It’s been gone now for four years, the longest running sitcom in the world, the series that everyone, except its audience, loved to hate. In 2010, the BBC killed off Last of the Summer Wine, and millions cheered to think that never again would they have to not watch a programme they despised as ‘three old men sliding down a hillside on a tea tray’. Meanwhile, a regular audience in excess of five million found their viewing diminished in favour of those who wanted something completely unrelated.
I wasn’t one of them, except in that final series, which I watched as much out of defiance. I had been a Last of the Summer Wine fan for many years though, and whilst I’d lost interest in the series in the early Nineties, I’d been a more or less constant viewer for twenty years by then.
The series debuted as part of the BBC’s Comedy Playhouse series, in 1972, but I didn’t pick it up until the first series, loving its gentle, mocking, dialogue and the faint air of absurdity surrounding its three, somewhat downbeat characters.
At its beginning, the series was nothing like as sentimental or silly as it became, and indeed was based on a relatively grim situation. Its set-up was that three men, in their late forties/early fifties, who’d been at school together, were unwillingly re-united by the common factor of unemployment. Blamire (Michael Bates) had retired from his job as a clerk with the local Water Board, Clegg (Peter Sallis) had been made redundant from his job as a lino salesman at the Co-op, and Compo (Bill Owen) (later named as William Simmonite) was a lifelong layabout.
All three were without marital ties: Blamire had never married, Clegg was a recent widower (without children) and Compo’s wife had run off with a chuffing Pole.
This disparate trio found themselves thrown together by the need to fill the long hours of the day as what seemed to be the only three adult males in Holmfirth who were unemployed.
In this early form, the sitcom skilfully utilised the British preoccupation with class that’s underlaid so many successful comedies. Though the trio were all working class, they represented the classic Upper/Middle/Lower stratas within their ranks.
Blamire, a clerk in a (minor) public office, with an undistinguished military background, regarded himself as a cut above his colleagues, and chafed the most at their enforced presence. He was an instinctive Tory, regarding Compo as an emblem of revolution, hot on a fixed society where everyone knew their place, and used a strange, semi-strangulated accent to signify his coming from better stock, except in situations of great stress, when his natural Yorkshire would spill out. Michael Bates was wonderful in the part, and it’s a genuine shame that his (ultimately fatal) illness kept him from continuing after series 2.
Compo, of course, was the working class working class man, ragged and tatty, a perpetual layabout living on tick and the dole, the Ragwoman’s son, preternaturally scruffy in all respects and a staunch Labour voter with an antipathy to toffs, yet also with a need to be ordered about by the authoritarian Blamire.
Clegg, representing the middle class, was shy, retiring and simply didn’t want to get involved. Between the three characters, there was a perpetual round of sniping, with all capable of, and willing to verbally sting both his comrades in unemployment. The only times the trio came close to being in concert mentally was in their encounters with others, such as Sid and Ivy at the café, or Mr Wainwright and Mrs Partridge at the Library.
This set-up lasted for two series and was set to continue into a third, until Bates fell ill. Unable to take part in filming, he was rapidly written out, to be replaced by Brian Wilde as ‘Foggy’ Dewhurst.
Fortunately, an easy out was available: in series 2, the trio had travelled to Oswestry, where Blamire re-acquainted himself with a former NAAFI Manageress who he’d known whilst in the services. Now, it was revealed that her husband had died, and Blamire had relocated to Oswestry to ‘get his feet under the table’. Nothing more was heard of him, after his letter to Compo and Clegg at the start of series 3, alerting them that he had encountered another old schoolmate, Foggy, who had just been demobbed from the Army as a Lance-Corporal Signwriter, and on his way home. Compo and Clegg, at something of a loose end without the other part of the trinity, took up Foggy in the hope that he would prove to be sufficiently amusing.
Michael Bates’ illness and death forced a permanent change on Last of the Summer Wine. Where the trio had been drawn, lightly, as eccentrics, but with at least one and a half feet anchored in reality, writer Roy Clarke chose to portray Foggy as a fourteen carat barmpot, steering the series irrevocably onto its course towards absurdity and its own brand of low-key, comfortable surreality.
