The party is finally over. Angela Rippon has performed the splits for the last time, and taken a final turn round the floor with Kai Widdrington. She has been glorious on this year’s Strictly Come Dancing, tangoing, waltzing, unleashing a terrifying paso doble, and flying the flag for septuagenarians everywhere. The show’s oldest ever contestant in 20 series has been an inspiration. The one thing she has not been is a surprise.
An hour into The Morecambe & Wise Show on Christmas Day 1976, two words on a blue background announced a News Flash. Viewers were not to know that this was a pun, even as Angela Rippon appeared on the screen looking quite as serious and composed as she ever did reading the Nine O’Clock News.
“A report on the economy has just come through from No 11 Downing Street,” she intoned. “The Chancellor’s statement reads as follows.” So far, so sober – although Rippon’s neckline was plunged suspiciously, and her belt sparkled suggestively.
Viewers were used to celebrities taking the mickey out of themselves on Morecambe & Wise. Earlier in the same episode, Elton John had a stand-up row with his hosts about countermelody. In the preceding sketch John Thaw and Dennis Waterman, the flinty unsmiling stars of The Sweeney, had allowed themselves to be repeatedly sprayed in mud. So the 26 million watching at home will have expected something. But not what followed.
“There may be trouble ahead,” Rippon continued, “but while there’s moonlight” – and in drifted the sound of strings and saxophones – “and music and love” – whereupon her desk pulled apart and the set revealed a huge fluffy flower arrangement between two white columns – “and romance” – at which point Rippon kicked up her legs and stood, as Eric and Ernie leapt in wearing top hats and tails to sing: “Let’s face the music and dance.”
Rippon has done plenty of hoofing since. She presented Come Dancing and danced for Children in Need and Comic Relief. And this year brought Strictly Come Dancing. Yet all of these appearances are rooted in that sensational moment in 1976 when British television’s first regular female newsreader stood up and high kicked in a dress – actually two dresses, one a chiffon skirt with a slit, the other a florid creation with no front at all.
“I was completely overwhelmed by the reaction,” she says, 46 years on. “I just was. It was way beyond anything that I had expected. I had no benchmark against which I could judge it. It just absolutely kind of exploded. It was just extraordinary.”
It was such a coup getting Rippon to dance, and snooping was so easy within the BBC in those days, that extra measures were taken to keep the news of her participation from spreading. “Back in the day each studio had a viewing gallery,” recalls Bobby Warans, who worked on the show as a props buyer, “so you could go in and see what was in rehearsal. I remember they shut all the studio doors so nobody knew about it apart from the immediate production team.”
Rippon had been a familiar face since the previous year. The concept of a woman reading the BBC news was such a novelty that the audience at the Royal Variety Performance were in on the joke as Max Bygraves handed viewers back to watch the nine o’clock bulletin. “She hasn’t got any legs, you know,” he quipped. “They wheel her around on casters.”
A similar curiosity about Rippon’s lower limbs got into the head of Ernest Maxin, the producer-choreographer of The Morecambe and Wise Show. It started when she showed a relative around the studio as they were recording earlier that year. “It was the first time I’d seen her from there down,” he told Louis Barfe, the author of Sunshine and Laughter: The Story of Morecambe and Wise. “I’d had coffee with her in the canteen, but she was always sat down. And on the Nine O’Clock News, she was always from there up. Now I saw these gorgeous legs.”
Rippon has no memory of this. In her recollection, the first she heard of the idea was in a phone call. “I was in the newsroom on the sixth floor at BBC TV Centre and the phone rang and this man on the end of the line said, ‘I’m Eric and Ern’s producer. The boys would like you to be in their Christmas show.’ I screeched, I think. ‘What!’ ‘Can you sing?’ ‘Not unless you want to clear the studio in 30 seconds, but I think I can probably still dance a little.’ I stopped dancing when I was 17, but like all little girls I wanted to be a ballerina.”
She sought permission from her editor Alan Protheroe. “What are you going to do?” he asked. “I’m not sure yet,” she replied. In fact, according to Barfe’s account, Morecambe was less keen than Wise on the idea, feeling that the show already had its fill of dancing stars. But Maxin furtively arranged for Morecambe to meet her at a cricket lunch at Lords. He came back that evening reassured and privately said to Maxin, “Let’s have Angela Rippon in the show.”
