TV review: Morecambe and Wise

Benjie Goodhart / 10 September 2015

Our TV critic casts a sharp eye over the highlights including Battle of Britain: Return of the Spitfires and the Rugby World Cup.

Battle of Britain: Return of the Spitfires, Tuesday 15th September, 8pm, Channel 4

Hurrah. There’s nothing that stirs the spirit quite as much as a tale of heroism, rolled up in a blanket of moral correctness, swaddled in a sweet outer-coating of benign national pride. Tuesday 15th September marks the 75th anniversary of Battle of Britain day, when the Luftwaffe launched the attack on London that they thought would prove conclusive. I think it’s safe to assume they were wrong.

The day itself is being marked by one of the most significant aviation tributes ever seen in Britain, with a flypast of around 40 Spitfires and Hurricanes taking off from Goodwood Aerodrome and crossing the South of England. Prince Harry will be joined by the last of “the few” to watch this historic and moving moment.

So, you might reasonably ask: who have the BBC got covering the event? Huw Edwards, perhaps? George Alagiah? Um… well, here’s the thing. It’s not the BBC… it’s Channel 4. I KNOW! They’ll probably have Johnny Rotten and someone from Gogglebox presenting, and there will be a comic turn by Jimmy Carr, intercut with Jamie Oliver cooking some wartime recipes.

Actually, it looks as though they might give it a pretty respectful go. It’s presented by Dermot O’Leary, which would be cause for dismay if he’d not actually done an excellent job presenting Live from Space last year. It turns out that when not asking a weeping girl band how they feel now their most cherished dreams are in tatters, he’s an intelligent and erudite presenter. 

And the show will go behind the scenes, looking at the build-up to the day, the flight briefing, offering exclusive aerial coverage, and hearing the recollections of men like 95-year-old Tom Neil, a fighter pilot all those years ago, who will be taken up in a Spitfire once again. 

This is preceded, on Sunday 13th September at 8pm, by Battle of Britain: The Day the War Was Won, a 60-minute documentary telling the story of the fateful day when a handful of pilots risked their lives and changed the course of history. Stirring stuff.

Tennis: Davis Cup Semi-Final – Great Britain v Australia, 18th-20th September, BBC

As an Englishman I was vehemently opposed to Scottish independence. This had nothing to do with my wife being Scottish (indeed, if she was forcibly repatriated, I’d have to watch less reality TV) and almost everything to do with Andy Murray. 

Andy Murray is a British player who actually wins things. It would be bad enough to no longer have him on our Davis Cup team. But he’d also end up playing for our nearest neighbours, and we’d have to watch, green with envy as Scotland, a nation of about a hundred people, constant rain and the ability to play outdoor tennis three days-a-year, pounded us into the dirt. And as if that weren’t enough, he’d take his brother, the brilliant doubles specialist Jamie, with him. In the recent victory over France in the quarter finals, Jamie and Andy won all of Great Britain’s points between them.

Anyway, Tennisageddon was averted, and we now find ourselves in the profoundly unfamiliar position of having a team in the Davis Cup semi-finals. This last happened when I was eight. I now have distinctly grey stubble.

To make matters more interesting, the match is against our old Ashes enemy Australia (how sweet it would be to turn them over twice in one summer). And, just to spice things up further, the match will take place in the Emirates Arena in Glasgow, amidst the usual audience of quiet, softly-spoken Glaswegian wallflowers.

Britain will start as favourites, and do not bet against Murray, who has won an astonishing 21 of his 23 Davis Cup matches. Australia struggled to a 3-2 victory over unfancied Kazakhstan in their quarter-final, and have left out tennis’ latest badboy, the unspeakable nitwit Nick Kyrgios. But, in Bernard Tomic, they have another temperamental, mercurial young talent, while Lleyton Hewitt, in his last season, represents a rather more stable and edifying character.

Team GB will have some selection headaches, with both Jamie Murray and Dom Inglot through to the doubles semi-finals in the US Open at the time of writing. Meanwhile, in the singles, Kyle Edmund has recently broken into the top 100 and may replace Jamie Ward, whose previous Davis Cup heroics will count for little on the back of nine straight defeats on the tour. Whatever, it should be lively!

The Rugby World Cup, starts Friday 18th September, 7:25pm, ITV

You’re probably aware that the Rugby World Cup is taking place in England this autumn. But compare and contrast with the extraordinary level of hyperbole that would have ensued if the football World Cup was about to occur here. We’d have FIFA-themed bunting at every bus stop, flags on every car, truck, van, bike, pram and pushchair, and giant pictures of Wayne Rooney gazing at us  from every branch of Greggs, putting us off our morning doughnuts. The Prime Minister would probably have a tattoo of the St George Cross over his face, and would do a raft of interviews about how he was never happier than on the terraces at the Holte End.

