Saturday, 30 December 2017

Eric, Ernie and Me (2017)

BBC4's bijou biopics of beloved British talent from yesteryear was once a regular fixture on the channel, but budgetary restrictions saw them bring their original drama output to something of a close after 2013's Burton and Taylor. This means that anything approaching such a format is now done with some irregularity, saved for special occasions such as Christmas, so it's only fitting that their attempt to tackle the story of Eddie Braben now: the unsung gag writer of Morecambe and Wise, the comedy double act who dominated the Christmas schedules of days gone by. 

When I first heard that BBC4 were making Eric, Ernie and Me, I was impressed by the casting of Stephen Tompkinson as Braben, but confused and apprehensive by the casting of Mark Bonnar and Neil Maskell as Eric and Ernie. Tompkinson is one of our most versatile actors, adapt at both serious drama and broad comedy, capable of many a dialect and bearing a passing physical resemblance to the man himself. I knew then that he'd have no trouble portraying the scouse market trader who went on to write gags for everyone from Charlie Chester to Ken Dodd, and whose 2004 autobiography The Book What I Wrote shed light on time writing for Eric and Ernie and arguably formed the basis of this drama. Mark Bonnar is an actor I'm rather keen on thanks to his deadpan turn in the sitcom Catastrophe, but the thought of this thin, prematurely silver haired Scottish actor  portraying the bespectacled jester, Eric Morecambe was a bit of a stretch for my imagination, and ditto Neil Maskell as Ernie, an actor best known for playing a variety of laddish hard men culminating in his best known role, that of Jay in Kill List. I began to wonder why they didn't just cast Jonty Stephens and Ian Ashpitel whose stage act is to recreate Eric and Ernie and appeared on our screens as such just last Christmas in the Eric Idle (less than) spectacular The Entire Universe.

But now I've seen this I know why they opted for Bonnar and Maskell. What I perhaps didn't expect from this drama was the fact that the story was just as much about Morecambe and Wise as it was about Braben. There's a key scene when, at the behest of Braben who is reeling from nervous exhaustion due to the gruelling schedule set by the boys, the BBC suggest that the Christmas show should accommodate a more variety feel, including musical numbers that recall the days of old Hollywood. Ernie is immediately in agreement, but Eric rules it out flatly, demanding they stick only to the familiar routine of gags and sketches which would mean the same workload for Braben. Aware that a long held ambition is about to be snatched away from him by his partner, Maskell's Ernie asks for a private word with Eric and, in what follows, I instantly realised that the film required some proper actors in the role rather than - and no offence meant to Stephens and Ashpitel, who are obviously actors in their own right - a pair of highly skilled imitators. Bonnar and Maskell would never convince as the much loved Morecambe and Wise, but there were times when they most assuredly were Eric and Ernie. Bonnar in particular taps into the drive that was required for a performer who was so 'on' all of the time; and the demands that kind of behaviour made on those around him, as well as the reasons why he was so determined (he intrinsically knew, following his first heart attack with which the film opens on, that he was living on borrowed time and needed to make his mark) are not  pussyfooted around in this biopic as Tompkinson's Braben goes from being an outgoing genial family guy to an utter shell of a man as the constant shuttling from Liverpool to London, the endless rewrites, and the necessity for perfection expected from him by the BBC and the boys take their toll. 

It's a shame though that some roles are less well cast. I used to quite like Alex Macqueen (pictured above on the left) from his days in The Thick of It, but it became apparent long ago that he approaches each role he takes in the same manner and with the same plummy accent and over enunciated delivery. He cannot play anything other than Alex Macqueen (seriously, if you haven't seen him trying to play it straight as a dubious MP in the third season of Peaky Blinders then drop everything and do so now, he stinks the place out trying to act tough yet perform in exactly the same manner) and that's fine, plenty of actors just play versions of themselves, but when you're hired to play someone who once walked this earth and did so in recent memory, it really won't do. To see him playing Bill Cotton here, exactly like every other role he takes, is laughable to anyone who actually recalls the real Bill Cotton. When you have actors really trying to recreate something of these figures, not just Eric, Ernie and Eddie Braben, but also some fleeting imitations of Vanessa Redgrave, Glenda Jackson and Andre Previn, it really does let the side down.

At just an hour, Eric, Ernie and Me doesn't outstay its welcome and gives you a flavour of the men who made Christmas throughout the '70s; finally allowing Braben's contribution the fitting tribute that both he and it deserves. It serves as a fitting companion piece to Victoria Wood's earlier biopic Eric and Ernie which looked at the double act's formative years.

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