Following a highly successful run at Edinburgh and on tour, Jonty Stephens and Ian Ashpitel are now heading to the West End with their show, Eric and Little Ern, which is at the Vaudeville Theatre for an eight-week run from 19th November 2013.
This affectionate and fantastically funny homage to the greatest comedy double act that Britain has ever seen vividly brings back warm memories of a bygone era. Recreating some of the finest moments of Eric and Ernie’s television and stage performances, cherished moments from the archives sit alongside new material created by the performers. Together they make a brilliant comedy that recreates the all-ages appeal of Morecambe and Wise in their heyday.
Earlier this week, Jonty and Ian took time out from their tour to answer some questions about themselves and the show.
After being in the Royal Navy for nine years as a radio operator on submarines, you then trained at the Birmingham School of Speech and Drama. How difficult was the career change and have you any advice to anyone thinking of going into acting following a first career?
Leaving the Royal Navy to become a civilian is harder than most might think and then to become an actor brought its own set of problems. I had been institutionalised to such an extent that I found it hard to fit in. Acting gave me this fantastic opportunity and I felt privileged to be at drama school. I knew very little compared to a lot of the other students but I was like a sponge soaking up all this new information and knowledge. I think being a mature student helped a great deal. I knew what I wanted and this was definitely it. If I have any advice it would be to not do it and if you have to, then be sure and be prepared to leave your old life behind.
Have you always wanted to be on the stage and was there anyone that sparked the interest?
I’d always wanted to be an actor/singer since I was young. My first singing solo was ‘Please Release Me’ at the tender age of 9. I’d always been in the church choir and school plays, and it was on a church outing to see Peter Pan that I first encountered the magic of theatre. I sort of ran away to sea at 16 and put my acting ambitions on hold till in 1980 the submarine pulled into Plymouth for emergency repairs and the cast of ‘Not Now Darling‘ which included Tim Brooke-Taylor and Su Pollard came down to the boat for a visit. It was my job to show them around; later that week a few of us went to see the play and that was it, I was hooked. That was the inspiration I needed to leave the Navy and pursue acting.
You have performed in films, on radio, television, and stage. What do you like most about each of these?
If I’m honest I love all forms of acting be it film, television, radio or stage and have had great experiences in all four, but it has to be said, and has been by many, that there’s nothing quite like the stage. From moments where you can hear a pin drop to the biggest of laughs from an audience in unison.
What have been your favourite screen and stage roles?
My favourite screen role would have to be Chris Hart in Family Affairs on Channel 5. Mainly because that’s where I learned the most and grew as an actor. It was two years in front of a camera and one of the happiest times of my life. On stage it would have to be Faustus by Christopher Marlowe in a drama school production. Again, because I learned so much in that one show and also because there were moments in that play that I haven’t experienced since in any other work I’ve done.
You have performed in several touring productions including Brighton Rock, The Merchant of Venice, Jesus Christ Superstar and currently Eric and Little Ern. What lasting memories have these tours left with you?
Every job leaves some sort of lasting impression. Sometimes it’s the part you play or where you went with it or where you are at that particular time of your life, but mostly it’s the people you work with that form an opinion of the work you have done.
Do you have any ‘life-time’ ambitions as an actor?
Actually, two of my boxes are about to be ticked as this is my first time in the West End as a performer and also as a writer of something as well. I would of course like to do more film. The great thing about this business is that anything is possible at any time, and we are living proof of that one. So, who knows!
You trained at The Birmingham School of Speech & Drama. What was your favourite performance as an actor while you were training?
One of my favourite performances at drama school was playing Pericles. Taking on a Shakespeare role the size of Hamlet was a huge challenge. We performed at The Minack Theatre in Cornwall which is an amazing place carved into the cliffs near Land’s End. In the play there is a shipwreck scene with a storm. To perform that as the waves were crashing on the rocks was incredible. I learnt so much and I learnt loads of lines too!
You have many theatre credits including The Merry Wives of Windsor at Shakespeare’s Globe. What is it like to perform in such an iconic venue?
Performing at Shakespeare’s Globe is extraordinary. As actors we are used to performing in a theatre in darkness with lights shining on the stage and not really being able to see the audience. At the Globe you can see everybody’s face looking at you, from the groundlings by the stage, to the audience sitting in the other seats in the wooden O. Initially it is very strange, but after a couple of performances I loved it and to be honest, I rather enjoyed picking people out in the audience and doing asides to them. You could look directly at them and engage with them, hopefully they hadn’t dropped off! ‘Merry Wives’ was an amazing experience: a wonderful company and a fine director, Christopher Luscombe.