My Uncle, who had also loved the first two series, chose to stop watching now, complaining that, instead of the equality of bickering between the trio, it was now Compo and Clegg versus Foggy. He was completely correct at that.
Foggy was full of himself, confident that he knew everything in any situation and that he was a natural leader. Compo and Clegg tagged along, watching Foggy get himself (and them) into awkward and silly situations. I don’t, however, think that this development was solely down to the introduction of Foggy, but rather a development that the show would have needed anyway: as originally played, the trio got themselves into trouble naturally, by accident. They were primarily passive characters, reacting to what they saw around them, but not driving the story, and that could not have been continued for long. If the chance had not been seized with Foggy, I have always believed that Clarke would, in series 3, have started presenting Blamire as a more proactive character, and the same development would have advanced.
The series still remained close to its roots, and to its tight cast. Wainwright and Mrs Partridge had been jettisoned after series 1 because Clarke couldn’t see their potential for development. Therefore, in addition to the trio, the regular cast included only Sid and Ivy in the café, and Compo’s upstairs neighbour and object of cartoon lust, the broom-wielding, wrinkled-stocking wearing Nora Batty.
Once Foggy was established, the show rolled on at a comfortable plateau, generally amusing, and occasionally offering up extremely funny episodes, such as the hilarious ‘Cheering Up Ludovic’ (which introduced Clegg’s extremely reluctant driving skills) and the one-off ‘The Loxley Lozenge’. This latter introduced Holmfirth local Gordon Wharmby in the role of Wesley Pegden: Wharmby had no acting experience whatsoever, but was a natural, and Clarke kept him firmly in mind for the future.
The series was probably at its commercial peak, and certainly at its most respected, in that late-Seventies/early-Eighties period. A cartoon strip version ran in the Daily Star, and one book collection appeared, whilst Clarke converted LOTSW into a stage show, which toured the UK successfully.
The stage show proved to be the catalyst for another redefinition of the series. Clarke introduced new characters in Howard and Pearl, Clegg’s neighbours, and Marina, Howard’s would-be mutton-dressed-as-lamb girlfriend. However, Brian Wilde found the touring version uncomfortable and this either caused, or at least exacerbated personal differences with Bill Owen which led to his decision to quit the show in 1983. A new Third Man was required.
Michael Aldridge, another veteran character actor, was introduced in the full-length special, ‘Uncle of the Bride’, which would set the tone for the series for the rest of its run. Foggy, like Blamire, disappeared invisibly, leaving Compo and Clegg at a loose end again, but the 90 minute episode set out not only to introduce Aldridge as Seymour Utterthwaite, headmaster of his own eccentric and cut-price academy and crackpot inventor extraordinaire, but also oversaw a massive explosion of the supporting cast.
The series had, sadly, lost Sid, following the great John Comer succumbing to throat cancer (his last performance was as Sid in the first LOTSW ‘movie’, based on Clarke’s own novel of the early Seventies: unable to speak, Comer had acted his role with Tony Melody’s voice dubbed over the performance). ‘Uncle of the Bride’ acknowledged Sid’s death, replacing him with Jonathan Linley, an amiable giant of a young actor as Ivy’s nephew Milburn, learning the café trade, though the lad really wanted to be a rocker and preferred being called Crusher.
In, too, came Howard, Pearl and Marina from the stage show. Wesley Pegden returned, bringing with him his fussy, snobbish, social-climbing wife, Edie, played by Thora Hird. The episode was based around the wedding of Edie and Wesley’s daughter Glenda (Sarah Thomas) to unassuming and nervous Bank Clerk Barry (Mike Grady) and, in case you were wondering how Michael Aldridge fitted in to all this, Seymour Utterthwaite was Edie’s brother.
Crusher didn’t last long, but with Nora’s husband Wally (Joe Gladwyn) now taking a regular supporting role instead of occasional appearances, the show suddenly had a wide range of players, each with their own quirks. LOTSW quickly broadened into an increasing number of set-pieces, as characters would do their thing in contrast to whatever piece of trouble had organised for the trio. And with the accent now upon eccentricity underpinning every character, the show began to develop its own disbelief-suspended reality, in which the characters’ foibles were accepted as normal.