It was only when she got to the BBC’s rehearsal studios in North Acton that Maxin showed her the routine he’d choreographed: the news desk reveal, followed by an introductory ballet, segueing into the slapstick routine performed to A You’re Adorable with the repeated refrain, “But what are we going to do about him?” before ending with a hot Latin barroom finale. Across three weeks there was a total of three hours’ rehearsal. Then on the day itself came a studio rehearsal, a camera rehearsal and finally the recording in front of a live audience.
Bobby Warans, then only 22, is one of the very few people to work on the 1976 Christmas show who is still alive. As the props buyer he worked with the show’s designer Vic Meredith. “Vic would do a visual to show the director and Eric and Ernie and say, ‘Is this what you had in mind?’ He’d then go to the senior contractor to get it built. Then he’d give me my prop list and we’d go out together and choose all the stuff. For Angela Rippon’s dance it fell to him to fill the stage with chiffon drapes and chandeliers, and supply the newsreader’s chair.
Warans would go on to supply props for countless BBC light entertainment shows including The Two Ronnies and, since 2006, Strictly Come Dancing. Morecambe and Wise was his first exposure to TV royalty. “When I first did the show I was in awe,” he recalls. “Over the series Eric and Ernie would get to know your name and you didn’t think of them as stars in the end. It was like a nice club. Nowadays everyone comes with a coach load of hangers-on. In those days they just came on their own. Elton would come on his own and I’m sure he went up to the canteen like everybody else.”
The Rippon routine was far from the biggest section in a show whose lead script writer was Barry Cryer. In a grander spectacle, Maxin indulged Wise’s Hollywood fantasies by recreating Gene Kelly’s dance for Singin’ in the Rain, the gag being that the only water on set poured from drains and awnings onto the head of Morecambe’s bystanding policeman. Elton John appeared not only in his sketch but before the front cloth and sang Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word.
The big centrepiece was A Great World War Epic, co-starring Thaw, Waterman, the glamorous actress Kate O’Mara and a motorcycle stunt team, which dragged on for more than 20 minutes. Even the credits were funny: “Ammunition supplied by Sir Lew Grenade. Music by the Cold Cream Guards under the baton of Lt Col Andrew Preview IOUTWOQUID. (This was a callback gag alluding to André Previn’s famous guest slot five years earlier.)
Despite hiring these bigger showbiz names as guest stars, Maxin intuited that Angela Rippon’s dance was the show’s greatest coup and placed it as a climactic reveal. He also made sure that no one in the BBC could spread the word. “If there was a big musical number that was always shot on a separate day,” Warans recalls, “because it was a much bigger set that covered half the studio.”
There were two takes of all the routine’s sections. Rippon doesn’t remember being nervous. “I’d been doing live television for a long time so I was used to working in front of a live audience. It’s a very very simple routine. Also they were pros to their fingertips. Ernie of course was a dancer. Eric was a good hoofer – he could move to music and make it look good. They were such a joy to work with and they made it fun for me.”
They made it such fun that she (like Elton) returned a year later for the 1977 Christmas show. A line of fourteen can-can dancers in light blue basques and feathery head dresses high kicked in unison. Towards the end of the routine the camera homed in on the left-hand end of the line to reveal Rippon wearing a broad knowing smile as she exited last with a curtsey and a twirl. “That was huge fun!” she recalls.
At the very end of the show, Rippon appeared breathless at a desk, still in costume and blowing a feather out of her hair as she announced the news was to follow. She was in fact scheduled to present the news that night, so viewers saw her staggering off to change and then reappearing moments later as a genuine newsreader.
“We had to do two endings,” she recalls. “We did an entirely different ending so that if it had been something terribly serious in the news we would not have used that.”
Hers was the last face anyone saw on a Morecambe & Wise at the BBC. The news at the end of the 1977 Christmas show was that after a decade at the BBC Morecambe and Wise were off. Bobby Warans heard it first with his colleague, the set designer Vic Meredith, as they were in the lift going up to the sixth floor for a big party. “All of a sudden Eric rushed into the lift and said, ‘Don’t say anything, enjoy yourselves tonight, we’ve signed with Thames.’ We knew before the BBC did.” An era had ended.
Now Rippon is 79 and one of the last surviving links to a golden age of light entertainment. Throughout her tenure on Strictly, those of a certain age will have wondered if she might in some way revisit Maxin’s choreography for Morecambe and Wise. But that was never the plan, she says.
“Why would I want to? I don’t think it would be fair to the memory of Eric and Ern. It stands alone. People keep telling me it’s an iconic moment. Why change it?”
‘Strictly Come Dancing’ continues on BBC One, Nov 25, 7.30pm