You Can’t See the Join; Eric & Little Ern at Devizes Arts Festival

Youngsters may ponder how we survived times of yore with just the three TV channels. Certainly, children’s shows stopped at six, new-fangled video recorders were expensive commodities and presented their users with a horrendous relay, poor sound quality and the tedious labour of rewinding. Yet we had something which barely exists today, an eminence of shows designed to entertain a family; can you think of similar today?

Variety performances outclassed anything you might deem akin today. Simon’s Cowell’s amateur talent contest TV shows remained firmly in the holiday camps, professionals reigned weekend viewers which style and panache. Contemplating it, The Simpsons is perhaps the only show the entire family enjoys, as while I’ll watch Britain’s Got Talent, one eye squints.

Ant and Dec are no replacement for The Two Ronnies, arguably the only duo to come close to the sovereigns of weekend family entertainment, Morecombe and Wise. If you never thought you ever see anything like their magic again, think again.

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Ian Ashpitel & Jonty Stephens are Eric & Little Ern, a remarkably accurate tribute that has to be seen to be believed. Spotted the posters of their Devizes Arts Festival’s event on 14th June I thought “yeah, right.” But no still image can summarise the precision of “An Evening of Eric & Ern,” you have to check these videos out.

Away from my theories, do Ian and Jonty think Morecambe & Wise are still popular today?

“We have been asked, many times, over the years what is the lasting appeal of Morecambe and Wise?” says Ian Ashpitel who plays Ernie “I think that it’s a combination of many things; they grew up with each other and had an instinctive timing that is hard to replicate. They were friends first and foremost, closer than brothers. They grew up learning their craft together. Making mistakes together, finding what works and doesn’t work as they played clubs and theatres for over 20 years before being seen on TV for the first time. They were likeable and people could relate to them, to their sense of humour and their comedy. Working class gentlemen as someone once told us. Eric was one of the finest comics Britain has ever seen and, with the perfect comedy foil at his side, it was a truly magical combination. Having played Ernie, it’s made me realise just how good he was. His timing was immaculate and they had a trust in each other that flowed effortlessly through their performance.”

“Exactly” says Jonty, “They were so relaxed together on stage, so funny, that everyone felt safe in their company. They were brilliant because they appealed to everybody, all walks of life, men-women, young-old, everybody found them funny and it’s very hard to do.”

Their catchphrases now engraved in our language, the songs and gags will never fade with time. So, in their show, it’s Ian and Jonty’s aim to replicate Morecambe & Wise’s live theatre shows, with the famous songs and sketches from their TV moments, as well as a few surprises and a guest singer.

 
Ian and Jonty first met at drama school in Birmingham in 1983 where they became firm friends. Even back then people would ask ‘are you a double act?’ to which the boys would answer, in unison, ‘No.’ Jonty is a brilliant mimic; Eric was one of many impressions he would perform from an early age. He’s a self-confessed Morecambe & Wise anorak and it was his knowledge and love which proved to be the bedrock of their story.

 

Now jobbing actors and members of The Stage Golfing Society, in 2002 Ian and Jonty would put on a review/show. They performed a five-minute sketch and were instantly told ‘you must do something with this’. It has to be said by now nature had taken its course with Jonty’s hair and Ian had fully developed the short fat hairy legs!

 

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During the run of the initial show, which had moved from Richmond to the Edinburgh Festival, Eric’s son Gary Morecambe saw the show and loved it. Support and approval from the family were massively important to Ian and Jonty and continues to be so. The show then went on a hugely successful tour, which culminated in its first West End run in the Christmas of 2013 at the Vaudeville Theatre.

 

The show was nominated for an Olivier Award in 2014. Another tour and a Christmas run at the St James Theatre London followed. Devizes has a grand chance to witness it from the comfort of their own town, one of many highlights of our Arts Festival. Tickets are £21 here.

 

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