Smith of the Star: Bringing sunshine to Eric & Ern’s act

Ernie Wise and Eric Morecambe.
Ernie Wise and Eric Morecambe.
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SHE WAS a mystery third member of British entertainment’s best-loved double act.

Jean Bamforth, dancer, acrobat and daughter of a Sheffield pit deputy, was the woman who, for a while, made Morecambe and Wise into a trio.

Morecambe, Bamforth and Wise didn’t last for long and few recall the role that Jean played in the genesis of the comedy duo whose magic still captivates us 40 years after their TV peak.

But Jean’s remarkable story can be re-told after her last surviving relative in Sheffield discovered pictures of her in her Music Hall heyday.

Child star Jean was discovered at age 12 performing in a children’s matinee show at Sheffield’s Lyceum Theatre.

Radio and Variety star Jack Hylton happened to be appearing at the nearby Empire and was looking for talented variety acts for shows he sent all over Britain.

One rainy afternoon he went to the Lyceum to shelter from the wet and spotted Jean on stage. He sent a note to the stage manager asking to meet “the parents of the wonderful acrobatic dancer”.

She was offered a spot there and then in a show called Bandbox at the London Palladium, where Tommy Trinder was the compere.

Jean appeared in her first panto at Golders Green in London shortly afterwards and then Hylton sent her on a nationwide tour with a show called “Youth Takes A Bow” in which she teamed up first with Ernie Wise - or Ernie Wiseman and later with Eric Bartholomew - who changed his name to Eric Morecambe.

The trio were eventually billed as Morecambe, Bamforth and Wise.

But Jean’s stage career was almost over before it started if it hadn’t been the determination - and cheek - of her Dad George.

“Jean often talked of her career and how she got started,” said her partner for her last eight years David Edwards, with whom Jean shared a house in Norwich.

“When she was 12 she was wanted on her first tour and her father had to go to the education authorities to get permission for Jean to be taken out of school. “

“She was very bright and the school had high hopes of her going to university.

“At one of the hearings into Jean’s future in 1937 or 1938 a senior teacher said to her dad: ‘What can your daughter possibly earn on the stage?’

“George looked him in the eye and said: ‘About four times the salary you are getting now.’

“She went on the tour and had the same educational tutor as Morecambe and Wise.”

Jean’s father George, like many miners, suffered from the lung disease emphysema and, according to David Edwards, Jean supported her family financially from being 12-years-old, and took them to live in London with her. Although the Morecambe, Bamforth and Wise act never made the big-time, they did enjoy some success, playing the London Palladium and touring as a trio as far as Scotland with their three protective and ambitious mums in tow.

“Morecambe, Bamforth and Wise were a song and dance trio,” said David.

“They did a routine to the song ‘The Waiter, The Porter and The Upstairs Maid.’ Jean was the maid.

“They had great fun together and she was with them for quite some time. Eric used to get up to all sorts of stunts but all fairly innocent. They spent a lot of time together working and travelling and so did their mothers as chaperones. Jean knew Eric and Ernie’s wives Joan and Doreen from before they were married.”

After the trio broke up Jean danced at the Palladium many times and toured the country, performing in shows alongside top stars of the day such as Sheffield comedy duo Jewel & Warris, Arthur Askey, the Crazy Gang and Tommy Trinder.

In the early 1950s Jean was offered a dance troupe of her own by Jack Hylton and she took the Bentley Sisters - named after the luxury car because of their ‘elegance’ - on national tours and appeared at three Royal Command Performances.

Subsequently Jean went solo as a dancer, and was in constant work right up to the early 1960s.

After the birth of her sons, Tim and Simon, and the breakdown in the early 1960s of her marriage to Colin Beaton, a musician who went off to America and left her with two young children to bring up, she was forced to quit show business.

Jean later joined the BBC’s drama costume department, where over 20 years she became head dresser and worked with some of TV’s top stars until her retirement in 1985.

“Jean had some wonderful memories,” said David Edwards.

“She once told me: ‘The most amusing times in those years at the BBC were whenever we had a Morecambe and Wise show to deal with. Eric would always make a point of coming to look for ‘little Jeannie Bamforth’ and making fun of me by recalling hilarious moments from our youth and shouting ‘Come here Beanie’.”

In her later years she left London and moved to Norwich to share a house with David Edwards.

Jean suffered serious head injuries in a fall at her home last October and, having been in and out of hospital since, died on Sunday, aged 87, after suffering a stroke last weekend.

Her younger son, Simon, who as a boy had appeared in the film musical ‘Oliver’, died in April 2011 at the age of 51.

Jean is survived by her elder son, Tim, and her partner David Edwards.

Her cousin Keith Farnsworth, of Grenoside, one of only two remaining Sheffield relatives said: “She often told me in her later years that she dreamed of making a nostalgic trip back to her Sheffield roots, and it was a source of great regret that illness prevented her from coming north.”

Arrangements for Jean’s funeral have not yet been announced.