Eddie Braben - Scripwriter for Morecambe and Wise Aug 1, 2013 7:35:11 GMT 1
Post by Laurence on Aug 1, 2013 7:35:11 GMT 1
Obituary from The Telegraph
Eddie Braben, who has died aged 82, was Morecambe and Wise’s television scriptwriter during their golden decade at the BBC between 1968 and 1978.
They were already famous, but Braben helped to make them great. “The lustre of their joint performance,” Lord Briggs recorded in his official history of the BBC, “owed much to Eddie Braben.” Many considered him the unsung genius of British comedy.
Braben had run a fruit and vegetable stall in a Liverpool market, “giving his customers so much lip”, as Ernie Wise recalled, “that one customer who could understand the lingo suggested he should write for comics”. Eventually Braben sold a whole page of jokes to a comic for five shillings. He was making 15 shillings a week from his market-stall jokes when he met Ken Dodd and became his staff gag-writer, a job he held for 14 years until they fell out over money.
In July 1969 Bill Cotton, BBC Television’s head of light entertainment, signed Morecambe and Wise to do 13 shows a year for the BBC for three years. Cotton introduced them to Braben. “He’s been writing for Ken Dodd for years,” said Cotton, “but no longer.” Braben had watched Morecambe and Wise on ITV and was not a fan; he thought Ernie too hard and Eric too gormless. Their first meeting at Television Centre was tense and anxious. “Really, I’m only a gag man,” protested Braben. “I’ve never done situations and sketches.”
That soon changed. Working up some ideas he had taken back to Liverpool on the back of an envelope, Braben spent a frantic week producing a sample script. It was not their usual material, and Morecambe and Wise were unsure. But Cotton backed his hunch and commissioned Braben to write a whole show for broadcast on BBC Two. Cotton promised not to expose them to BBC One’s huge audience “unless everyone was happy”.
Three shows later, Braben became Morecambe and Wise’s official writer, a move Michael Grade applauded as Bill Cotton’s masterstroke, “a brilliant, brilliant idea”. Braben subtly changed Wise’s stage persona, concocting a mixture of meanness, ego and vanity, peppered with gags about his wig (“You can’t see the join”) and his “short, fat, hairy legs”. The result was a comic but compelling portrait of a friendship between two working-class Northerners, Morecambe the fast-talking face-slapper, Wise the simpleton posing as sophisticate.
With Braben’s cosily crazy patter, it became Britain’s greatest cross-talk act. “Not since ITMA,” declared one critic, recalling the wartime radio comedy show, “has a programme contained so many items which are both familiar and consistently funny.” Like ITMA, the show’s inner cogs were the catchphrases : “What do you think of it so far? Rubbish!” “The play what I wrote” “This boy’s a fool” among many.
Not everyone applauded. Dennis Potter believed that the genius of Morecambe and Wise “consists precisely in knowing how to salvage material from a yellowing stock of back numbers of Dandy and Beano: they do not so much deliver their lines as resuscitate them.” Certainly their frequent references to “Ada Bailey’s knickers” underlined Braben’s debt to a forgotten age of flat stout and draughty music-halls.
Aiming for four gags a minute, Braben’s distinctive quality was that he had fun with words rather than situations. Sometimes his word-play with double entendres created surreal riffs:
Ernie: My wife has a Whistler.
Eric: Now there’s a novelty.
Other examples simply illustrated Braben’s comic capacity for relishing the language:
Ernie: Have you got the scrolls?
Eric: No, I always walk like this.
The shows became a national institution. Celebrities like Dame Flora Robson, André Previn, Sir Ralph Richardson, Vanessa Redgrave and Shirley Bassey (in hobnail boots) queued to appear as guests. Braben’s formula of catchphrases, slapstick, Ernie’s dreadful little plays, the nonsense in front of the curtains, all shaped the national landscape of the 1970s, BBC Television’s long-vanished Augustan age when Braben himself was at his peak. The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show of 1977 drew an audience of nearly 29 million, more than half the population and a record for a British comedy show.
One of Braben’s running gags featured Morecambe and Wise sharing a double bed. Morecambe insisted on keeping his pipe during these scenes “for the masculinity”, but still worried that the audience might misconstrue matters. Braben reassured them that “if it’s good enough for Laurel and Hardy, it’s good enough for you.”
Edwin Charles Braben was born in Monkswell Street, Liverpool, on October 31 1930. Evacuated to Anglesey at the age of nine, he paid weekly visits to nearby Bangor, wartime home of the BBC’s Variety Department, where he collected the autographs of his Liverpool-born comedy heroes Arthur Askey and Tommy Handley. In 1945, on leaving school, he got a job in Ogden’s tobacco factory and delivered election leaflets for the young Harold Wilson (who subsequently, as a former Labour prime minister, appeared on the Morecambe and Wise Show in 1978).
After National Service spent as a dishwasher in the cookhouse at RAF Kenley in Surrey, his father Ted, a butcher at St John’s Market in Liverpool, used his savings to buy Eddie his own greengrocer’s stall. Realising he was not cut out for it, he started writing jokes. He sold his first gag to Charlie Chester – it was about Hopalong Cassidy’s mother always knowing he would become a cowboy because as a baby he had a 10-gallon nappy.
Braben’s first radio engagement was as a performer when he appeared as a stand-up comedian in January 1956 in a talent show on the North region Home Service called What Makes A Star? Braben failed to twinkle, however, and instead set to as a gag-writer for the Wigan comedian Ken Platt before teaming up with Ken Dodd.
Famously reclusive and shy, he worked alone at his Liverpool house, in a small bedroom with tiger-skin wallpaper, not emerging again until he had completed a first draft. Each script took Braben three weeks of 14-hour days to finish; after an initial read-through at the BBC in London, Braben would rush to Euston to catch the next Liverpool train home. Eric Morecambe called him “the whizzer”.
Both he and Wise acknowledged Braben as the best in the business, but always pushed him hard, making changes and suggesting improvements. Braben was terrified of failure, hated the process of writing — “it was like putting your brain through a mincing machine” — and twice collapsed from total exhaustion. In 1972, while writing the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show, he suffered a nervous breakdown.
Although he became Britain’s highest-paid comedy writer, winning a Bafta and other awards, Braben only latterly had an agent and turned down several lucrative offers from America. Teetotal, mild-mannered and dedicated, he escaped to the country when he could, taking regular walks and tending the nesting boxes in his garden. In 2000 he abandoned his lifelong sporting passion, Liverpool Football Club, complaining that “two-thirds of them playing in that team can’t tell you where the Pier Head is”.
His move to Thames TV when Morecambe and Wise switched channels was an unhappy one. Away from television, Braben wrote and presented his own shows on Radio 2, with such titles as The Worst Show on the Wireless, The Show with Ten Legs and The Show with No Name. In 2004 he published his memoirs, The Book What I Wrote. With Eric Morecambe’s death in 1984, Braben left Liverpool for North Wales, where he craved privacy and discouraged visitors.
Yet, as The Daily Telegraph’s radio critic Gillian Reynolds observed, Braben could walk past a queue unrecognised, look at everyone in it and say : “You may not know it, but at some time in your life I have made you smile. Laugh even.” Braben himself was characteristically self-effacing about his talent. “What a privilege, what a glorious way to earn a living,” he recalled, “making people laugh.”
Eddie Braben remarried after the death of his first wife, with whom he had a son; with his second wife Deidree he had two daughters.
Eddie Braben, born October 31 1930, died May 21 2013