Ian Ashpitel and Jonty Stephens aim to bring you sunshine as they put together a show based on two of Britain’s best-loved comics, Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise.
An Evening With Eric and Ern is their follow-up to the Olivier-nominated play Eric and Little Ern.
The play looked more at the relationship between the duo – a 43-year partnership brought abruptly to an end by Morecembe’s death following a heart attack on stage.
But this is a homage to the double-act’s actual stage show, recreating some of their most popular sketches – and also adding some new material in their style.
As Jonty says: ‘An Evening With Eric and Ern sums it up – it’s exactly what the audience gets – it’s the nearest you can get to experiencing Morecambe and Wise live.’
But this show has only been made possible thanks to the success of the play.
‘We launched it at the Edinburgh festival in 2013,’ explains Ian, ‘and the world went mad from that point. We were on the front of newspapers, being interviewed by BBC Breakfast, next thing we know we’re in the West End at the Vaudeville Theatre and we got an Olivier nomination in 2014. It’s been amazing.
‘We thought we’d go to Edinburgh and do a four-week run and that would be it. We’re jobbing actors, we know how these things work, you do a show and then you move on.
‘But we haven’t been in control of this, it’s been in control of us – it’s like a runaway train.’
And as the real Eric and Ern were great friends off stage, so too are Ian and Jonty. As Jonty says, that friendship has helped them recreate some of the comedy team’s magic.
‘I don’t think it would have worked without that friendship – we reflect Eric and Ern a bit in that respect.
They knew each other from the age of 13, they grew up together, and we’ve known each other for 30 years since drama school and we were mates, genuine friends, before we were doing this and that’s the magic dust over this, that we are good friends and we trust each other implicitly.
‘When you’re put together in a casting, it’s a bit different, but we first did this as a five minute sketch for our mates in the golf club – that was the germ of it.’
There is also the fact that Jonty is something of a super-fan.
‘I’m a normal fan,’ Ian says with a laugh, ‘just watching them on TV and laughing along and loving them. But Jonty’s a bit different - he’s a real Morecambe and Wise anorak.’
‘It’s true,’ says Jonty.
‘Anything you want to know, ask me. Even way before we were going to do this, 20 years ago, I had two cats called Eric and Ernie.
‘And the cat had short fat hairy legs like Ian too!’
As with any show of this nature, they wanted the families’ estates backing.
‘When we first did the play,’ recalls Ian, ‘we tried to get in touch with the families because we wanted their approval, we wanted to let them know we were doing it in a way that was respectful to Morecambe and Wise.
‘We’d been doing to the show for about two weeks, and we’d become the hit of the fringe, if you like, and we suddenly got a message saying that (Eric’s son) Gary Morecambe had bought a ticket to see us.
‘Obviously Jonty was slightly nervous that day, so we did the show, we got a standing ovation, and at the end these two young women stayed behind and they told us how much they loved the show, it’s the best thing we’ve seen this year, and so on, and right behind them was Gary Morecambe.
‘As they walked away, he said: “Did you pay them to say that?” They both laugh at the memory.
‘And that was the start of our relationship with Gary and they’ve been friends ever since.’
Jonty picks it up: ‘They’ve been incredibly generous to us, letting us do it, and supporting us.
‘But we run everything by them, they know exactly what we’re doing, we show them the scripts, they give us little pointers if something’s slightly wrong. They’ve been brilliant, and we cherish the relationship with them.
‘Sadly, when we started the show in 2013, Doreen, Ernie’s wife had a massive stroke and she died last year, but the estate are still involved in what we do as well.’
And what’s it been like doing original material
‘Hopefully it fits in seamlessly...’ says Ian. ‘The lovely thing is after we come off and we’ve had people say they love this bit or we love that bit, it was one of our favourite things by Morecambe and Wise – but they didn’t do it
‘Everything’s done in the style of Eric and Ernie, and we work very hard to make sure it is.’
Given that Eric died 35 years ago, ending their act, why do they think the pair remain so popular?
Jonty says: ‘The style of comedy now is very different. Eric and Ern came from the pathway of variety – the big clubs and the big variety theatres, the end of the pier stuff – but their stuff is still hilarious today.
‘They learned their craft in those clubs, and to survive in those clubs you had to be good – if you weren’t the let you know it!
‘And that paid off years later. It’s the combination of their relationship and the material that was written for them and what they did with it.
‘One thing we’ve learned is how important Ernie was – everyone says how great Eric was, and he was, there’s no two ways about it, but Ernie had this timing that was perfect for Eric.
‘And that’s the same for Ian and myself – you can’t have one without the other. They were both brilliant – it’s Morecambe and Wise.’
AN EVENING WITH ERIC AND ERN
The Kings Theatre, Southsea
Saturday, October 5