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Last of the Summer Wine

OH LOOK, Compo tries to catch a glimpse of Nora Batty’s night attire and then ends up in a bath on wheels careering down a hill. To the casual viewer, LOTSW seemed to take place half a mile down the road from the similarily libidinous fuelled antics of Arkwright in Open All Hours. Indeed both series began transmission in the same year and both sprang forth from the pen of ROY CLARKE. To most, it’s been one long, unchanging thirty seven year Sunday night monolith of placid Pennines, plaintive harmonicas, wrinkled stockings and gravity-driven porcelain. But familiarity has bred not only (in a few cases) contempt, but a gross simplification of the four very distinct ages of Summer Wine.

1) WAITING FOR FOGGO (1973-5)

Building on the moderately successful Comedy Playhouse pilot The Last of the Summer Wine, which did reasonable business despite being buried in the unforgiving wilderness of early January, the first two series paired Norman Clegg (PETER SALLIS) and Compo Simmonite (BILL OWEN) with MICHAEL BATES’ austere, authoritarian Blamire, for a series of bucolic, rambling ‘second childhood’ picaresques, in which the trio would hang about in and out of Holmfirth much as proper teenagers would have done if there’d been any, reminiscing, arguing, and generally mucking about. Even by Clarke’s slow burning standards, this was gentle comedy indeed, with few belly laughs to be had, or even outright gags: if your stomach makes involuntary spasms at the sound of the words “bittersweet character comedy”, look away now. But for all that, this early incarnation was pleasant enough, and it’s still worth catching when it scuds idly by on the cable channels, not least for the surprise “I don’t remember it being this political!” moments when staunch Tory Blamire locks ideological horns with a very bolshy socialist Compo in deserted churchyards, with Clegg, as ever, caught uneasily between the two.

2) A DRINK NOW TO MELLOW DAYS (1976-85)

Faltering health saw Bates out and BRIAN WILDE’s bluff ex-serviceman Foggy Dewhurst in, initially giving a softer edge to the three-way al fresco bickering under the aegis of comedy supremo Sydney Lotterby. The supporting cast of locals was built up, augmenting the already long-serving trio of cafe owner Sid (JOHN COMER), curtain-twitching Ivy (JANE FREEMAN) and the inevitable gargoyle on the front steps that was Nora Batty (KATHY STAFF). But still, it was mainly about your three rambling duffers, traversing hill and dale in an already set-in-stone format. Changes, however, were afoot. For the 1981 Christmas special, two things happened: the theme tune gained lyrics (which didn’t catch on), and a new producer in the form of populist Hitch-Hiker’s fan hate figure Alan JW Bell (who did). Bell upped the comedy clowning ante, eliding Owen’s already noted ability to fall off a dry stone wall in a hundred different positions with Foggy’s idle dreams of restaging the D-Day landings once a week. Increasingly outlandish Compo-carrying contraptions were manufactured from waste materials, among which, it must be said, tin baths did feature once or maybe twice. But viewers were still mainly there for the to-and-fro bickering, now got down to a fine art by Clarke, even if it was already getting a tad formulaic. (The ‘sounds like a gag but it isn’t’ repetitive whimsical construction, e.g. “I’m quite partial myself to an Eccles cake. It sets you up for the day, does an Eccles cake” was guaranteed to crop up around once every ten minutes.) The slapstick did one important thing – it got the kids watching, and thus the whole family. Perhaps most importantly, a move from midweek to Sunday nights helped cement that homely, mellow quality. (Or exacerbate that hatefully drab, purgatorial, it’s-either-this-or-draw-a-diagram-of-a-pigging-glacier-for-tomorrow irritation, depending on your age.) Compo and Nora turned up in character on every BBC show going, from Pebble Mill to Crackerjack to It’s a Knockout to that sure sign a sitcom has arrived, the 1984 Royal Variety Performance. A brand was slowly, quietly forged in the Holmfirth hills. It was all – literally – downhill from here.

