Funny ha-ha

Humour - Stephen Smith meets the gag man who brought the sunshine to Morecambe and Wise

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. The writer kept blue-collar hours, clocking in at his desk at 7.30 in the morning, in time to see his viewers catching the bus to work. "They weren't looking very happy at going to the factory or the shipyard and I thought, some of them are saying to themselves, 'Oh great, it's Morecambe and Wise tonight.' That's what drove me on."

Braben could spend days at his typewriter without producing a line he was happy with, and read-throughs in London with the comedians and their producer were misery for him. In his biography of Morecambe and Wise, Graham McCann says that Braben's routines invariably tickled his clients' ribs, and he would board the first train back to Lime Street station with relief, only to have the producer on the phone the next morning explaining that the chuckle-hungry Morecambe felt the material needed more work. "He's the best writer in the country, but sometimes we take stuff back to him. Like shopping at Marks & Spencer" - so said one perennial of the holiday season about another.

There's enough wear in Braben's jokes for them to have been handed down to Hamish McColl and Sean Foley, stars of the West End hit The Play What I Wrote. Braben has been coaxed out of retirement in North Wales to promote the production. In unaltered Liverpudlian tones, he expresses his bewilderment at being soused with praise by Kenneth Branagh, the director of the stage show. "I believe you're given a little bit of talent - that much," says Braben, describing the dimensions of a sugar lump between thumb and index finger, "and the rest you have to work on."

You can imagine Orwell subscribing to this ratio of gift to graft. With his admiration of seaside postcards, the novelist might also have appreciated the variety-hall flavour of Braben's best sketch, in which Morecambe writes off the Grieg Piano Concerto under the disbelieving baton of Andre Previn. Braben himself derives little cheer from the box today. The man who was put in harness at Christmas as regularly as reindeer will not be watching the efforts of his successors. As Orwell might have said, some Christmas specials are more special than others.

The Play What I Wrote is at the Wyndham's Theatre, London WC2 (020 7369 1736), until April 2002