Comedy legend Eric Morecambe always knew how to raise a laugh. We lower the roof on the Cascada and head to his hometown to find out how he almost ended up legless.
Ever hear the one about the bloke who tried to hacksaw through Eric Morecambe’s leg? Eric became so unstable that the council had to take the limb clean off between the boot and the plus four. It might sound like a bad joke, but it’s unfortunately a true story. Since the hacksaw incident, Eric’s been shipped down to London for repair, before being returned to Morecambe. Today we’re driving a Vauxhall Cascada convertible from Luton, home to both Vauxhall’s headquarters and Eric Morecambe’s beloved Luton Town Football Club, to the seaside town from which Eric took his name, to see him reinstalled in his rightful place. We are, of course, hoping for the kind of sunshine that will allow us to test the convertible roof along the way.
John Eric Bartholomew was born in Morecambe, Lancashire, in 1926. As a young lad, he won talent contests and performed at the Nottingham Empire in Youth Takes A Bow. But it wasn’t until he began to perform with Ernie Wiseman, and the two adopted the stage names Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise, that they struck comedy gold: between the early ’60s and mid-’80s, Morecambe and Wise became Britain’s most famous comedy duo. When Eric died aged just 58 in 1984, his hometown chose to honour him with the bronze statue, which was unveiled by the Queen.
Our road trip in the Cascada convertible takes us from Luton – home to both Vauxhall’s headquarters and Eric Morecambe’s beloved Luton Town Football Club – to the north-west seaside resort. We’ll tread the same boards and visit the same spots as Eric and, naturally, pose for snapshots with his statue. We’ll also meet one of Eric’s biggest fans: artist and sculptor Graham Ibbeson, the man who was commissioned to produce his statue some 22 years ago. The forecast looks good, so fingers crossed.
The Cascada is the perfect companion for our trip. Not only are its sleek lines just as appealing with the roof up or down, but it’s practical too, with its spacious and comfortable four-seat interior and large luggage compartment. Five different engines are available, including a pair of 2.0-litre turbo diesels: an entry-level model with 165PS and 54mpg, and a twin-turbocharged range-topper that turns up the wick to 195PS, yet still manages the same incredible 54mpg. You can also choose from 1.4-litre (140PS), 1.6-litre (170PS) or 1.6-litre (200PS) turbocharged petrol engines. We’re driving the 1.4-litre, which is smooth and incredibly quiet, returns 44mpg, and yet still embues the Cascada with a real eagerness.
Enhancing the luxurious feel of our car is its top-of-the-range Elite trim, which builds on the SE model’s 18-inch alloys, cruise control and USB connectivity with heated leather seats and steering wheel, dual-zone climate control and rain-sensing wipers. We’ve also got the optional FlexRide suspension system, with its three settings to suit your mood as well as the road conditions: Tour, Normal and Sport.
I snuggle back into the optional perforated tan leather seats, set the cruise control for 70mph, press Tour, and key ‘Morecambe’ into the sat-nav system. After a few hours’ easy driving, we arrive on Morecambe seafront, still feeling relaxed and fresh. The tide is in, waves lap up against the shore, and across the bay the Lakeland peaks are ghosted against a cloud-speckled sky. It’s a breathtakingly beautiful view, and we drive around with the roof down, taking photos, enjoying the extra connection to the elements that topless motoring brings.
The first parking space for the Cascada is reserved outside the Winter Gardens theatre – you might recognise the building from the BBC film Eric and Ernie. The Winter Gardens is a hugely significant part of the comedy duo’s story: Eric’s mum and dad met here at a dance, and a period theatre poster reveals Morecambe and Wise performed there during the 1958 summer season.
“The Winter Gardens is a hugely significant part of the comedy duo’s story: Eric’s mum and dad met here”
Inside, we meet founding member of The Friends, Evelyn Archer. She takes us on an enthusiastic tour of the theatre with its grand staircase, intricate decoration, high-arched ceiling and original wooden flooring. The restoration relies entirely on voluntary work and charitable donations and much remains to be done, yet part of the charm is being able to see it largely as it was when Morecambe and Wise performed here.
It’s time to explore Morecambe in the Vauxhall Cascada, cruising the promenade then heading for Heysham village, just a couple of miles down the coast, a quaint little seaside town that let Morecambe do the glitz and glam. With the sun breaking out from behind the clouds, we press a button and again drop the roof. It’s a theatrical transformation: the windows sink down, the rear deck lifts up, the roof glides back from the windscreen and quickly folds away beneath the raised rear deck, which then covers it again. It’s a clever, well-integrated system, with an electric mechanism that’s notably quiet. You can also choose from four fabric colours – Black, Chino, Malbec Red and Sweet Mokka – and 11 exterior colours.
Our appointment with sculptor Graham Ibbeson is rapidly approaching. Ibbeson has produced over 30 public sculptures, including Laurel and Hardy and Cary Grant, and, when we meet him in Eric’s Café, he tells us how it all began.
“After Eric died, the local paper started a campaign for a fitting memorial, and it began to gain momentum,” he remembers. “I had the chance to compete for the job, made a fibreglass mould, travelled up the next day and got the job.”
“The police cordoned Eric off and had to cut through the subframe to take him down and make him safe”
The statue was completed in 1999 and Eric continued to beam broadly until October 2014, when sadly a man attempted to remove the statue by hacksawing through Eric’s leg over a couple of nights. He was later arrested, and police removed the statue for safety reasons. “Tourists were still coming to photograph the remaining boot!” laughs Ibbeson. “I think Eric would have seen the funny side of that.”
The AB Fine Art Foundry prioritised Eric’s repairs, and quickly got to work. They did such a good job that even when you look closely, the joins between new and old metal are impossible to spot. Outside, we see that Eric is now back in place, his distinctive pose standing out against the blue sky. Workmen gather around him to lay fresh tarmac as a crowd looks on impatiently, waiting for a chance to once again get up close.
Half an hour or so later, Ibbeson gives Eric one final, proud polish before the crowds swarm around him. With the sun dipping to the horizon, we raise the Cascada’s roof one last time and head back towards Luton. Every cloud has a silver lining, and after near-disaster, it looks like Eric Morecambe will be bringing sunshine to his home town’s seafront for many decades to come.