The Pipes of Eric Morecambe, Humorist

One half of the iconic English comedic duo Morecambe and Wise, Eric Morecambe was a talented performer and gifted comedian who delighted millions around the world for over 40 years, achieving impressive success with his appearances on stage, radio, film, and television. Throughout his career, Morecambe possessed a remarkable, natural ability to garner laughs with simple body actions, his reactions to various situations and scenarios, and the quotable catchphrases the duo developed. He became a beloved figure in many English homes and remains one of Britain's most successful and influential comedians. Morecambe was also a prolific pipe smoker, owning an impressive collection that contained hundreds of pipes of various shapes, styles, and materials.

Life and Career

Born in 1926 in Lancaster, England, John Eric Barthlomeow grew up in the seaside town of Morecambe, which he would later use for his stage name. He was a natural performer from a young age, winning several talent competitions, including one at age 13 that was organized by Melody Maker magazine. The prize was an audition for famed jazz band leader and impresario Jack Hylton. Shortly after the audition, Morecambe first met Ernest Wiseman, with whom he would form a comedic double act that became immensely successful in post-World War II England, with their famous catch phrases and classic sketches entertaining audiences for over 40 years.

Morecambe and Wise gained popularity thanks to their stage and radio work, and made their television debut in 1954 with their British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) show Running Wild. The duo had no creative control over the show and had no input for ideas or the script. Since they were newcomers to television and recognized that this was an incredible opportunity to advance their careers, they didn't feel comfortable offering suggestions or questioning the show's writers. The show received harsh critical reviews, with The People newspaper writing, "Definition of the week: TV Set: The box they buried Morecambe and Wise in." On Morecambe and Wise's website it's noted, "Eric, in particular, was very upset by the criticism to the point where for the rest of his life, he carried around that definition from The People newspaper. His own confidence had also taken a huge dive, but they had to work on."

The show [Running Wild] received harsh critical reviews

Despite the negative reviews, they continued developing their act on stage and were well received by audiences who responded with standing ovations after each performance. They spent the following years performing and honing their skills, returning to television in 1961 with Two of a Kind. The show gradually became a hit and featured several notable English celebrities, including musical performances by The Beatles and The Dave Clark Five. Two of a Kind ran from 1961 to 1968 and introduced audiences to several of the duo's most memorable catch phrases, such as "Get out of that!" and "Tea, Ern?"

In 1968 Morecambe and Wise returned to the BBC, taking advantage of the technological advancements occurring with television around that time, primarily the ability to broadcast in color instead of black and white. Early in their career, Morecambe was the comedic focus of the duo, with Wise playing the archetypal straight man who would set Morecambe up for punchlines while maintaining his composure. Beginning in the 1960s, aided by experience and new writers, the duo's dynamic evolved and their approach became more complex, with both men adapting complementary comedic personalities that seamlessly played off one another.

Morecambe was the comedic focus of the duo, with Wise playing the archetypal straight man who would set Morecambe up for punchlines

The duo worked tirelessly in pursuit of success and it took a massive toll on Morecambe's health, resulting in him having his first major heart attack in 1969 at age 42. Despite being a noted hypochondriac, Morecambe was a heavy drinker and smoker on top of the immense stress he encountered while working on The Morecambe & Wise Show. In Morecambe's biography, Eric Morecambe: Life's Not Hollywood, It's Cricklewood, his son Gary noted, "EM was increasingly irritable throughout 1967 and into 1968, finding fault with everything — and it was a pattern that repeated itself in the build-up to his two subsequent heart attacks in 1979 and 1984. But he kept on working at the same unforgiving pace, focusing his energies on his new BBC show, his stage, his family and his new house, which was constantly being extended and improved during this time." (pg. 29).

After recovering from his first heart attack, Morecambe went back to work on The Morecambe & Wise Show, with Eddie Braben becoming the show's new writer and helping shift the duo's dynamic further. The following year, 1969, saw the introduction of the duo's immensely popular, annual Christmas show, which became a yearly tradition for many English families and grew in popularity each year, with the final Christmas special in 1977 attracting an impressive and record-breaking audience of 28 million viewers, according to the BBC. The duo made it a goal for each successive Christmas show to top the previous year's, attracting high-profile celebrities and spending months preparing routines and writing jokes.

The duo took great pride in each year's Christmas Special, with Morecambe often prepping material during the summer and found it difficult to not focus on as he was committed to delivering the best Christmas show possible. Despite Morecambe's success, his health suffered from the stress and intense workload, and he suffered his second heart attack in 1979, requiring him to undergo heart bypass surgery that was performed by renowned surgeon Magdi Yacoub. Gary Morecambe noted in his father's biography, "Without the triple bypass, he had only months, perhaps weeks, to live." (pg. 133).

