I was hoping for an improvement on his part, or in Tim Whitnall’s sloppy, sentimental script, or indeed in my own receptive antennae. But while the impersonation is okay, Golding doesn’t really have the killer finesse of Eric’s movement, nor his aghast, tragic confusion.
It seems incredible to think that he died of his third heart attack - and we get all three laboriously enacted - 25 years ago aged just 58. 28 million people - half the nation - watched the Morecambe and Wise Christmas special one year. Not even the X-Factor comes close today.
But here’s the point. The genius of the double act, as Kenneth Tynan remarked, was that Ernie was the comic who is not funny and Eric was the straight man who is. That subtle role reversal fed the slow burns, Ernie’s blithe indifference to his own deficiencies, the hilarity of the blank wall.
There was also something strangely physical about their pairing, Ernie brusque and dapper, Eric forming strange gargoyles and arabesques around him. It just doesn’t work with a dummy sitting on the sofa in this show. And it doubly doesn’t work as the “liveness” of Golding’s performance is scuppered by his fitting into the recorded soundtrack of laughter and musical accompaniment. An Ernie pianist could have been a gas.
Guy Masterson’s production - elongated with a pointless interval - does at least touchingly display the elision of music hall variety with television light entertainment as the boys progress from Moss Empires and Blackpool summer seasons to their prime time kingdom in a golden age compared to what we get now.
But jokes about Winifred Atwell, Billy Marsh and Lew Grade are only funny to people of a certain age, or to Lionel Blair and Michael Grade, who sat in the stalls (though not together) at the first night. And who now remembers Nobby Stiles and his teeth? (I do, but that’s not the point.)
It’s a plodding narrative, bashed over by Golding with the fervour of one who thinks we need convincing. His show can only be recommended to the faithful who still feel a warm glow at the very mention of Eric’s name. Admittedly, that could be a large crowd at this time of year. I hope they don’t come away feeling too short-changed.