Sean Foley, co-writer and performer
That was all [producer] David Pugh’s fault. In 1988, I had created a small two-person theater company, The Right Size, with Hamish McColl, creating work that fell somewhere between European physical theater and British variety. We had had success; one of our shows had moved to the West End. One day in 2001 David called us up and said, “I want you to do a show on Morecambe and Wise.
We made polite noises around the room, but as soon as we got out we were like, ‘This guy is an idiot. It looked like a poisoned chalice: as a double act, surely the riskiest thing you can do is attempt to imitate one of the most famous double acts of all time. But David kept going at us and so we wrote a dummy script for him, half hoping he would realize the mistake of his ways. But he did not do it. He loved her. And we thought, “Oh my God, we’re actually going to have to do this. “
The solution we found is that in The Play What I Wrote, we will not impersonate anyone except ourselves. There are two characters called Sean and Hamish on stage: Hamish wants to put on a ‘serious’ play that he wrote (a very Ernie thing to do), while Sean wants to do comedy (a very Eric thing to do) . It was a tribute to Morecambe and Wise, but with rooster eyes. The idea was to look at what it means to be a double act as well as evoke the comedic spirit of Eric and Ernie. We had the chance to work with Eddie Braben, who wrote a lot of their material and also some new jokes for us. He insisted on being paid by gag – very old-school. It was like that at the time.
In the second half of the show, a guest star appears, echoing what happened on the Morecambe and Wise TV specials. We were worried that no one famous would actually want to do it, but luckily a few guinea pig stars got the ball rolling. Then one evening Ralph Fiennes walked into the dressing room and said he liked the show, and we booked him on site. It just happened like that. It was all very kick-bollocks-scramble.
One of the things I’m most proud of is that even though we deliberately don’t try to to be Eric and Ernie, we managed to evoke at least part of their comedic world, to activate this feeling of nostalgia in the audience. People would say, “Oh, I kinda remember that! In fact, they didn’t remember it at all: we wrote it ourselves.
Toby Jones, interpreter
I had known Sean and Hamish for ages and had seen everything they did. They were really smart. When they told me they were going to do a show on Morecambe and Wise, I said, “No, that’s a really bad idea. Then they asked me if I was going to play the supporting roles they had written – lots of little roles. Rather majestic, I said no, it didn’t sound very attractive. So he turned into a part, a guy called Arthur, again a tribute to a character from the original shows. He would come up with his harmonica and they would say, “Not now, Arthur. I have become Arthur.
David Pugh convinced Kenneth Branagh to direct which made it a lot more intense, also because after we started at Liverpool we had to go to the West End. There was sort of a script, but pretty rough, if I remember correctly; we had to tighten it up and write it correctly.
Of course, the show kept changing, in part because of the guest star thing – the way it worked was that Arthur would come, dressed like the star, before the star actually appeared in the second. half. It wasn’t so much identity theft as it was a deliberately pathetic attempt at identity theft. It was the gag. Ralph Fiennes had been on The English Patient, so they wrapped me in bandages. With Bob Geldof, I arrived and started to swear. When we had Kylie Minogue, I had to wear her dress. I was constantly changing my costume.
And it was not an easy spectacle to put on. When we were doing it on Broadway, Roger Moore collapsed on stage one night after a dance number. I was actually off the stage at the time, but I heard the audience go deathly silent. When I looked back I saw him lying on the ground and thought, “Oh my God, he’s dead. They pulled the curtain, Sean walked out front and said, “I’m so sorry – Roger Moore is not doing well.” A doctor arrives. The audience applauded. They thought it was all part of the joke.
In a way, he was fine. He stood up again and made it to the end of the show.