Despite Morecambe's success, his health suffered from the stress and intense workload

Morecambe's second heart attack gave the comedian time to pause and reflect, opting to take things slower in subsequent years but still working hard and continuing to entertain audiences. His son Gary noted, "He was still happy to talk about comedy, but there was nothing left for him to prove, and it no longer formed an obsession for him. He was dedicated to entertaining people, but no longer to the exclusion of all else. His health mattered more, and he didn't have the energy to go at it full throttle any more. He was under doctors' orders to rethink his life, and in a way he did — although not to the extent that the doctors would have liked. On reflection, he should have never returned to comedy after his bypass surgery." (pg. 139). In the years following his heart attack, Morecambe gave up alcohol and smoking and began to focus on developing a writing career.

After taking part in a charity show on May 27, 1984, Morecambe collapsed backstage after receiving a standing ovation and passed away from a heart attack at age 58. During the show, Morecambe reviewed aspects of his career and life in front of a crowd of 800 people, and joined musicians at the end of the show, playing various instruments before the house curtains fell for a final time. Though Morecambe's death was tragic and unexpected, he was able to perform and entertain audiences one last time, concluding his life with roarous applause and cheers.

Morecambe & Pipes

Morecambe's son, Gary, notes in his book Eric Morecambe: Life's Not Hollywood, It's Cricklewood, "EM loved his pipes; he had a drawer filled with them in various states of disrepair, and a dozen or so of his favourites displayed on a shelf in his study. Five or six years earlier I'd bought him a Swiss pipe with a lid on the bowl to stop the ash blowing around; this appealed to his love of novelty items, and joined the other show specimens on the shelf, to be admired but never used. When I presented it to EM on his birthday he thanked me and left the room. Two minutes later he returned with his trouser tucked into his socks, Tyrolean fashion, and a trilby on his head. 'I'm just off to gather in the herd!"' (pg. 147).

Gary fondly remembers childhood memories with his father in the book, including one involving Morecambe's pipe smoking. "Whenever EM was planted on the drawing-room sofa puffing a pipe, I would quickly find one of my planes and rush in to use the smoke as clouds. He was surprisingly tolerant of this, although there was a limit to how much 'strato-cumulus' he could create before going green. I think he reacted positively to genuine enthusiasm." (pg. 71).

Gary Morecambe also recounted visiting a tobacconist with his father to purchase him a new pipe for helping him with his first book, Funnyman:

There was a tobacconist in Cambridge I knew fairly well, and so I drove him there one morning to choose his thank-you present...

We reached Cambridge and marched into the shop, much to the shock and pleasure of the man behind the counter.

"It is you, isn't it?"

"Oh yes. At least it was the last time I looked. Now, young man, we've come to look at your pipes, if you'll pardon the expression."

He began trying pipes like he was trying on glasses or an item of clothing. "This one feels comfortable... I like the shape of that one... This one has interesting features." Half an hour later he had his pipe, neither of us knowing that he would give up smoking in six months' time. Never mind: it was what he wanted, and it mattered to me that I had made a gesture to acknowledge his generosity.

In the book Eric Morecambe Unseen: The Lost Diaries, Jokes and Photographs , Gary reminisced about his father's small work room at home where he would read and write:

"This book laden room was his shrine," observed Gary, just a few days after his father's death. "Almost every previous time I had entered it, I had discovered his hunched figure poised over his portable typewriter, the whole room engulfed with smoke from his meerschaum pipe." Two decades on, that same sense of restless industry endures. It may be twenty years, but it feels like Eric has just nipped out for an ounce of pipe tobacco. It feels like he'll be back any minute. It feels as if we're trespassing in a comedic Tutankhamen's tomb. (pg. 12).

"... his hunched figure poised over his portable typewriter, the whole room engulfed with smoke from his meerschaum pipe."

In the same book, a humorous picture of Morecambe smoking a large gourd Calabash with a meerschaum cap can be seen with the caption: "Eric wasn't just a pipe smoker, he was a pipe collector too. He owned several hundred pipes. This one, which he called his Sherlock Holmes pipe, was a particular favourite."

It's also noted that during the late `70s Morecambe was attempting to negotiate a deal with a tobacco company where he would be given free cigars in exchange for photo opportunities at public events. However, the arrangement was abandoned shortly after his second heart attack.