3) THREE BLOKES IN A BATH (1986-90)

Wilde, by many accounts never the most joyous of actors to work with, ups sticks and leaves in a huff soon after his name slips down the running order in the Radio Times. The Holy Trinity is rent asunder. It seems all is lost. Then Bell has the bright idea of simply bunging in MICHAEL ALDRIDGE as Seymour Utterthwaite, basically a Foggy clone with inventing rather than military planning as his shtick, and everything carries on as usual. Then Wilde comes back, and everything carries on as if everything hadn’t previously been carrying on as usual. Owen gets too old to do stunts himself. The repertory cast is expanded with the addition of THORA HIRD’s respectable gossip Evie and perennially outed rural canoodlers Howard and Marina, the latter of whom seems to have once had a thing for Cleggy. (“Eee, Norman Clegg, tha’ was!”) First of the Summer Wine, featuring the youthful escapades of the gang, and thus surely missing the point of the original series in the first place, comes and goes to little interest, but the brand rolls on undaunted. It becomes clear to all that only a nuclear war will put an end to the franchise, and every other comedy starts to take the piss out of it as a matter of course.

4) IS THAT STILL ON? (1991-2010)

Time, inevitably, starts to catch up with the programme. Wilde checks out in 1997, to be replaced by FRANK THORNTON’s Truly Truelove. The casting of the locals heads down progressively more familiar paths, with the likes of STEPHEN LEWIS, ELI WOODS and JIM BOWEN drafted in. Come the new millennium, the unthinkable happens, and Owen finally snuffs it. Much talk wafts round the media of how the show can’t possibly go on. To nobody’s surprise at all, the show goes on, with a brief bit of continuity provided by Owen’s son Tom as Compo’s son, er, Tom. By now the series has reached the same shapeless years of perambulating dotage as its protagonists, drifting from Sunday to Sunday without care or purpose, picking up stray retired comic actors en route. Look, there’s BURT KWOUK! Here comes BRIAN MURPHY! Isn’t that NORMAN WISDOM? My God, it’s DORA BRYAN! CANNON AND BALL, as I live and breathe! And so indestructibly on, until the Beeb finally decide to pull the plug for, seemingly, no greater reason than that RUSS ABBOTT’s joined it, thus depriving us of seeing Ardal O’Hanlon, Lee Mack and Peter Serafinowicz in 2030 going downhill on a rusty old iPad or something. Feelings as to its ultimate passing can, we think, best be described as ‘mixed’.

29 Comments

29 Comments

  1. paulus - bangkok

    June 3, 2010 at 5:30 am

    Never liked it.
    An idealised figment of a Britian that never was; and never will be.

  2. Mr Grimsdale

    June 3, 2010 at 8:49 am

    When I get old, I want to end up like that.

    For me the classic era was Sallis, Owen, Wilde.

    One character isn’t mentioned in the spiel above; Keith Clifford as Billy Hardcastle the Robin Hood man. A bit of a minor genius characterisation

  3. Chris Hughes

    June 3, 2010 at 11:29 am

    “Depriving us of seeing Ardal O’Hanlon, Lee Mack and Peter Serafinowicz in 2030 going downhill on a rusty old iPad.”

    I would happily watch this.

  4. Chris Hughes

    June 3, 2010 at 11:40 am

    Oh, and one other thing about the present incarnation of the show that makes casual Sunday night channel surfers ask “er, when did this happen?” is the presence of Mick from Brookside.

  5. MartS

    June 3, 2010 at 12:35 pm

    And here’s something.
    Has the producer/director Alan JW Bell ever produced or directed any other programme?
    I cannot recall seeing his name in the credits of anything else.

    Maybe the BBC should have given him the last episode of Ashes To Ashes to direct. A bunch of characters stuck in there own world, dead, and thinking it’s 25 years previously…

    ..it would be home from home for him.

    • TV Cream

      June 4, 2010 at 10:37 am

      As hinted above, The Bell is infamous for SINGLE-HANDEDLY RUINING the TV version of Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (actually, that sounds like something of an exaggeration to us, but diehard fandom will not be denied). Conversely, he also helmed There’s A Lot of It About, the Spike Milligan series that people who normally can’t stand Q seem to find rather watchable. So the ‘populist’ thing cuts both ways.

      Oh, and it says here he was behind The Clairvoyant, which was, er, neither popular nor a cult. So that’s that theory knackered.

  6. Applemask

    June 4, 2010 at 4:19 pm

    Don’t forget Wyatt’s Watchdogs! Oh, too late.