One additional development meant that the extended cast began to divide, explicitly, along gender lines, adopting a caricature pose reminiscent of Peter Tinniswood’s Brandon Family novels, in which the men, overall, took on child-like aspects, dreaming and obsessing over things that were essentially games, whilst the women acted as hard-headed and practical, looking down on their menfolk as idiots in need of firm schooling, as they had received in school.
This division into male and female casts was carried over into LOTSW‘s first and only spin-off, First of the Summer Wine.
First of the Summer Wine began as a 45 minute special, which proved sufficiently popular that two series, totalling twelve episodes, were ordered, though these were never repeated and the series disappeared without trace. FOTSW was set in 1939 and featured the trio of Clegg, Compo and Uttherthwaite, plus the young Foggy, and other similarly aged youngsters, in their late teens, with the Second World War approaching (War was declared in the final episode, which saw Clegg’s cousin Brad enlisting). Another among the youngsters was a lad named Sherbet.
Neither Brad nor Sherbet had ever been mentioned in the parent series: their prominence in First of the Summer Wine was a subtle nod by Clarke to the reality of the forthcoming War, and to those who never came back.
The spin-off was a minor, but enjoyable effort. Peter Sallis starred as his younger self’s father, and the series was very successful in finding actors in their late teens/early twenties who could convincingly portray the people they would grow up to become, forty-plus years later. Especially the lad who played the young Wally Batty, attempting Joe Gladwyn’s distinctive strangulated Lancashire burr. Of course, the spin-off paid no attention to continuity as the young Clegg and Compo clearly knew Seymour at the Coop in 1939 when they were supposed only to have been introduced to him in 1983, nor was there any reference to the young Cyril Blamire.
I enjoyed FOTSW a bit more than the main series, mainly because it had more reality to it. An effort had gone into re-creating the period, most effectively, and the boys’ concerns in their youth echoed the early series in being more directly connected to real concerns: and with war looming, especially over the second series, First of the Summer Wine dealt with a more pressing reality.
But the spin-off disappeared, leaving Last of the Summer Wine and its expanded, increasingly absurd reality alone. Michael Aldridge left suddenly, for personal reasons, making room for Brian Wilde to return (for once, the ‘hand-over’ occurred onscreen, with Aldridge appearing in a cameo as he was seen off at the bus station to a real teaching job – very unconvincing – as Foggy turned up unexpectedly). It was more of the same, gradually getting further and further away from reality and more and more characters were added until I gradually lost the ability to suspend disbelief and switched off.
Brian Wilde left again, to be replaced by Frank Thornton, as Retired Detective Inspector Herbert Truelove, aka Truly of the Yard. The characters kept getting older. The stuntmen grew ever more obvious in the ‘sliding on a tea tray down a hillside’ moments.
The show began, increasingly, to feature well known actors and actresses in guest roles, further playing up the show as a collection of eccentrics and grotesqueries. Some, like John Cleese, made a single appearance, others, like Norman Wisdom, were so popular, and enjoyed themselves so much, that they repeated their roles.
The role of the Third Man had, by necessity, always seemed mutable, but the combination of Clegg and Compo was the bedrock of the show’s longevity. Thus, when Bill Owen died in 1999, having filmed only two episodes of a twelve episode season, I was curious as to how LOTSW would handle this, and how it would continue without him.
The series, being staffed by older actors, had suffered losses before, most notably John Comer and Joe Gladwyn. Both Sid and Wally had died offscreen, between series, without fanfare but, given that their widows remained in the series, their loss was, unsentimentally and gently acknowledged, although not directly.
This time it was different. Compo’s death occurred, was acknowledged, and became the central factor of almost a half dozen episodes, as the series played tribute to the loss of one of its stars. It was strange to see all this so openly acknowledged, in a lightweight series that had long since rejected any darker edges and dedicated itself to portraying a fluffy and unreal life, but the sequence was handled immaculately, with care, delicacy, empathy and great, involving humour. I speak as someone who has always found the pain in a situation to overwhelm the intended humour: it takes a lot to make me laugh at tragedy, no matter how much that is the intention, but these episodes had me giggling away as if it were twenty-five years earlier.