Another anecdote from the book recounted Morecambe recovering at home after his successful heart bypass surgery:

Back home in Harpenden, Eric was determined to take it easy, though his idea of clean living wasn't quite what the doctor ordered. 'No Smoking or Drinking Before 7pm' read the notice he put up in his living room — not much of a curfew for a man recovering from a second heart attack. "My limit is one large scotch and two ounces of tobacco a day," he said. "I'm not going to give up my pipe because I really enjoy it, but I'm cutting down hard on the booze. I know I was drinking too much. Half a bottle of wine with my lunch, then maybe five large scotches during the evening, and chain smoking cigars at the same time." (pg. 159).

In January 1971, Morecambe was awarded Pipeman of the Year by the British Pipesmokers' Council for 1970 and accepted the honor at a lunch in London's luxurious Savoy Hotel. The yearly award was created to honor famous pipe smokers with other notable recipients including actor Peter Cushing, writer J.B. Priestley, and comedian Stephen Fry, who received the last award, given in 2003. When the time came for Morecambe to accept the award and give a short speech, he showcased his comedic chops, causing those in attendance to frequently erupt into laughter.

Morecambe was awarded Pipeman of the Year by the British Pipesmokers' Council for 1970

Eric Morecambe remains a highly influential comedic figure decades after his passing, inspiring generations of comedians and leaving behind a vast body of work that deftly demonstrates his brilliant wit and ability to bring people together through laughter. Morecambe and Wise forever changed the comedic landscape with their memorable quotes, songs, and routines, and their legendary Christmas specials remain an annual tradition for many families around the world. It's difficult to imagine what comedy would look like without Morecambe and Wise's contributions, but legions of fans thankfully have a wealth of material to fondly remember them by and can spend endless hours laughing along to their iconic routines.

Category:   Pipe Line
Tagged in:   Famous Pipe Smokers History

Comments

    • Tampaholic on November 13, 2021
    • -Stressed? Anxious? Unhappy? Ask your doctor if alcoholism is right for you.- Interesting article and kind of sad. Stress is a killer. I've never heard of Morecambe until now, I think that I would enjoy his humor, those British have a direct line to my funny bone. I'm surprised that I haven't had my first heart attack yet, I've been drinking since I was 13 years old. 36 years now...wow. In moderation of course, responsibly, and by choice. Good article

    • Andy on November 14, 2021
    • I loved watching Morecambe & Wise when I was a Kid and I remember that it was a huge shock when EM died.

    • Philip Walton on November 14, 2021
    • Eric and Ernie were top watch on tele for decades. Stars of the day would line up to be on their show just to be made fun of.Some of their sketches on YouTube include the Beatles and the hilarious Andre Previn skit

    • Astrocomical on November 14, 2021
    • Gee, as a pipe/cigar smoker he shouldn't have had heart attacks and he died so young. Did he inhale?

    • Simon Shocket on November 14, 2021
    • Still enjoy Eric & Ernie sketches, but especially Eric. I recommend watching their sketch with Andre Previn, or the Anthony and Cleopatra sketch with Oscar winner Glenda Jackson. It was only years after the funniest man I have ever known, my Grandad, he passed away that I realized that Eric was a huge influence on his gags and quips. As it happens, today I've had a particularly rough day, and I just got home and saw this. You have know idea how much better I feel already.Cheers, Jeffery

    • Phil Wiggins Glauser on November 14, 2021
    • Smokers is Pipes Awesome A!!! 🇮🇪🇨🇦🍁🍒

    • John on November 14, 2021
    • Are any of his Christmas shows on American TV today? I would like to watch them.

    • Dan on November 14, 2021
    • @John: I found some DVDs on Amazon, they're rated for regeon 2. I will be looking him up on YouTube.

    • Phil O on November 16, 2021
    • Eric was , and still is, a legend of British comedy. I met him once in the early 70s when I was a kid, at a summer fair near Blackpool. He did his famous paper bag gag for a crowd that had gathered around him. Such a funny guy who is missed by millions to this day.

    • DAVID SOMMER on November 16, 2021
    • Well you guys have do it again. I was reading this with a pipe clenched and burning well, I enjoyed learning about someone from across the pond. I really wish I had half the talent that you folks who write these articles have. Great job as always!!!!!!!!! Dave

    • Jason Woodall on November 16, 2021
    • Thank you for the piece on Eric Morcambe, he and Earnie Wise are giants in the world of comedy in Britain and I’ve never met anyone that disliked their comedy. If you haven’t seen their sketches then I thoroughly recommend you do so, I promise you won’t regret it. Even now almost forty years after his death the M&W Christmas shows are a staple of British television, they had the biggest stars of the day on their shows and always found a way to make fun of them in a very humorous but inoffensive manner. If I could own a pipe from any of history’s great pipe smokers it would be one of Eric Morecambe’s.

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