For people of a certain generation (oh, alright mine!) Christmas Day evening is synonymous with settling down as a family to watch the annual Morecambe and Wise festive show. The last of these came in 1977 and attracted well over 20 million viewers – some estimates put it as high as 28 million. In the days before plus one channels, video recording, online catch up services and so on this meant that roughly half the nation was sitting down to watch at the same time. To put that in context, fewer than 20 million watched the most recent football world cup final and this was spread across two channels. It is more than appropriate therefore that in the runup to Christmas 2022, the BBC iPlayer is currently hosting a production of The Play What I Wrote.
Produced by Birmingham Rep and filmed at the Theatre Royal in Bath, this show is clearly a part homage to the work of Morecambe and Wise. However, it wears their mantle lightly and pays tribute to the comedy double act as a general element of light entertainment, showing how each component depends on a symbiotic relationship to create a certain magic. In this instance the double act is Dennis Herdman and Thom Tuck who play exaggerated versions of themselves but also (not by chance) embody the characteristics of Eric and Ernie. One is anarchic and will do anything for a laugh; the other is rather more earnest in his approach to comedy and has delusions of grandeur when it comes to writing serious drama. Entirely by coincidence (of course) Tuck has “written” seventy plus plays and his latest A Tight Squeeze For The Scarlet Pimple needs a star name to play the lead. Cue no less than a one off stellar appearance by Tom Hiddleston who takes over where acting legends Glenda Jackson, Vanessa Redgrave and Diana Rigg blazed a trail on television. The clever conceit of the show is that at every performance it is a different guest artist who takes to the stage. Given that, Herdman and Tuck must have had to relearn sizeable elements of the script each time – one of the best remembered running gags is the duo repeatedly getting their guest’s names muddled – it is remarkable that their comic timing remains as solid as it does. Hiddleston has an absolute ball overplaying a pompous if slightly bemused version of himself and deadpanning his way through increasingly ridiculous scenarios as the Scarlet Pimple incarcerated in the Bastille during the French Revolution. It is literally a laugh a minute – actually make that several laughs a minute.
The play within a play takes over most of the second half of the show. Before that we are treated to a series of loosely connected sketches which plays with some of the other well know tropes from the M & W TV spectaculars. Just like their comic forebears, Herdman and Tuck appear in front of curtain sketches, share a platonic bed and even go for the sort of dance extravaganza that regularly appeared on the original. The duo do not attempt impersonations so much as embody the spirits of their illustrious forebears making their performances both specifically about one pairing and universally about all such twosomes at the same time. It’s clever and riotously funny performing, even when you can see what’s coming a mile off. Their spot on homages are choreographed with a great eye for physical comedy by Sean Foley one third of the team who wrote the script (along with Hamish McColl and M & W’s scriptwriter Eddie Braben) and one half of the duo (McColl again) who performed in the original production twenty years previously.
There’s one more highly enticing element and one which threatens to steal the show every time he appears. This is Mitesh Soni who plays Arthur a man on a mission to play the harmonica in memory of his mother. It’s another clever bit of referencing; this time to Arthur Tolcher the man who regularly appeared on Morecambe and Wise shows brandishing the musical instrument only to be told “Not now Arthur”. For reasons which are far too convoluted to go into here, Arthur also has to become stage producer David Pugh, Scarlett Johansson and…Tom Hiddleston. For the latter he appears in full Loki mode despite his rather more diminutive stature and broad Brummie accent. It’s just one more delight in a farcical play that keeps on giving.
Morecambe and Wise themselves may be no more, but their spirit lives on in this brilliantly conceived and executed piece of humour. If you want to revisit the days of Christmas Past and recall a time when the whole nation (well half of it anyway) shared what was regularly event television then you could not do better than to programme this into your festive viewing schedule.