Once the sequence played through, once Tom Owen had arrived to play the role of his father’s son (this would not work though the younger Owen stayed with the series), I drifted away again.
I can’t say much about the last decade of the show, nor about Frank Thornton as the last Third Man, replacing Brian Wilde for the second and last time. In its last decade, the show seems to have accumulated new characters hand over fist, to the point where it seems impossible, from the outside, for the series to have worked if everybody’s schtick had to be accommodated in every episode.
And all the while, Peter Sallis and Frank Thornton were getting older and older, until for the last two series the actors – both in their Eighties – were confined to indoor series only: given their seniority, insurance for outdoor shoots was impossible to get.
The show had already shifted through new stars: Keith Clifford as Billy Hardcastle, a would-be survivalist who believed himself a descendant of Robin Hood, and Brian Murphy as the simple-minded Alvin Smedley. Thora Hird and Gordon Wharmby had died, Kathy Staff left after Bill Owens’ death, returned and left again through illness. But Sallis and Thornton’s age led to the surprising, but enterprising idea of creating a new trio.
For the last two series, Russ Abbott appeared as Luther ‘Hobbo’ Horndyke, ex-milkman, with Alvin, and Burt Kwouk as Arkwright. The idea of the passing of the show to a new generation, a re-generation, was fascinating. But the BBC were not happy.
Every year, the clamour to kill the series off only grew. It remained popular, with repeat series regularly mustering a 5,000,000 audience, but the tide of protest against it even being allowed to exist grew more intensive every time the show was broadcast. Needless to say, the demand for cancellation came entirely from people who did not watch the series, never had watched the series and would never dream of watching it, yet who believed that they had the right to prevent the programme’s not-so-negligible audience from watching it.
It used to be that this kind of demand came from the Clean Up TV brigade, the spawn of Mary Whitehouse and Lord Longford, insisting that any programme which showed a flash of tit, or some direct intimation of sexuality, or even too many examples of the ‘B’ word (Bloody, for the less timid of mind) be withdrawn, wiped clean and its Commissioning Editor burnt at the stake.
This time, it came from the smug, self-satisfied and patronising, those who considered themselves very much above that sort of thing, incapable of stopping to question the idea that something they don’t want to watch should therefore not be broadcast, despite the fact that, if they are limited to terrestrial TV, they have at least four alternatives available at the same time, and literally hundreds more with satellite.
And at last, after 31 series in 39 years, long-established as the world’s longest running sitcom, Last of the Summer Wine was cancelled. It still does well on re-run channels.
The BBC cancelled it not because it wanted to provide something new, something different, something perhaps better for that section of its audience that watched LOTSW, but because it wanted to do something with more appeal to the young. In short, the BBC were saying to that section of its audience that it should fuck off, because we’re not prepared to make programmes for you any more.
I’ve been a lifelong supporter of the BBC, and I still regard it as essential to the integrity of television in this country that it should remain free from commercial pressures (before anyone says anything, I am aware that the BBC has, for some time, been far from that ideal, but as long as it exists in its current form, it remains at least a symbol).
There’s nothing wrong with the BBC wanting to appeal to a young audience, in fact it’s wholly sensible: you don’t get an old audience without their being a young audience first. But should a young audience be sought at the expense of turning your back upon, and disenfranchising your existing older audience?
It’s a valid question, especially for a national, public broadcaster, with a duty to reflect the nation and its tastes.
ITV has it very different. ITV knows no loyalty except to its owners and advertisers, and will go where the money points. The BBC was not supposed to follow that imperative, although the barrage of attacks from commercial interests over several years have forced them far too far along that route.
Maybe I’m just being impossibly idealist, but although I had not watched the show in many years, I was angry at its cancellation following hounding by people who ought simply to have ignored it. The BBC now serves part of its audience worse than it did before, because it lacks the confidence to follow its remit properly.
We are all of us poorer for that.