West End smash that started life at the Fringe brings Morecambe and Wise back to life at Edinburgh theatre where Eric met his wife

E​ric Morecambe and Ernie Wise’s visits to Edinburgh were well documented, after all, it was here at the old Empire, now the Festival Theatre, that Eric met the love of his life, dancer Joan.

Tuesday, 2nd November 2021, 4:55 am

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​Which means there’s sure to be a special resonance for actors ​I​an​ A​shpitel and ​J​onty Stephens​ when they bring the legendary double-act back to life on the Nicolson Street stage for one night only, later this month.

The pair will trod the very same boards where Morecambe and Wise once performed in Eric & Ern, their​ Olivier Award-nominated West End show that started life in the Capital at the 2013 Fringe​​.

Ian Ashpitel and Jonty Stephens in Eric and Ern

It was half a century earlier, in the 1950s, that Eric and Joan’s eyes first met when the young double-act played what was then the Empire Theatre. ​As ​Joan watched the​ ​still ​​fresh-faced ​youngsters ​from the wings, Eric was beguiled ​by her dazzling smile​ and pledged there and then to make the stunning dancer his bride.​ Within a year​ they were married and ​remained devoted ​to each other until his untimely death in 1984.

In 2011, then aged 60, Joan returned to the city with their son, G​ary. A​ sprightly 84-year-old at the time, she recalled she had wanted to make the journey ​to where Cupid’s arrow found its mark ​after watching ​the Victoria Wood drama Eric & Ernie and realising ​that ​it wrongly depicted their first meeting as being at a Glasgow theatre."It also showed them 'dying' on stage that night, which they definitely didn't, the Edinburgh audience loved them," she added​, remembering, "​I was a dancer and model but I was out of work and a bit down at the time. A dancer in the variety show that Eric and Ernie were in took ill, and so I was asked to come up from London to stand in. If she hadn't taken ill, we'd never have met.​“They were very successful​ and I was quite interested to see them work. So I stood in the wings watching, draped in my blue-black dress.​"

As the funny men left the stage they asked Joan if she had liked the act​. She replied ​she thought it was very good but they really must polish their shoes​. The ​pair then pretended to be insulted.Joan said, "​Edinburgh, and in particular the theatre, always had a special significance for us. Eric used to talk about how he proposed to me in Edinburgh and that he'd told everyone​,​ 'This is the girl I'm going to marry'.​"​

Although the Morecambe and Wise returned to the Capital numerous times - a visit in 1978 saw them snapped enjoying a pint of Tennent's with Erica, one of the ‘lager lovlies’, at the Heriot Brewery, Roseburn – Eric and Joan were destined never to return to the place where they had met.

Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise

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In Eric and Ern, full renditions of ​Morecambe and Wise's ​signature ​sketches,​ coupled with contemporary​ ​references, find Ashpitel and Stephens ​evoking memories of ​a golden age of television, a time​ when whole families huddled around the box on a Sunday evening to share in the hilarious antics of Britain’s​ ​national treasures.​The actors, who met at drama school more than 30 years ago, have been ​performing ​as their ​heroes for nearly a decade now and Stephens explains, "I have been fascinated with Eric Morecambe for as long as I can remember​. ​I took on his persona at school and it never really left me. He was the funniest and loveliest of men. We both feel it’s a privilege to play Eric and Ernie and some people have said it’s like we’re channelling them - some nights it does feel like that.​"​​Ashpitel adds, "We do treasure the relationship we have with each other - as did Eric and Ernie - and I think it’s obvious that we love performing the comedy of Morecambe and Wise.”Stephens continues, "More importantly, the audiences love watching it - which is always handy. But it’s more than just watching a comedy show - there’s a real emotional connection, because we all remember watching it together. The audience reaction has been amazing.​"​

Eric and Joan’s son, Gary Morecambe, recalls that when first asked to give the family’s blessing to the show, he had “a lot of doubts”.

“I wasn’t running, jumping, skipping and saying ‘It’s brilliant that these two guys are doing this show about Morecambe and Wise’. There had been other attempts by other nameless people which were nothing short of disastrous, to be honest, so I was wary,” he admits.

Ian Ashpitel and Jonty Stephens in Eric and Ern

"But then I went to see them at Edinburgh because I’d had many tip-offs about them, both from people inside and outside of the industry, and when I saw the show that’s when I thought, ‘They really are good’.

"That first time seeing them gave me a bit of a shiver down the spine, actually, because I went in there slightly on the attack and I came out bewildered almost - because they were that good. That was the beginning of our relationship and us as a family saying, ‘OK, you’re both very good actors, you certainly seem to recognise how Eric and Ernie worked, we’ll support you’.”​The show at the Festival Theatre will also mark 80 years since Morecambe and Wise first stepped onto a stage to work together and the 50th anniversary of their famous ​Andre Previn sketch.Eric & Ern​, Festival Theatre, Nicolson Street, ​November 15​, www.​capitaltheatres.com

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Eric Morecambe and (left) Ernie Wise enjoy a pint of Tennent's lager with Erica, one of the 'can models' on a visit the Heriot Brewery at Roseburn, Edinburgh, December 1978.

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Eric Morcambe's wife, Jean Morecambe at the Festival Theatre.