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Sunday, March 21, 1999 Published at 10:38 GMT


Comedian Ernie Wise dies

Ernie (left) with Eric at their peak

Ernie Wise, whose 43-year partnership with Eric Morecambe became the most popular double act on British televison, has died aged 73.

Arts Correspondent Nick Higham looks back on the life of Ernie Wise
His death at the Nuffield Hospital, Wexham near Slough, follows that of his comedy partner since the age of 16, Eric Morecambe, from a heart attack in 1984.

Ernie, who lived with wife Doreen in a luxury home on the banks of the River Thames in Maidenhead, Berkshire, quit showbusiness at the age of 70 after a stroke.

In the 1970s half the British population watched the Morecambe and Wise Show, in which Ernie Wise played the straight man to Eric Morecambe.

It was the peak of a popularity built over 40 years, starting in theatre and on radio.

Ernie Wise was born Ernest Wiseman in 1925.

He grew up in Leeds, the son of a railway worker, and soon showed an early gift for entertaining.

At six he was clog-dancing with his father in local clubs and at 10 he was being hailed as Britain's answer to Mickey Rooney.

[ image:
"Britain's Mickey Rooney"
By the time he teamed up with Eric Morecambe aged just 15, he was already a song and dance veteran.

Their double act was first seen at the Empire Theatre in Liverpool in 1941 and developed for many years on the radio.

Their first television series was made for the BBC in 1955 as the pair began to establish themselves as the country's most popular comedians. Over the next 29 years they starred in a series of celebrity-packed television specials, both for the BBC and ITV.

It was with the BBC that they made their final programmes before Eric's fatal heart failure in 1984.

Many of their best-loved acts saw an apparently well prepared sequence fall apart at the seams.

[ image:
"Little Ern" discusses his newest play
Though Eric got most of the laughs, many were generated by Ernie's pompous persona, his "short, fat hairy legs" and his famous thatch of hair, which Eric would tug insisting "you can't see the join".

Ernie always insisted he was more than just the straightman.

Off-stage, the pair avoided "living in each other's pockets". But professionally they had a tremendous affinity.

They made several films together, appeared in Royal Command Performances, and won a string of showbiz distinctions.

They collaborated in an autobiography, Eric and Ernie, published in 1973, and three years later, while at the peak of their powers, they were both awarded an OBE.

Ernie's career declined after Eric's death. He went solo for a time and appeared in pantomime, but there were few attractive offers.

Poor health persuaded him to retire after more than 60 years in entertainment.

Retirement was mostly spent in the sunshine of Florida, where he could look back on a partnership that became the most popular in British television history.

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