show (Radio 4) in the rumbustious run-up to the election, but he’d have done well to tune in for a bit of a laugh and a health-inducing reality check. Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis’s nightly paean to the political shenanigans of the previous 24 hours took us back to the heyday of Week Ending, before the PC Brigade and/or Russell Brand made it so difficult to be funny, decent and pertinent all at the same time. I caught it most nights while subjecting myself to the rituals of flossing and found myself trapped in the bathroom, unwilling to miss a second of their sharp-talking comment on the surreal drama of an election without a plausible winner.
On the night after the Big Gaffe, or perhaps more accurately referred to as yet-another-ploy-to-make-us-forget-the-real-story (which is the economy, stupid), Punt and Dennis invited Kate Adie on to the show for her expert view on electioneering disasters. She reminded us how once upon a time such a blip would have been but a fleeting headline, rather than a major story, reminiscing how the esteemed Sir Roy Jenkins always used to mistake the camera crew who were following his campaign for the plebs he was supposed to be meeting, loftily calling out to them, ‘Good morning. My name is Roy Jenkins. I’d like to talk to you about SDP policies.’ Adie and her team would reply, ‘We’re not real people. We’re the BBC.’
Such self-deprecation would be unthinkable now among our current crop of self-important news-makers. As would the prospect of having to entertain half the population of these islands in an hour-long TV special — and at Christmas, too. But back in the mid-1970s when Morecambe and Wise were at their peak they were watched by up to 30 million people. They took their responsibility to deliver, to find new ways to make us laugh, very seriously, constantly listening back to recordings of themselves at work and rehearsing their gags even though they’d been working together since the 1950s.
On Tuesday Jon Culshaw gave us Morecambe and Wise: The Garage Tapes (Radio 4), an affectionate trawl through the private audio archive kept by Ernie Wise of all the duo’s shows and recordings right back to their first outings in 1952 on the Light Programme’s Variety Fanfare. An amazing collection of reel-to-reel tapes and 78 acetates has been rediscovered, all of which would otherwise have been lost for ever when the BBC did a mass clear-out of the archives in the 1960s. There’s a nostalgia-inducing crackle to the sound, and the occasional repetitive clicking of a scratched record, but otherwise those inimitable voices come across as perky as ever — and, perhaps surprisingly, just as funny. The cheesy gags are there from their first shows, plus the spoof history plays and the sheer infection of their good humour. It’s impossible to feel sour when they’re around.
But, as Culshaw reminded us, their first attempt to break into TV was an absolute disaster, with such savage reviews that their confidence took years to recover. Eric is supposed to have carried one clipping, from the Daily Express, around in his pocket: ‘Is that a television I see in the corner of my living room?’ says the reviewer with heavy sarcasm. ‘No, it’s the box the BBC buried Morecambe and Wise in last night.’
Undeterred, they went back to radio and spent the next couple of decades honing their act and perfecting that ever-so-crucial timing. ‘What’s your favourite piece of music?’ ‘I’m rather fond of the Hungarian Rhapsody by Goulash.’ It looks banal on the page, but there’s such lightness in the voice, such speed in the retort, you just can’t help laughing.