[img]http://hits.guardian.co.uk/b/ss/guardiangu-feeds/1/H.20.3/43665?ns=guardian&pageName=Eric+Morecambe+and+Charles+Hawtrey%3A+Bring+me+sunshine+%E2%80%A6+again%3AArticle%3A1312427&ch=Stage&c3=Guardian&c4=Theatre%2CStage%2CComedy+%28TV+genre%29%2CCulture+section&c6=Brian+Logan&c7=09-Nov-30&c8=1312427&c9=Article&c10=&c11=Stage&c13=&c25=&c30=content&h2=GU%2FStage%2FTheatre[/img]Eric Morecambe and Charles Hawtrey are the subjects of new biographical plays. Is this original drama or are they just tribute acts?
I have stood in a few standing ovations in my time, and usually I know what I'm applauding. But there was something unusual about the response to Morecambe at this year's Edinburgh fringe, in which Bob Golding played the dafter half of Eric'n'Ernie. Yes, Golding's solo performance was career-defining – charismatic, tender, stunningly life-like. But the applause and the tears were for Eric Morecambe, too, and for the era he represents.
Next week, Golding brings Morecambe to the West End. At the same time, actor Amanda Lawrence will bring her one-woman show about the Carry On star Charles Hawtrey to London's BAC; playwright Roy Smiles, meanwhile, is planning a 2010 revival of his Graham Chapman comedy, Pythonesque. What started as a trickle (David Suchet playing comedian Sid Field in 1994; the National's 1998 staging of Terry Johnson's Carry On play Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick) is becoming a steady flow. But how blurred is the line between original play and tribute act?
The appeal, for artists and audiences, isn't hard to fathom. "Before we even got to Edinburgh we were the biggest-selling show in town," says Golding. "That was 100% based on affection for Eric." Roy Smiles admits he had no desire to write a Monty Python play – until a producer "got his chequebook out, and I went, 'Oh, all right then.' Producers think these plays are popular, and that encourages writers to write them. It becomes an endless spiral."
Still, that's only half the story: Morecambe, and Lawrence's show Jiggery Pokery, are driven as much by the heart as the wallet. Lawrence describes her gender-bending show as "a thank-you" to Hawtrey: "I loved it as a child when he came in the room." Likewise, writer Tim Whitnall says his Morecambe script – a straight biography stuffed with corny end-of-the-pier one-liners – is "an elegy to performance, not just to Morecambe, but to Flanagan and Allen, to Tony Hancock, Peter Sellers." In essence, these are all showbiz people telling us stories about the love of their life: showbiz.
Drama likes conflict and a degree of even-handedness. The principles of the tribute play are different: no one in the audience for Morecambe really wants their love of Eric challenged. "When I told people I was writing it, there was an absolute knee-jerk – or elbow-jerk – reaction," says Whitnall. "Everyone put their hand on their heart. Some of them filled up. People who remember Eric miss him. I had to honour that."
The creators of Morecambe don't even pretend that Eric's life was dramatic. "It wasn't full of stuff that people might deem 'interesting', in inverted commas," says Golding. But that's fine by them: their show has no metaphorical dimension, and doesn't use Eric's story to make any wider point. Small wonder Whitnall argues that "with these shows, if you don't walk, talk, think, sound like, move like, act like your subject, then you're on a hiding to nothing."
Lawrence would disagree. Being a woman, she can only get so close to Charles Hawtrey (very close, as it happens, but not to the point of being uncanny). For Lawrence, impersonation is beside the point: her show is "a homage to a true English eccentric".
Of course, Golding's show is much more than an impersonation. Famously, 28 million people tuned in to watch Morecambe and Wise on TV on Christmas Day 1977; watching the play now, you feel the theatre audience recover something of that communal feeling, of a more innocent age. "A woman came up to me after one performance," says Golding, "and she was welling up, saying, 'The show reminded me of my grandparents.' It wasn't Eric, it wasn't the story. It was that we evoked that memory of her sitting in the front room holding her grandmother's hand." To Whitnall, that postwar era, when music hall migrated on to mass-audience TV, uniquely lends itself to popular theatre. "It was a different time," agrees Lawrence, "and I think people are really up for treasuring the memory of it."
Is this just the start of a generational cycle, which in 30 years' time will throw up West End plays called McIntyre and Gervais? "I think so," says Guy Masterson, who directs Morecambe. "There will be one-man shows about Bill Bailey and Lee Evans. It's simple: we love biographies. Because we want to find out what makes famous people tick, so we can reach out and touch it." The tribute play may be here to stay. After all, says Golding, "nostalgia is big, isn't it?"
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Guardian: Eric Morecambe and Charles Hawtrey: Bring me sunshine … again
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