Morecambe and Wise were the best-loved comic act on television for years, but behind the scenes was another double act; Morecambe and Fountain.
For 14 years, Mike Fountain was the comedian’s chauffeur, handyman and loyal friend to Eric and his family.
Now Mike has told the story of those years in his book ‘Driving Mr Morecambe’ which opens up the private life of Eric Bartholomew, the entertainer who adopted the name of his Lancashire home town.
Some biographies of the rich and famous go in for scandal and muckraking, drink and demons, but Michael Fountain tells a story of a man who honestly believed his duty in life was to make people laugh, a devoted family man whose personal life reflected his loveable stage persona.
Eric’s widow Joan joined Mike for the book’s recent launch, and children Gary Morecambe and Gail Stuart have endorsed it with forewords.
Mike’s job as chauffeur to Eric came after a series of coincidences for the lad from Harpenden, Herts. He was working as a postman in Harpenden and became a part-time driver for a car hire company as a sideline to earn some extra cash. He quit delivering mail to go driving full-time, and when the company owner retired he sank all his money into buying the business with a colleague.
Eric Morecambe and his family lived in Harpenden, where Eric used Mike’s car service for the first time. Mike recalls: “I don’t know really what I expecting but he certainly wasn’t what people might consider a high-flying star. He wasn’t pompous or evasive, he didn’t think he was better than you; he was a normal, down-to-earth person. The only way he differed from everyone else was his humour. He had a lightning-quick wit and it took me a while to actually get up to his speed of thinking.”
Eric’s wife Joan would telephone to make the arrangements, and Mike would often drive them to London or up to Morecambe.
At the time, in the late 1960s, Morecambe and Wise were one of the biggest acts on TV, and were about to switch from ATV to the BBC. Although the BBC wanted to provide a driver for Eric, he insisted on having someone he knew and Mike’s company got the contract.
Eric had suffered his first heart attack and everyone was worried about how their first show for the BBC would go.
Mike recalls: “Eric must have been worried but the first line, the single most important line probably he ever delivered, completely changed the atmosphere. Eric glanced down at his chest, patted it gently and said: ‘Keep going, you fool’… The whole room breathed a single huge sigh of relief, the tension had gone and the show could start.”
So began one of television’s most successful and long running series, with audiences of up to 28 million and critical acclaim, but Eric would still worry and seek Mike’s opinion on how the show had gone.
The contract Mike’s firm had with the BBC was about to run out when Eric called in at their depot. “He was cheerful and looking healthy and we assumed it was to say thank you and goodbye… in a few short moments he would ask me a single question that would turn my life upside down. ‘Would you like to come and work full time for me, Michael?’ he said, smiling.”
It would mean Mike giving up the firm he had worked so hard to build up. “It took me all of two seconds to answer Eric’s question and the rest of the day to worry about it. It would change my life forever.”
Thus began a partnership which saw Mike drive Eric to and from the BBC studios in London and to theatres all over the country and sharing Eric’s family life. As well as chauffeur, Mike was gardener, handyman and dog-sitter, but above all a family friend.
He also credits Eric for saving his life by being the first to spot that the indigestion pains he was suffering from were symptoms of heart trouble similar to Eric’s own.” I explained about the pain, the indigestion and joked that I was surprised he hadn’t heard the large quantity of pills rattling about inside me. With a rather worried look on his face, he retreated back into the house and quickly called his private consultant and booked me in to see him the next day. After the tests came back from Harefield Hospital, the consultant informed me that I had suffered a heart attack.
“It was Eric who had saved my life, something I so wish I could have done in return. He had seen me having difficulties and noticed something was not right. He could have easily ignored it, passed it off as just a strain or even indigestion. He didn’t, that was not Eric; he always took an interest and always looked out for other people. Thanks to his quick actions I am here, the operation went well and after a few months I was back to work, bucket full of soapy water and a sponge in my hand, never happier.”
When Eric’s Jensen Interceptor sports car became obviously inadequate for ferrying people about, Mike became the proud driver of Eric’s first Rolls-Royce, a Silver Shadow in shell grey. Then in the mid-70s Eric got rid of it – he’d never liked the colour – and bought his second Rolls, a brand new Silver Shadow in metallic brown, bearing the distinctive number plate EM100.
Waiting for Eric, Mike spent hours in the car listening to Eric’s collection of eight-track tapes, including Shirley Bassey, Glenn Miller, Andy Williams, and surprisingly Frank Zappa.
Mike recalls that the only time he saw Eric really angry was when a vandal snapped the silver-plated ‘Spirit of Ecstasy’ figure from the radiator grille while the car was parked outside the Guild Hall at Preston. Both cars have survived, and Mike was there when the first Rolls was unveiled last year after renovation.
One of Mike’s most memorable occasions was when he drove Eric and family to Buckingham Palace for his OBE. “If Eric had any nerves on the day, he didn’t show them, and he obliged the waiting crowds with a stream of jokes and calmly gave interviews o various television and radio stations. It had, as it normally did with Eric, turned into another impromptu show.”