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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...