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Eric Morecambe play brings sunshine to Durham's Gala Theatre

A comedy legend comes back to life in Durham this week. David Whetstone talks to the man who has stepped into Eric Morecambe's shoes

Paul Clapp Bob Golding plays Eric Morecambe on stage
Bob Golding plays Eric Morecambe on stage in Durham

All his life, says Bob Golding, people have suggested he has a touch of the Eric Morecambes about him.

Had he become a racing driver or an accountant this might have been of limited use, but here we have an example of a perfectly round peg in a perfectly round hole.

Bob is currently earning a living by playing Eric Morecambe in an Olivier Award-winning play called Morecambe, which is coming to Durham at the end of the week.

This starring role didn’t happen quite by accident.

“It seemed to me, along with a few others, the perfect thing to take to Edinburgh as a one-man show,” says the 44-year-old actor, who was born in Cambridge (quite a few miles from Eric Morecambe’s birthplace of, er, Morecambe).

“It grew from there, really. Tim Withnall wrote the play with me in mind – we’re very close friends and are both huge fans of classic British comedy.

“You could say it was meant to happen. Tim went off to Morecambe for a few days and came back with a first draft of the script. It was great stuff.”

Others thought so too. The play had its premiere on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in the summer of 2009 and transferred to London’s West End later that year for a limited Christmas run. Praise was piled on it from many directions. Ant and Dec, speaking in unison as usual, said: “A fantastic play... amazing! Bob Golding was spookily brilliant as Eric.”

But this raises an interesting and obvious question. If Ant is nobody without Dec – and vice versa – how can you put Eric in lights without Ern? They were, arguably still are, the most famous double act ever to have graced British television.

Their BBC Christmas show in 1977 attracted 28 million viewers – nearly half the country’s population at the time. Just imagine that!

Bob is ready with his response to this allegation of favouritism, saying: “This is not just a play about Eric. Ernie is very much part of the play and I do play 55 characters within it. Ernie is an essential character in the piece and we treat him with the same respect we give to Eric.

“He played such an important part in Eric’s life. They didn’t socialise a lot together but their partnership lasted for some 44 years and their lives were interwoven. They bounced off each other brilliantly and you could say they knew each other’s thoughts before they expressed them.”

Paul Clapp Bob Golding as Eric Morecambe
Bob Golding as Eric Morecambe
 

Bob says we will meet Ernie in the play and also Eric’s parents, George and Sadie. There’s even an appearance by Bruce Forsyth, which suggests Bob Golding is one heck of a good actor – no one ever remarked that he had a touch of the Brucies about him.

In one whirlwind evening of multiple character changes, Bob aims to enlighten and entertain us with a remarkable success story – one in which the protagonists overcame a great deal of adversity.

“It was said Morecambe and Wise were the longest overnight success story in showbusiness,” says Bob. “Their first TV show, Running Wild, was not a success and one critic referred to the television as the box in which they buried Morecambe and Wise.

“We have tried to reflect that, expressing the various emotions and ex­­plaining how they managed to keep going. One thing we discovered was that, yes, they had huge talent, but it took them a lot of hard work to get to where they ended up.”

Bob, just a child when Eric and Ernie were at their glorious peak, says: “I have strong memories of sitting in my nan’s front room and watching the Christmas show. But in many respects Morecambe and Wise are just as prominent now because there are so many re-runs on TV.”

It all came to a sad end for the pair when Eric died of a heart attack in 1984. The nation mourned and Ernie must have known the game was up.

Bob says this was Eric’s third heart attack. He reckons his health problems might have stemmed from his wartime service as a Bevin Boy at Accrington pit. “He breathed in a lot of muck and in the end they signed him off because of his health.

“Had he been born 10 years later he’d probably still be with us now because of all the advances in medical technology.”

Eric’s health problems – certainly not helped by heavy smoking – brought the best out of Ernie. After Eric suffered his first heart attack and couldn’t work, says Bob, Ernie carried on, donating half of his earnings to his friend. That’s how close they were.

All credit to Bob for putting this story before an audience but you can’t help thinking he could have chosen an easier solo show than one with 55 characters and, as he says, 287 sound cues.

It seems he’s having a ball, though. The show has been revived for this national tour to mark the 30th anniversary of Eric’s death (he actually died on May 28, 1984) and, promises Bob, is a much snazzier affair than it was five years ago.

“It is very different now, with much high production values. It is very exciting to be taking it to new audiences around the UK and the whole thing has been a labour of love.

“The play does have a bitter-sweet taste to it but it is a bit of a nostalgia trip. Mostly it’s a celebration of the life of this wonderful man.”

One thing I’m curious about is how, in a one-man show, Bob recreates that famous signature closing sequence in which Eric and Ern dance away from the camera while singing Bring Me Sunshine...?

Bob says: “That would be telling, wouldn’t it?”

You can catch Morecambe at the Gala Theatre, Durham, from May 8-10.

For tickets contact the box office on 0300 0266600 or by visiting www.galadurham.co.uk

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