You toured with The Merry Wives of Windsor, Liberty and Tales of Toad Hall. What did you enjoy most about touring?
Touring is a wonderful way to explore all parts of this great country. The diversity we have in this country is amazing. Each venue throwing up new places to explore and new people to meet. It’s always fascinating and you can never tell which audience will give you the best reaction. I love touring, but obviously with a family, it’s nice to get home after a stretch away. I’ve been lucky enough to tour to the USA a couple of times. Once with the RSC to Washington at The Kennedy Centre and also to LA and New York with Merry Wives, both brilliant experiences.
What advice would you give to any young actor who is about to join their first touring company?
Touring as a young actor should be embraced and take as much in when you visit all the different places and theatres. Try and take something positive from each new venue and experience. But most of all have fun and plenty of laughs along the way.
Acting on stage and television: What is the best aspect of each of them for you?
I like the immediacy of film and television. When you’re filming there is spontaneity and it’s got a freshness. Also you don’t have to retain the lines like you have to do in a play. Live performing is rewarding as you get appreciation at the end of the play (hopefully) with applause. Obviously with this show, you get a few laughs too, if we’re lucky! So that is great to have, it’s a joy to do. But ultimately it’s all about being truthful, believable, be it theatre, film or television. Play the truth, even on ‘Eric and Little Ern’. Honestly!
When did you first get together to perform Eric and Little Ern and how has the partnership evolved?
We both got together for our friends at a Golf club event about ten years ago, mainly because Jonty does a brilliant Eric and I just happened to have short fat hairy legs, and then again in June 2012.
This time a lot of people came up and said ‘you must do something with this‘. So we did. We put together a 30-minute piece and brought an invited audience to see if we could do it and whether they would believe us in the roles. The reaction was fantastic and we ended up adding another 30 minutes and taking it to Edinburgh where the response was unbelievable. We are currently on tour having come up with yet another 30 minutes, which has been the most difficult and yet rewarding thus far. It’s also worth mentioning that we have been best friends for the last thirty years!
You use scenes from the archives of Morecambe and Wise sketches as well as adding your own material. How easy is it to merge the two together? Is there a key factor?
One of the things we discovered is that we could write dialogue as Morecambe and Wise. Merging with some of their sketches was sometimes easy and other times not. Jonty is encyclopaedic on Morecambe and Wise and I have always been a fan but had to watch hours and hours of material. We spoke to many people who knew them but I guess we both became completely obsessive for over a year and we are constantly working and honing the script.
Do you have a favourite comedy routine from Morecambe and Wise?
We both love the flat/bed sketches. There is so much great material and we have watched all there is to watch, but if really pushed, one of the highlights of our show is the paper bag routine.
Is there any material that you would like to replicate but haven’t been able to?
‘The Stripper routine’ is the one we thought about doing but is virtually impossible to recreate on stage!
You performed at the Edinburgh Fringe and received rave reviews. How tough an audience is it at the Fringe?
The audiences in Edinburgh were great and a real surprise. We thought the older audience would appreciate the show, but the demographic was mixed between old and young. And the real delight was it was enjoyed across the board by all. But that’s what Morecambe and Wise did, they crossed all divides and the whole family could sit and watch them.
You are currently on tour before heading to the West End. What can you tell us about the tour and the reaction from audiences?
The tour has touched all corners of the UK. From Devon and back to Edinburgh and much like the audiences we had at the Fringe they were just as diverse and seem to universally love it. Quite a few are very emotional about the show and are surprised at the setting and how the play unfolds. Everyone who knew them has a view on Morecambe and Wise, but the real joy is the younger audience who had no knowledge of them but also rave about the show.
You are at the Vaudeville Theatre from 19th November to 12th January 2014. How excited are you about taking the show into the West End?
Going to the West End is a dream come true for both of us, and we are hugely excited and looking forward to opening at the Vaudeville, which is a beautiful old theatre and perfect for Eric and Little Ern.
Why should everyone come along to see Eric and Little Ern?
You should come if you love Morecambe and Wise and you should come if you know nothing about them because both will learn something about their relationship and will laugh and possibly cry, but mostly laugh, a lot. It is after all about Morecambe and Wise.
Interview questions by Neil Cheesman @LondonTheatre1
You can follow Eric and Little Ern at the official website www.ericandlittleern.com
Photo Credit: Steve Ullathorne
Thursday 7th November 2013