  7. Glenn A

    June 4, 2010 at 5:28 pm

    It might appear to be a bit of a timewarp piece now, but in the early eighties was nearly as popular as Coronation St and had fans in all age groups. It might have gone off the boil in recent years, but in its heyday was very funny.

  8. gerard_wiley

    June 5, 2010 at 10:42 pm

    I saw a recent episode and the vast number of characters was ridiculous. Confusingly, there’s now two versions of the three-man line-up doubling-up in the same show. Trio A is Russ Abbot, Burt Kwouk and Brian Murphy. Trio B was the bespectacled Barry character, plus Trevor Bannister and Bill Owen’s real-life son. Neither captured the spirit of the original triumvirate.

    Peppered throughout were incongruous studio-bound scenes with Frank Thornton and Peter Sallis. Outdoor-filming insurance for actors over 80 is eye-wateringly expensive, so this was the solution (as was reported at the time).

    All in all, a sitcom that was way past its best (by some decades), and increasingly costly to make given all the ‘talent’ Roy Clarke was churning-out lines for.

  9. David Smith

    June 6, 2010 at 6:10 am

    What I could never stand with LOTSW was that grating Ronnie Hazlehurst(-esque?) playing ocer practically every scene… (or it seemed like it)

  10. David Smith

    June 6, 2010 at 6:12 am

    Sorry – grating RH *music* playing *over* practically every scene…

  11. Mr Grimsdale

    July 26, 2010 at 10:30 am

    Just watched (or tried to) the first edition of the final series. Please don’t show the rest of them, (in the way ITV cancel series which aren’t successful after two episodes). This wasn’t funny to a spectacular degree. Sallis and Thornton appeared as token gestures in an apparently unconnected programme.

    I used to be a big fan, but this could ruin all the memories.

  12. Arthur Nibble

    August 30, 2010 at 10:52 pm

    Having not watched for a year or four, I made it my duty to watch the very last episode (like I watched the very last Eldorado, but that was the only episode I saw of that series).

    I didn’t realise that Peter Sallis, who must be 108 by now, had been relegated to a secondary role behind the new power trio of Russ ‘Atmosphere’ Abbot, Brian ‘Mildred!’ Murphy and Bert ‘Oriental Compo’ Kwouk. The show was amiable enough without being hilarious or terrible, the scenery was beautiful as ever, and there was actually one gag I can’t remember which made me laugh out loud for a few seconds.

    The concept was on its last legs (as were most of the cast, to be cruelly honest) and it needed to end, but I agree with Bill Owen’s son – reduced to a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ appearance in the last show – that maybe a few loose ends should have been tidied up and the last show could have been more celebratory.

    Last of the Summer Wine? Not a vintage at the end, but certainly palatable. Cheers for the memory.

  13. Tony Hannan

    August 31, 2010 at 12:40 pm

    MartS – re Alan Bell. Alan Bell has actually directed quite a few things down the years, the best of which being the classic Golden Gordon football episode of Ripping Yarns.

    There’s a (lengthy) previously unpublished chapter about the comedy history of Holmfirth and Last of the Summer Wine here: http://tonyhannan.wordpress.com/2010/08/02/of-sweet-short-days-bitter-days-now-all-drunk-up/ if anyone is interested

  14. Gordon Ridout

    August 31, 2010 at 4:10 pm

    I also watched the last episode, and made it to the end. It was truly mystifying. I can accept the fact the ongoing ‘Howard and Marina’ plot of this season may have left me confused as I hadn’t seen the previous five episodes, but the whole thing was so disjointed and oddly structured (cutting away to a different location for two ‘funny’ lines and then straight back to the scene as was, for example) that it actually appeared that there was No Plot. Or, if not No Plot then very definitely No Structure. And, as for the dialogue employed… well, it’s obviously written in the English language, but appeared to be in some idiom of which I am completely unaware.

    I do remember enjoying this show enormously, with ‘Getting Sam Home’ as perhaps its finest hour (and a half), but based on this episode I was just completely boggled. I can’t say I thought it was brilliant, or dreadful, or anywhere in between. It was like looking at a programme made in another continent: in a language I don’t understand and full of social signifiers that I could never hope to recognise. There are probably tribes remote from western civilisation that have a better chance of hearing Haydn’s ‘Creation’ for the first time and understanding that it pertains to God and Christianity than I or any of my friends have of decoding what on earth anyone was talking about in the (Very?) Last of the Summer Wine. Or why, or where, it was supposed to be funny.

