NORMAN GILLER looks back on his sports writing collaborations with some of the nation’s favourite comics
What d’you think of 2013 so far? If you’re from the Eric Morecambe school of thought, you will now be responding with: “Rubbish!”
I had the privilege and delight to work with Eric on a procession of sports columns for the Daily Express and Titbits magazine over a stretch of 10 years. It was my favourite assignment in more than half a century scratching a living with my quill.
We became close buddies and he remains the funniest man I ever interviewed. I always remember our first column together when Don Revie was named as England manager in 1974.
“What would you do, Eric, if you were in Don Revie’s shoes?”
“Walk with a limp, sunshine. They’re a size too small.”
We were off and running. It was the easiest job I ever had. Just ask the question and Eric would roll out an answer that made writing the columns a joy.
My old friend is vivid in the memory with the return to the national headlines of FA Cup giantkillers Luton Town. Back in their Football League days Eric was a director and later club president, and used to wear a Luton shirt in several Morecambe and Wise sketches.
He insisted on his share of the fees for our columns being paid directly to Luton Town. “They need it more than I do,” he said, which is perhaps not such a joke since their decline and fall into the Conference.
How did I get Eric to agree to the venture? Simple. I wrote to him with a dummy column and asked if he would be interested in putting his name to it. “A wonderful idea, madam,” was the response from Eric, who always introduced me to friends as “Norma, whom I have known and avoided for many years.” Then I pitched the idea to my old Express paymasters, and sports editor Ken Lawrence gave us a platform for what became an enormously popular column that ceased only with dear Eric’s death in 1984.
There were rewards apart from our fees. We went to Paris and Barcelona together for European Cup matches, and it was a laugh a minute all the way. Lovely Eric never learned the art of switching off and would clown throughout the trips.
I introduced him to the then Leeds manager Jimmy Armfield before the 1975 European Cup final against Bayern Munich in Paris, and within minutes Jimmy had Eric in the dressing-room joking around and getting his players relaxed.
It all ended in tears, with Leeds banned from Europe for four years after their fans had rioted following the ruling out by the referee of what looked a perfectly good goal. That was one of my more difficult challenges, trying to write a funny account of a match that scarred the Beautiful Game.
I have always had a comedy writer fighting to get out, and I wrote columns with several of the masters including Tommy Cooper and Benny Hill, among the few who were in Eric’s league. Benny and I became good pals and he used to send me postcards showing football grounds whenever he went off on his lone tours through Europe.
Throughout my writing life, I’ve always been drawn to comedians who love their sport, and there is nobody more knowledgeable and fanatical than Jimmy Tarbuck (a namedropper, moi?). He had just made the breakthrough as host of Sunday Night At the London Palladium (a sort of Britain’s Got Talent for the 1960s, but with acts that really did have talent) when I arranged for him to train with Tommy Docherty’s 1965 Chelsea team for an Express photo feature.
A skilled footballer, Jimmy would have swapped all his comedy fame to play for Liverpool. After his training session with Chelsea, I drove him to a gig that he had at the Savoy Hotel and managed to get us lost. I didn’t tell him that I had only passed my driving test a week earlier.
I was concentrating so hard on my navigation that when he asked me how I rated Liverpool defender Willie Stevenson, I replied: “A greatly under-rated player and I can’t understand why Alf Ramsey hasn’t picked him.” Jimmy has never let me forget that he replied nice and causally: “Perhaps it could have something to do with the fact that he’s as Scottish as haggis.”
Brian Klein – Top Gear director and CEO of On the Box Productions – and I worked together with virtually every top comedian in the land in the 1990s when co-producing a weekly 63-show series for Sky called Stand and Deliver.
During the shooting of the Bernard Manning programme, he was letting rip with some ripe language, and director Brian sent me on stage while he was in full flow to ask him to cut out the “eff” word. Bernard looked at me wide-eyed and said, “But that’s what I do. Now eff off.”
It completed a remarkable win double for me. The night before I had been working as a scriptwriter on John Virgo’s This Is Your Life tribute. One of the guests was the explosive Alex “Hurricane” Higgins, and I was informed just before the show was about to start that he was refusing to leave the Anchor pub next door to Teddington Studios.
Once again it was director Brian Klein who sent me into the lion’s den, and I was assigned to try to coax Alex to come into the studio. “Eff off,” a well-oiled Higgins said, miming as if to throw the bottle he was holding at my head. Eventually he arrived with the show half way through and he delivered his lines perfectly as if he was stone cold sober.
So in the space of 24 hours I asked Alex Higgins to leave a pub and went on stage to ask Bernard Manning to stop using the F word. This writing lark can be dangerous!
But back to the king, Eric Morecambe. I once took him to Fleet Street’s historic Cheshire Cheese pub for lunch with Express editor Alistair Burnett, sports editor Ken Lawrence and genial cartoonist genius, Roy Ullyett, who used to illustrate our columns.
Eric made the mistake of keeping pace with heavy Scotch drinker Burnett, and when the London air hit him as we left the Cheese, his legs decided to betray him. There was a 15-minute farce of me holding Eric up against the wall of the Telegraph building while waiting for his chauffeur, Michael, who had been delayed in traffic.
We gathered a huge crowd, falling about laughing as they watched what they thought was a Morecambe and Wise sketch, with Eric clowning and playing to the audience. It took a long time for Eric’s gorgeous wife, Joan, to forgive me for sending him home legless.
What a lucky boy I was to work with the Master. And how the tense and abusive football world could do with his humour today.
What d’you think of it so far?
- www.normangillerbooks.com for the Bobby Moore: The Master. All profits to the Bobby Moore Cancer Fund
- Entry forms for the 2012 SJA British Sports Journalism Awards are now available. Entries have to be submitted by January 28. You can download the forms by clicking here.