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Fame and the little fat one

Whisper it in Morecambe, but on his own Eric wasn't all that funny. He needed something solid to bou

There was good news for fans of Morecambe and Wise this Christmas, when the Yorkshire Post announced that a statue of Ernie Wise is to be erected in Morley, his Yorkshire home town, ten years after his death (and ten years after the Queen unveiled a statue to Eric Morecambe, in Morecambe). Ernie's statue will stand outside the Pavilion Theatre, where he performed as a child.

It sounds like a story with a happy ending, but the finest humour is always tinged with sadness, and the saga of Ernie's statue obeys this tragicomic rule. The statue that is going up in Morley won't be cast in bronze, like Eric's, but carved from stone - a much cheaper option - and is funded by Ernie's widow, Doreen, after an application for Lottery funding was turned down last year. A bronze statue would have cost £38,000. This stone statue will cost £8,000. The Morley Murals Committee, which has been campaigning to put up a statue of Ernie, is reportedly delighted, but it is yet another example of how straight men - even the very best of them - never get their just deserts.

Twenty-five years after his sudden death from a heart attack backstage, at the age of 58, Eric Morecambe is still Britain's best-loved comic, but he would have been nothing without Ernie, the man who sacrificed his place in the spotlight to make his partner a household name. When they met in their early teens, in a touring variety show just before the Second World War, it was Eric who was the jobbing journeyman and Ernie who was the established star. Eric had won a local talent contest; Ernie had already starred in a West End show alongside Arthur Askey. Ernie was a year older than Eric, and taller, too. Eric wore shorts. Ernie wore long trousers. Eric's jokes about Ernie's short, fat, hairy legs stemmed from a time when Ernie towered over Eric (in every way) and the only legs on show were Eric's.

However, talent always recognises genius, and Ernie soon saw that Eric had something special. "He's going to be the best comic in the British Isles," Ernie told Eric's mum, Sadie, and set out to make him so. With Ernie's tireless ambition and canny business acumen, it was almost a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Whisper it in Morecambe, but on his own Eric wasn't all that funny. He needed something solid to bounce off. Without Ernie, his humour is too broad. Next time you see one of Eric and Ernie's song-and-dance routines on telly, try covering up the side of the screen with Ernie on it. Without Ernie's sublime set-ups and faultless dancing, Eric's clowning seems coarse and hammy.

Ernie did his job so well, we almost forgot that he was there. For the greatest straight men, in every genre, this is the true price of perfection. People hardly notice you; they just enjoy your art. The same thing applies to the best conductors and directors. If you leave the auditorium praising the conducting or the directing, you've probably been watching a rather second-rate show.

Peter Cook and Dudley Moore suffered from the same lopsided reputation. Cook was feted as a comic genius while Moore was dismissed as his lovable stooge. Yet it was Moore who became the Hollywood star and Cook who remained in Hampstead. With Moore as his foil, Cook produced hit after hit; without Moore's humanity to guide him, his hits were few and far between. Like Morecambe, Cook provided the virtuoso riffs; like Wise, Moore provided the bass lines. And as any decent jazz player will tell you, you can't have one without the other.

So, for comedy aficionados, Ernie's belated, cut-price statue is a cause for quiet celebration. But it really ought to be alongside Eric's, on Morecambe's windswept promenade.

William Cook is the author of "Morecambe and Wise Untold" (HarperCollins, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Obama: What the world expects...

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.