    Sorry.

  15. Rob Johnson

    September 9, 2010 at 6:45 pm

    If ever a show went on too long it was this. By the end only watched by the ancient and confused.

  16. Zastrozzi

    May 31, 2011 at 12:25 am

    While we’re sticking the boot into Bell, can I add that he justified his cancellation of The Goodies on the grounds that he didn’t have money to spare after making Hitch-Hikers? Idiot.

  17. Lee James Turnock

    August 26, 2011 at 5:15 pm


    Zastrozzi:

    While we’re sticking the boot into Bell, can I add that he justified his cancellation of The Goodies on the grounds that he didn’t have money to spare after making Hitch-Hikers? Idiot.

    Alan JW Bell didn’t cancel the Goodies, that was the work of John Howard Davies.

    • Glenn A

      August 8, 2017 at 9:56 am

      The Goodies went poor, their last series for the BBC was dire and unfunny( the Saturday Night Fever episode was three years out of date, poor for a comedy trio who were normally very contemporary). I actually think their short spell at LWT was a lot better, particularly the episode where they were stuck in the Scottish Highlands and couldn’t get out the cottage due to the rain.
      TBH the BBC never knew what to do with The Goodies, mostly running their shows on BBC2 and then repeating them on BBC1, and then cutting the budget.Bill Oddie did complain that the Corporation seemed to see them as children’s entertainers when they really were subversive comedians and some of their shows, like the one with the South African piaon, actually had a serious message. Also prime period Goodies, 1972-76, were genuinely funny and those of us of a certain age will always smile at Ecky Thump and Black Pudding Bertha.

      • Richard16378

        August 8, 2017 at 6:50 pm

        The Goodies humour seemed to be a mixture of the comical & smutty, even more so in their extra-TV works like The Goodies File.

        I imagine the Saturday Night Fever episode was written to be made earlier, but they had a gap of a year or 2 between series.

        Supposedly someone high up in the BBC made sure there were no repeats or home releases of Goodies episodes for many years.

        • Droogie

          August 9, 2017 at 1:29 am

          Indeed. Jane Root – the controller of BBC 2 through the late 90’s and Noughties said the Goodies would only be repeated over her dead body. ( she had a similar dislike of repeating Spike Milligan too.) I

  18. Palitoy

    August 30, 2011 at 11:30 am

    Neatly, gently, affectionately savaged by Vic Reeves, Bob Mortimer and Matt Lucas in C.1998’s BBC promo “And it’s up hill and down dale with three men in a bath”. I concur with the above – ‘Sallis, Owen and Wilde’ were the classic trio and after Owen and Wilde’s passing it simply wasn’t the same. Owen’s son? A revolving door of vintage BBC character actors pumped into the dying thing like quickly clotting blood. Who’d have thought, in late eghties Britain, that the ‘She Devil’ would have landed on their Hovisland in the voluptuously amazonian form of Julie T Wallace?
    Maybe the BBC should have handed over scripting duties to Linehan and Matthews – or even Vic and Bob and Higson – that would have been interesting. I think the writing would have been where fresh blood was needed.

  19. Richard16378

    August 30, 2011 at 1:32 pm

    I never thought it was the same after Bill Owen’s death & Brian Wilde leaving.

  20. George White

    October 12, 2013 at 12:13 pm

    ” thus depriving us of seeing Ardal O’Hanlon, Lee Mack and Peter Serafinowicz in 2030 going downhill on a rusty old iPad or something”
    They could always revive it – Last of the Summer Wine 2030 AD
    Begins with three mates, Callaghan or Calla (O’Hanlon, an ex-IRA man, his incongruous ex-British Army mate, and veteran of both Gulf Wars, “Fog” (Serafinowicz) and Lee Mack’s “Si” Simonite, who roll down a hill in a Bond-esque weaponised bath (Fog having elements of Seymour) with blades, tank tracks, laser beams, darts, satellite GPS, so on,only to find the burning remains of Holmfirth.
    Beverly Callard is Aunty Wainwright, here the Auntie Entity-esque Commander of a Bartering Station in an old Community Centre.

