Six weeks before comic hero Eric Morecambe died, his longtime friend and collaborator Barry Cryer had a conversation with him which became oddly prophetic.
The pair were reeling in the aftermath of the death of another friend, comic legend Tommy Cooper, while performing live on television.
Writer, broadcaster and comedian Barry, who wrote many classic sketches for the Morecambe and Wise Show, was rung in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy by an ITN journalist - who wanted Eric’s phone number.
Barry says: “I lied and said, ‘Sorry, I can’t help you,’ - and rang Eric. And he said two things I’ve never forgotten. He said, ‘Tomorrow, everyone will be saying, ‘What a wonderful way to go.’ There’s no bloody wonderful way to go, he said rather fiercely.
“Then he said something, he said: “Poor Tom! In front of the audience! I’d never do that!’ And I’d known him long enough to make a joke so I said, ‘Can I have that in writing?’ And we had a bit of a joke about it.
“And then, six weeks later in Tewkesbury, in a little theatre there.... he went off the stage and fell down the stairs. But he got off the stage. I’ve never forgotten that.”
His longtime friend will be much in his thoughts tomorrow. Cryer is returning to Eric’s birthplace and childhood home, the town he took his stage name of Morecambe from, to premier his own brand new show, Twitter Titters, performing alongside another longtime friend and collaborator, pianist Colin Sell.
And he may well take a stroll down the Promenade from Morecambe Platform to see the resort’s famous seafront tribute to his old friend - although he finds it strangely sad that Eric is dancing alone.
He says: “There is a statue, isn’t there? But Ernie’s not with him? It’s a bit sad.
“I know it’s a delicate matter, the great Eric there, but they were a four legged animal. Eric used to say in front of Ernie, but it was said affectionately, ‘He’s not the best straight man in the business but he’s the best one I’ll ever have.’ They were like telepathy, those two.”
He shares the same magical onstage bond with Sell and says: “We’ve been together so long, I mean, he interrupts me, he tells the odd joke, he sings a song, and butts in on me sometimes, goes, “Tell em about blah blah, you know.” And that’s the way it goes. It’s more of a party than a show.
Cryer’s father died when he was five so he grew up with just his mother. Even at school, he got laughs. He recalls: “I was Falstaff in the school play. I had heavy padding and it fell out at the first performance and it got a laugh and I thought, maybe this is what I should be doing.
“My friend, John Gledhill, played Prince Hal and we got an acting cup at the Speech Day, presented by the then Princess Royal. It was on a little plinth. So I gave John the plinth and took the cup - and that got a laugh too!”
But the stage never occurred to him until, in Leeds, failing hard at university but getting laughs in student shows, he was offered work in London by an impressario.
He says: “I’d got my first year results - they weren’t good. So those results in one hand, offer of work in the other, there was no competition. So suddenly I was in showbusiness.”
In his early days, he appeared alongside strippers which caused some heartache for his mother. Cryer remembers: “No decent woman would be seen in there. So I was living at home and going home for supper every night and my mother just didn’t mention where I’d been or say how did it go and I was very hurt.
“But we had a matinee on Saturday and the woman in the box office said, ‘Was that your mother last night?’ She said, ‘There was a little woman with a scarf on her head hanging about. And she came up and said, ‘What time’s Barry Cryer on?’ And she said, “About five minutes, love.” She said, Can I buy a ticket? And this woman said, ‘No, you can’t, you’re going in!’
“There was a commissionaire with a uniform and he took my mother in to a seat. But she didn’t sit down, she stood at the back. And I came on, did my act - and then she fled into the night.
“And I got back that night I said, ‘You came last night!’ And her only comment was, ‘The suit looked nice.’ It’s the old Yorkshire thing, don’t get too big for your boots. But I was very touched that she came.”
Severe ecxema forced his performing to take a back seat for a while and he fell more into writing. He recalls that time with a grimace and says: “I was like the Invisible Man at one stage, bandaged from head to foot and dark glasses.
“People don’t realise, they think it’s just a bit of a rash. But I was in Leeds Infirmary and a guy hung himself. He couldn’t bear it any longer. You’ve got to be there to know.”
But his career took off when he was spotted by David Frost along with Ronnie Corbett at Danny La Rue’s club. Cryer recalls: “I’ve been dogged by good luck all my life.
“David Frost came in one night and then he had me and Ronnie for a drink afterwards and as a result, I became a Frost writer and Ronnie Corbett went into the Frost Report. You can’t cater for that kind of thing in life. Just being in the right place at the right time.”
Through the Frost Report, he met members of Monty Python and began writing with them too. Although his collaboration with John Cleese was shortlived, he and Graham Chapman wrote more than 50 shows together.
He says: “I’ve got an inflated reputation, People say, YOU wrote for everybody. I say, “WE wrote for everybody. I never wrote alone, I was always in partnership. If you’re on your own, you get a mental block, you’re stuck. If you’re with somebody, you can bang the ideas about and bounce off each other, so I always like working in partnership.”
He first saw Eric and Ernie at the Grand Theatre, Blackpool. They became friends and then, with co-writer John Junkin, Cryer began writing for their TV show, penning many of the duo’s famous sketches. He says: “It was a very delicate relationship because they were friends but you were their writer. You don’t mix business and friendship. I once wrote a little bit for Eric and showed it to him - this was in a roomful of people
“He said, ‘No, no, you’ve got this wrong, not what I asked for at all. You know, I felt humiliated - and I went off and sulked in the bar.
“And he came in and said, ‘What’s the long face?’ I said, ‘You just popped me in front of everyone in that room!’ He said, ‘Oh, that was there, this is here, what are you drinking?’ Business and friendship, different - which I respected.”
He still treasures many memories of Eric. He says: “My favourite memory? Oh, so many! I don’t know. I mean, the man’s humour was legendary. I was once standing with Eric and David Frost at a do and Eric looked at David Frost and said, Are you in New York NOW? Best definition of Frosty I ever heard!
“We had Tom Jones on the show at the BBC and they used to have drinks after the recording in a big dressing room and Tom had disappeared. And I said ‘Eric, Where’s Tom gone?’ And he said, ‘He’s just left, covered in managers.’ ‘Elton John? Sounds like an exit on the M1!’ That was TO Elton John!
“If you were just one-to-one, chatting with him, he was a very serious man, he’d want to talk about football and politics. But as soon as anybody came up, he’d twiddle his glasses, you know, he’d say, they expect it, say something silly.
“It’s very interesting, a lot of people I’ve worked with, if you were one to one with them, they were, you know, normal, just talking away. But as soon as anybody else came up.... Kenneth Williams was like that, very intelligent man, fascinating, almost a depressive sadly. But as soon as anybody else came up, “Nyyyyarrrgghh,” then he’d start.”
The new show is called Twitter Titters but, although Cryer has a Twitter account, all it says is: “@BarryCryer has not tweeted yet.“
He admits it’s true and laughs: “The guy who puts the show on, David Foster, said, ‘Get something about being an old Luddite in the modern world of technology. I suggested Twitter Titters - I regret it now!
“Our youngest son, Bob, he set it up and he’s always on at me, ‘Get tweeting, Dad!” But I don’t know. Someone said to Michael Palin. ‘Do you do Twitter? and he said, I haven’t read Brothers Karamatzov yet!’”
“It doesn’t interest me. There is humour and wit about on it - and a lot of banal rubbish and some nasty stuff. But there is humour there - it’s a mixed blessing.”
Twitter Titters is at Morecambe Platform on Saturday March 2. Tickets are £16 or £15 concessions from the box office on 01524 582803.