Instead, in its appealingly modest way, the Rugby World Cup arrives with a minimum of fuss. But don’t let that fool you: This should be a thrilling tournament, with any one of seven teams harbouring realistic hopes of winning it. Tonight’s tournament opener features England against Fiji. In theory, this should represent a straightforward win for the hosts, though Fiji’s triumph in this summer’s Pacific Cup suggests they are a team not to be taken lightly. In a group also featuring Wales and Australia, any slip-ups could be fatal.

For any dyed-in-the-wool rugby-haters out there, tomorrow might be a day to strim the lawn. There’s wall-to-wall rugby from midday to 10pm, including the hotly anticipated clash between Tonga and Georgia, two nations whose names are synonymous with rugby in the same way that Michael Buble is known for his jam-making.

And, before it all, starting at 6:45pm, we have the always-enthralling prospect of the opening ceremony, normally an occasion of such astonishing naffness and vulgarity it makes Liberace look understated. Look forward to a choreographed rugby game between Mr Blobby and the ghost of William Webb Ellis, played on stilts, while S Club 7 sing a condensed medley of their greatest hits.

Sarah Millican Hijacks Deal or No Deal, Friday 18th September, 8pm, Channel 4

So here’s an idea for a gameshow. You put a load of numbers in boxes. Each number corresponds to a financial amount. A contestant then opens the boxes, and at the end, the box they’re left with is how much they win. Unless they’ve already sold the box to a man called the banker. Who’s not a banker.

It sounds like the kind of format a couple of seven-year-olds on a sugar rush might have dreamed up as an idea for a very bad assembly. Little wonder the host Noel Edmonds turned it down three times: It must have felt akin to being offered a show about philately on UKTV Gold at 2:15am on a Tuesday.

But then Noel was persuaded to go into the production offices and play the game, and he began to suspect there might be something in it after all. Fast forward a decade, and he has now presented the show around 3000 times, giving away over £40 million in prize money. 

If you stacked up all the boxes that have been opened on the show (over 58,000 of them), you could make 31 towers the same height as the Empire State Building – though you’d need some sort of binding agent to stick them together. And you’d be unlikely to get it past planning regulations.

Anyway, tonight, for the first time since he played in that production office over ten years ago, Noel Edmonds plays the game. Though he wasn’t expecting to – and the moment when the penny drops, and Sarah Millican walks out from the wings to take over his presenting duties, is fabulous.

Needless to say, Noel is playing for charity (I think there would be a justifiable degree of outrage if he were to be given the chance to win a vast amount of cash…) What ensues is the usual mix of tension, light relief, nerves and panic, all with the added bonus of Millican’s deceptively sharp humour and Edmonds’ evident love for the game and his charity – there are considerably worse ways to spend an hour. 

The Morecambe and Wise Show

There is a strong case for calling Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise the most popular personalities in the history of British television. In a public vote, taken in 2006, they finished second to David Jason. But back then, Jason was in his prime, appearing regularly as both Del Boy Trotter and Inspector Frost. Morecambe, on the other hand, had been dead for over 20 years. To still loom so large in the public imagination, when around a third of the population were too young to have seen them, was truly remarkable.

But then, they were a remarkable duo. In spite of Morecambe’s tragically premature death at just 58, the pair clocked up 43 years together as a double act. For the last 23 years of that time, they were household names, with their own TV show. Their TV careers were bookended at ITV, where they began and ended, but it was the ten year period at the BBC, from 1968-78, for which they are most remembered. They built a following of the type of magnitude which will never happen again in this multi-channel age. Their Christmas Special in 1977 gained an audience estimated at over 28 million, one of the highest in broadcasting history.

Over the years, some of their sketches have cheerfully sailed into the realms of national treasuredom. The Breakfast Stripper Sketch, Singin’ in the Rain, Andre Previn’s magnificent guest appearance, Angela Rippon’s legs, Glenda Jackson, Laurence Olivier, Sir John Mills, The Play Wot I Wrote.

The pair, although fond of elements of the surreal, took their inspiration from some classic comedians – their bed-sharing existence was based on a similar approach by Laurel and Hardy, and their famous departure dance was a copy of one performed by Groucho Marx in the film Horse Feathers. But they were nothing if not unique, and the nation loved them for it. And if Morecambe was a bit more John Lennon to Wise’s straighter Paul McCartney, it worked a treat. They were, and still are, our Eric’n’Ernie. 

There is a wealth of Morecambe and Wise material on YouTube. For those wishing to buy DVDs, Morecambe and Wise, the BBC Collection featuring all nine of their BBC series, and five Christmas specials, is available for £24.70 from Amazon. 

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