Editor's note: David Prest of BBC Radio 4 independent supplier Whistledown unearths a comedy gold-mine - SB.
There I was, parked on a double-yellow line in London's St John's Wood, trying to cram several box loads of old tapes and a suitcase of 78s into the back of my car, whilst keeping a beady eye out for traffic wardens.
An acquaintance who worked for Billy Marsh Associates, the legendary theatrical agents, had been storing "some stuff" for Doreen Wise, widow of one half of the best-loved comedy duo of all time: Morecambe and Wise. "After Ernie died, Doreen was moving house, and clearing out the garage," explained my friend, "she found these. Let me know if there's anything interesting."
For a few months, this precious archive sat in the corner of the office, giving off the sort of musty smell that only old tapes stored in a garage for 50 years can - a Macmillan-era nosegay of Bakelite, damp cardboard, Castrol GTX and old rags.
I eventually plucked up courage and gently wound the fragile tape round the playback head of our trusty old office Revox. The clarity was amazing. Here were near-studio quality recordings of classic Morecambe and Wise sketches. But this wasn't Eric and Ernie mucking about with Glenda Jackson or André Previn from my childhood. This was two decades earlier from their first ever radio series prophetically titled 'You're Only Young Once'.
I checked with the BBC archives who told me they had just a handful of episodes on the shelves, the rest presumably purged to save a bit of room for better long term bets like 'Round the Horne'.
Studio Manager Charlotte Austin and myself, began the 6-month restoration process, carefully prising tape off reluctant spools with padded tweezers, spraying the old acetate recordings with vivid blue chemicals specially imported from Denmark, digitising and cleaning up fifty years-worth of woops and crackles.
Before we knew it, we had a remarkable collection of recordings: near complete runs of 'You're Only Young Once' (1953-54), the boys' appearances on programmes like 'Variety Bandbox' and 'Variety Fanfare' going back to 1949, various audio doodlings from Ernie, sound copies of their stage-shows, song demos and even the speeches from a Variety Club lunch in their honour.
My good friend, and fellow fan of great Northern comics, Stewart Henderson was the first to come in and have a listen. "This is dynamite... comedy gold!" he said in his excitable Liverpudlian way.
We played extracts to Doreen Wise. "They sound very squeaky, but then we all did back then," she laughed. Joan Morecambe, Eric's widow was immediately taken back to those early touring days, reminiscing about the Sunday recordings (always in Manchester - the Hulme Hippodrome) and "going for a Chinese afterwards". Doreen remembered how Ernie used to give the studio engineer "a few shillings" to run off a copy of that night's show for him.
I'm not sure his BBC bosses knew much about it at the time, but through the back-hand dealings of an anonymous engineer, an important piece of comedy heritage has been saved!
David Prest is producer of Morecambe and Wise: the garage tapes
- The clip from Morecambe and Wise: the Garage Tapes is no longer available. Listen to the programme next Tuesday 4 May at 0900.
- The picture of Eric and Ernie is from the BBC's picture library. The smaller picture shows presenter John Culshaw going through the suitcase of tapes in the Whistledown offices. There are more pictures here.
- It's been announced that Victoria Wood will play Eric Morecambe's mother Sadie in a BBC 2 drama later this year (story from the Belfast Telegraph).