  21. Trottie True

    March 13, 2014 at 11:35 pm

    re: previous comments
    paulus – bangkok – “Never liked it.
    An idealised figment of a Britian that never was; and never will be.” – I know I’m about four years late, but I’d be interested in anyone elaborating on this. (I think Peter Sallis once said much the same, actually.)

    Mr Grimsdale – “When I get old, I want to end up like that.” Ditto! In fact I’m young and want to be like that, although I suspect the inconvenient truth Paulus alludes to is quite likely the case. I have heard it said that that LOTSW depicted a fast vanishing way of life, but I think even if that theory was properly investigated, I might have to admit it’s a world that never existed.

    I think that world is why I now find myself drawn to it: as a teenager, it was gloomy Sunday nights before school, and the oft-repeated clips of baths rolling down hills, and I came to the conclusion it SIMPLY WASN’T FUNNY. Then I became a bit jaded with 21st century Britain, and developed an affection for t’North, especially Yorkshire, and put on the Freeview repeats in the background, finding it oddly comforting, if not actually comedic. Having now sat down to watch a few properly, I conclude that when the writing is decent, it’s definitely LOL-funny. I’ve even been pleasantly surprised by Phase 4 of the show as you describe, in the current episodes airing on Drama/Yesterday from that period. I remember a friend getting me to watch the final episode on iPlayer at the time, and I don’t remember it being great, but I’m now quite intrigued to see the whole last series and re-evaluate it, especially in the light of the above comments. Can it be *that* bad?

    It’s interesting that Glenn A points out that it was almost on a par with Corrie in terms of popularity in the 1980s. What I find interesting is that the show did seem to exist in its own bubble, going on undaunted through the 1980s and alternative comedy, and into the increasingly youth-dominated pop culture of the 90s and 00s. While Britpop made the front pages, the set-up in Holmfirth stayed the same. And I think that’s why it is a nostalgic comfort blanket now. I think it is a Britain that did and does exist, to an extent – Middle England, especially oop North.

    But yes, in its final years, it did seem to turn into the BBC Retirement Home for Sitcom Actors, often at the expense of ‘reality’: a Cockney (Stephen Lewis) in the Pennines, anyone? It’s interesting how few of the cast are actually Northern, and I think the only Yorkshire-born actor in the show was Jean Fergusson! I think the show without Bill Owen was one thing, but minus the other linchpin, Kathy Staff, it wouldn’t have been the same.

    Lastly, Tony Hannan, shame your article is now gone!

  22. peonybloomer

    July 4, 2015 at 9:12 pm

    My pops and I have been watching the show, an episode every day now since about February. Not everyday but most days. We’re on season 15 and although still a joy to watch, it is slightly different from before… Not as funny, I would say, as previous seasons.

    Although Cyril wasn’t part of the group very long, I feel as if Cyril, Clegg and Compo really are the most natural. I believe that particular group is what LOSW was supposed to be. Every episode was great, but of course, it was also a new series. A shame it did not last long. Foggy was alright and then he grew on my pops and I. Cyril was still better. As well, Seymour was a great addition later. A few seasons after Seymour left, it was good but, beginning the season 14, things are slowing down – immensely.

    With much joy, after we complete the series, I will enjoy watching the first with the original group.

  23. Glenn A

    August 7, 2017 at 8:17 pm

    Bill Owen and Brian Wilde hated each other, it went from political views( Owen being staunchly Labour and making Labou PPBs and Wilde being a Conservative) to a clash of personalities, with Owen being rather brash and Wilde being very serious. From many accounts, though, both men were difficult to work with and poor old Peter Sallis RIP had to be the peacemaker.

  24. Richard16378

    August 7, 2017 at 8:59 pm

    I heard they had difficulties with the stage version (which every other sitcom seemed to have in the 1980s) due to Bill Owen and Brian Wilde not wanted to appear together.

    • Glenn A

      August 8, 2017 at 3:14 pm

      @ Richard 16378, it’s well known in comedy that some actors fall out, Harry H Corbett hated working with Wilfred Brambell because he was gay and too upper crust in real life, Bewes and Bolam haven’t spoken since 1976, and more recently, Kim Cattrall and Sarah Jessica Parker are known not to speak to each other. Even comedy double acts have fallen out, Mike and Bernie Winters fell out in 1978 over money and Mike Winters emigrated, and Cannon and Ball fell out for a time when their television show ended.

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