A new show is set to bring sunshine to Beverley as the comedy of Morecambe and Wise is brought back to life, writes Ian Midgley
Ian Ashpitel is happy to admit he's standing on the shoulders of giants – even if one of those giants had short, fat, hairy legs.
The actor, who plays Ernie Wise opposite Jonty Stephens' Eric Morecambe in new show Eric and Ern, says it was more than a little daunting stepping into the shoes of the nation's most beloved funnymen, but judging by the reaction they've had – they've just about got away with it.
"Ooh, it's massively daunting," admits Ashpitel. "I mean what if we messed it up?" he laughs. "Morecambe & Wise were, and still are today, absolutely beloved by the public, so we didn't want to do anything that didn't do their memory justice. "But I think the show's a really affectionate homage to Eric and Ernie and, judging by the reaction I think everyone is enjoying it." "Enjoying it" is perhaps an understatement for the duo's comedy which has gone on to tour the nation and also won an Olivier award. Critics have hailed the pair's impersonations of the comedy legends are "spot on" saying they've captured the mannerisms and effortless banter perfectly.
Perhaps most importantly it's been given the thumbs up by Eric Morecambe's family and by many of the people – such as Michael Grade and Barry Cryer – who knew Eric and Ernie personally.
"One of the reviews I'm proudest of is a guy from the Morecambe & Wise fan club who came to see the show and said 'I never thought I'd ever see Morecambe & Wise again, but I think I just have'. "That's pretty encouraging. "Michael Grade came to see us in London and he said he had tears in his eyes when we sang Bring Me Sunshine at the end, then he took us for tea in the House of Lords."
Comedy fans will be able to see the comic homage for themselves when it arrives at the East Riding Theatre, in Beverley, later this month. This isn't the original, biographical show that Ashpitel and Stephens brought to Beverley last year but a new, reconfigured version – that they're referring to as Act Two – which recreates Morecambe & Wise's live stage show.
The show, which Morecambe and Wise toured the country with for 35 years, contains lots of material that was never seen on TV alongside some classic sketches such as Grieg's Piano Concerto – "all the right notes, not necessarily in the right order" – and Ernie's foray into writing Shakespeare. "We're doing the show that Eric and Ernie toured around the country for years," says Ashpitel. "It's got a lot of material that they never did on TV, mainly because once you'd used it on TV it was out there, everyone had seen it and you couldn't do it again. "There's only one recording of the stage show in existence that we know of, so we went along and watched it and we've recreated it just as they did it. "It's got a lot of unseen material, a lot of Eddie Braben – who was the genius writer who wrote a lot of their sketches – and some stuff then Jonty and I have written to link it all together. "We're calling it our Morecambe & Wise stand-up show." With the soaraway success of their Eric and Ern, it's surprising that the two hadn't considered doing it before.
But the idea to join forces only came about when the actors teamed up to put on a skit at their local golf club. "Jonty and I have been friends for 30 years and he's always been able to do Eric – he can do everyone really, Eric, Tommy Cooper, he's a really good impressionist. "When we decided to do this turn as Eric and Ernie at the club it went down an absolute storm and people were saying 'you should really do something with that and take it further'. "We had no idea that it would take off like it has tough. We are both basically jobbing actors and we've made a decent living at it down the years, but this has just exploded like we never imagined." The actor says with other Eric and Ernie shows doing the rounds, including Kenneth Branagh's The Play What I Wrote and Bob Golding's equally acclaimed Morecambe, Ashpitel says the duo wondered if they'd already been beaten to the punch in producing their own homage. "I think the shows are all very different so don't really treat on each other's toes," he says. "But I think the time was just right for us, The stars aligned. "Anyway, we couldn't really have done ours any sooner because when we first met Jonty had a full head of hair and I was a lot thinner and better looking. "But I'm really proud of the show as it is now and the fact that it appeals to everyone for the 10-year-old sat in the front row to his 64-year old grandma next to him. "That was the appeal of Morecambe and Wise, they were for everyone."