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8 September 2011updated 07 Sep 2021 11:39am

Eric, Ernie and the under-rated genius of Peter Bowker

The BBC's Morecambe and Wise biopic was a wonderfully understated piece of TV.

By Helen Lewis

The BBC’s Morecambe and Wise biopic was a wonderfully understated piece of TV.{C}

It’s one thing to make drama out of big, splashy, life-changing events — births and deaths and alien invasions — but there’s something special about a writer who can make life’s tiny triumphs and disasters sparkle.

Peter Bowker is one of those writers. His latest outing, BBC’s Eric and Ernie (broadcast on New Year’s Day; available until 8 January on iPlayer here), was one of the best pieces of new writing on television over the holidays.

The 90-minute drama told the story of how two boys called Eric Bartholomew and Ernie Wiseman became the Christmas telly staples Morecambe and Wise. You can already see the potential pitfalls, can’t you? The biopic genre is heinously hard to get right; either the untidy events of real life have to be crowbarred into a standard three-act structure — and it feels a bit paint-by-numbers — or the writer attempts too broad a span and the whole thing collapses into unfocused bagginess.

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Eric and Ernie deftly sidesteps both these pitfalls by being what comic book fans would call an “origin story”. It follows the child star Ernie tap-dancing his way to the West End, while the gangly Eric performs with a giant lollipop in a church hall; it documents their first meeting (they didn’t hit it off immediately, shall we say), the weeks they spent sharing a room in London during the Blitz and their disastrous first foray into television on a live show now lost to posterity.

Along the way, Bowker throws in some wonderful moments. There’s Eric’s first waggle of his glasses and a wonderful shot of the two boys sitting up in bed together, side by side. A less experienced writer might have felt the temptation to give the audience a nudge in the ribs at these points — “Look! It’s just like they did in the show!” — but letting them pass without comment is so much classier.

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Bowker was helped by some stellar acting performances. The youngsters who played the boy and adolescent versions of Eric and Ernie were incredible; no toothy stage-school mugging here. Victoria Wood, playing Eric’s forthright mother, was predictably brilliant (sample line: “Eric, listen to me. You make people laugh, you’re a lovely dancer and you can hold a tune but more than that — and I mean this as the mother who carried you and nursed you and raised you . . . you aren’t any good at anything else”). And Vic Reeves (acting under his real name, Jim Moir) was a revelation: he turned in such a wonderfully understated performance as Eric’s good-egg dad that I’m almost prepared to forgive him his appearance on I’m A Celebrity.

Comedy-wise, much of the heavy lifting was done by Daniel Rigby, who captured Eric Morecambe’s strangled stage delivery with uncanny precision, while avoiding sounding like a cheap impersonator. His background as a stand-up undoubtedly helped with the many sequences showing M&W in performance (let’s face it, if the actors had been crap, the plausibility of the programme would have disappeared faster than you can say “What’s a Grecian urn?”).

Bryan Dick as Ernie was also spot-on; particularly in the heart-rending scene in which the two tell Eric’s mother that they’ve got a “proper manager” and don’t need her to ferry them round any more. Here, Dick gives Ernie the emotional maturity to realise that this isn’t necessarily the unambiguously wonderful piece of news that Eric thinks it is and Victoria Wood caps it all off by giving just the faintest hint of a snuffle as her train carriage pulls away from Eric and Ernie, who are (inevitably) clowning around for her on the platform.

As I said, sparkling little moments. Eric and Ernie is well worth a watch, even if you’re not the most devoted Morecambe and Wise fan in the world (my husband promptly spent an hour watching clips of them on YouTube as soon as we’d finished, which tells you something).

What’s more, this being the dear old Beeb, they’ve put together an interesting behind-the-scenes documentary, featuring interviews with the comedian’s families, historians of variety theatre and classic clips (I defy you not to laugh at “He won’t sell many ice creams going at that speed”). It can be found here.

But my real plea is that if you enjoy Eric and Ernie, then please watch some of Peter Bowker’s other work. In Britain, very few television writers have any name recognition at all (Steven Moffatt, Paul Abbott and Jimmy McGovern perhaps being the only exceptions), which seems ludicrously unfair given the size and scale of their achievements. While America excels at getting huge groups of writers together to crank out 22 episodes of top-quality telly, year in, year out, we’ve always been better at nurturing individual talents.

Bowker’s past work includes 2009’s Desperate Romantics, a thoroughly silly yet undeniably enjoyable romp through the lives of the Pre-Raphaelite painters (watch out for Tom Hollander as a pornography-obssessed Ruskin) and 2005’s Dennis Potter tribute Blackpool. The latter is one of my personal favourite pieces of television (and not just because of the presence of the dishy David Tennant); fresh, keenly drawn characters, evocative setting and the weird but wonderful choice of songs for the actors to lip synch to.

I’ve never seen Bowker’s other major success, 2009’s Bafta-winning military drama Occupation, but — spurred on by Eric and Ernie — I certainly will. And if you have any recommendations for other great British TV writers I should investigate further, I’d be pleased to hear them.