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Bring me sunshine

30/08/2016

The legendary Morecambe & Wise warmed the hearts of a whole generation. Here, Claire Simon chats to the duo bringing the iconic comedy back to guests on board Britannia

Ian Ashpitel and Jonty Stephens as Eric & Ern

Ian Ashpitel and Jonty Stephens as Eric & Ern

‘Jonty’s a mad anorak when it comes to Morecambe & Wise,’ laughs Ian Ashpitel, talking about his comedy partner and friend Jonty Stephens. ‘What he doesn’t know about them isn’t worth knowing.’

 

Ian and Jonty are familiar faces in The Limelight Club on board Britannia, a venue exclusively for adults that combines great food and fantastic entertainment that you won’t see anywhere else on the ship. In their popular on-board show, Eric & Ern, the comedy duo bring back the iconic wit and brilliant humour of Britain’s hugely loved pair, Eric Morecambe & Ernie Wise. ‘I think people genuinely believe we’re Morecambe & Wise sometimes,’ says Jonty. ‘I mean, Ian’s got the short, fat, hairy legs and hair that looks like a wig, and I’m bald… so it’s no wonder really.’

 

In the beginning…

Ian and Jonty first met back in 1983 at drama school in Birmingham – ‘I was a mature student and Jonty was an immature student,’ says Ian – and the pair became firm friends. Following drama school, they both built up a solid body of acting work and remained in touch, but never worked together. Until 2002.

 

‘We both love golf and play at the Stage Golfing Society, a club for people in the acting business who play golf,’ says Ian. ‘Jonty and I would meet up there a lot. Every year they do a show for the home club. In 2002, the theme was comedy through the ages and Jonty, who’s a brilliant impressionist and of course a mad Morecambe & Wise fan, was asked to do Eric. His reply to that was, “Well I need an Ernie, then.” He looked across the bar and asked me. I thought I was more Robert Redford than Ernie, to be honest, but we did a five-minute sketch and it went down really well.’

 

Despite positive feedback from their audience, due to busy lives and other work commitments, the pair didn’t come together as Eric and Ern again for another 10 years. ‘In 2012 the Stage Golfing Society asked us to do a sketch again. This time, we wrote some material,’ says Ian. ‘We weren’t very well rehearsed to be honest, but we got a standing ovation. At the end people were telling us that we just had to do something with the show.’

 

The show must go on

With the financial backing of fellow Morecambe & Wise fan Martin Clarkson, Ian and Jonty threw themselves into creating a show dedicated to their comic heroes. The end product was the play Eric & Little Ern, which the duo took to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2013.

 

The show went through the roof with rave reviews and five-star write-ups. ‘It went crazy, we didn’t expect it at all,’ says Ian. ‘We know that people of our generation – I’m 59 – love Morecambe & Wise. But what was fantastic was that lots of young people saw the show and loved the comedy.’

 

‘Although we are bringing the great Morecambe & Wise back for the audience who loved them, what’s most exciting for us is bringing the comedy to a new audience,’ adds Jonty. ‘People who perhaps don’t know much about Morecambe & Wise and are begrudgingly brought along to what they think is old-fashioned comedy. By the end, they can’t help but laugh and enjoy it. That’s the thing with Morecambe & Wise: funny is funny.’

 

Following the success of Edinburgh, the show was taken to the West End where the rave reviews continued, earning the pair an Olivier Award nomination. ‘It was the stuff of dreams,’ says Ian. Following the end of the show’s run in the West End, a recommendation about taking their act on board cruise ships led the pair to P&O Cruises. Today, Ian and Jonty can be found in Britannia’s The Limelight Club every few weeks with their adapted version of the show, Eric & Ern.

Ian Ashpitel and Jonty Stephens as Eric & Ern

The pair bring the iconic wit of Morecambe & Wise to Britannia

Britannia’s entertainment rules the waves

Performing in front of the trademark Morecambe & Wise curtains, the show on board Britannia is hugely popular. ‘The thing with the show is, it’s like putting on an old record or pulling on an old coat,’ says Ian. ‘There’s something so familiar about Morecambe & Wise. You know you’re safe with them. After the show, we get people coming to us quite emotional as they remember watching it with their family. There’s a real connection. Morecambe & Wise weren’t just liked, they were absolutely loved.’

 

‘We love being on Britannia and in The Limelight Club,’ adds Jonty. ‘It’s such a special venue. We’re now part of the family on that ship, she’s our second home. I’d never been on a cruise ship until last year, when Britannia was launched, but now we’ve just had our one-year anniversary.’ 

 

Without a doubt, part of the success of both Eric & Ern and Eric & Little Ern is the strong bond between Ian and Jonty, much like the relationship between their comic heroes. ‘If there’s a special bit of added magic dust that makes this work, it’s our friendship of 30 years,’ says Jonty. ‘Morecambe & Wise were friends from boys… we weren’t boys when we met, but there are a lot of years in our friendship. That all adds to our relationship and trust of each other on the stage when we play Eric and Ern. Ian is like the brother I never had. I really don’t think there’s anyone else I could possibly work with for this long and still have a laugh.

 

‘I think Eric has taken me over, slowly but surely,’ he laughs. ‘The good thing is that Ian puts his hair like Ernie and he changes, and I put my specs on and that changes me, and once I take them off and he combs his hair, that removes you a little bit. But once the specs are on, God help anybody – I’m off!

 

‘The key to the show is the love we have for Morecambe & Wise. We just hope we do them justice, and represent them the right way – they were so loved.’

 

Find out more about entertainment on board Britannia >

 

Claire Simon

Claire is a writer and editor with a passion for travel, food, sport and meeting new and interesting characters. She has written and interviewed people for various travel and loyalty magazines and loves nothing more than exploring a new destination.

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