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Last Of The Summer Wine began life as a one-off episode of the BBC’s Comedy Playhouse entitled Of Funerals And Fish, in January 1973. It went on to earn the distinction of being Britain’s longest-running comedy series.
Dealing initially with the misadventures of three ageing delinquents in the small Yorkshire town of Holmfirth, the series initially featured philosophical humour revolving around the original core trio.
Bill Owen played scruffy layabout and National Assistance tramp Compo Simmonite, Peter Sallis (the voice of Wallace in Wallace and Gromit) played timid widower and redundant manager of a Co-op furniture department, Norman Clegg, and Michael Bates (who had previously appeared blacked-up in It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum) was Cyril Blamire, a retired bachelor Royal Signals sergeant.
Dad’s Army had demonstrated that veteran actors could bring out the best in a comedy script, and the three (slightly younger) stars of Last Of The Summer Wine provided further proof.
The trio steadfastly refused to grow old gracefully and instead embraced an almost child-like retirement devoted to acting on their slightest whims and indulging in wry discourse on the nature of the universe – all set against the breath-taking backdrop of Yorkshire’s legendary scenic beauty.
Writer Roy Clarke, a former policeman from Doncaster, based his adventures of the trio of Yorkshire codgers on the notion that men over 65 can be as reckless, anti-social and silly as any juvenile. You don’t need your own teeth to be a delinquent!
Large and loyal audiences slowly built up for the series with its mellow witty dialogue (“How are you to know when you’re dead?” “Well, you’re supposed to take the hint when they bury you”) and its pretty pictures of the threesome flying kites on the moors or sailing on the reservoir or mooching around the cobbled streets and stone cottages of Holmfirth.
The introduction of a large supporting cast including some of the industry’s most accomplished character actors – including Dame Thora Hird, Stephen Lewis (Blakey in On The Buses), Jean Alexander (Hilda Ogden in Coronation Street) – and guest appearances by performers such as the legendary Norman Wisdom, ensured a consistent excellence in performance, and a continual level of quality.
When Michael Bates’ was injured in pantomime in 1976, another British television veteran joined the show – Brian Wilde (best known as Mr Barroclough from Porridge) came aboard as the pompous, yarn spinning Foggy Dewhurst. With Foggy on board, the show scaled new heights, and this trio came to be regarded as the classic combination.
When Brian Wilde wanted to leave the series in 1985 (Foggy moved to Bridlington, they said, having inherited his uncle’s painted-egg business) he was replaced by the character of pompous ex-headmaster and oddball inventor, Seymour Utterthwaite (Michael Aldridge).
Wilde did return but was forced to leave a second time due to ill health, this time to be replaced by Are You Being Served? star Frank Thornton as yet another inept authority figure, ex-police inspector, “Truly of the Yard”, Truelove.
But whichever trio was operating, there was always a fourth star: the Yorkshire town of Holmfirth, near Huddersfield, population 19,000, and its surroundings, which were used as the location.
Holmfirth possesses a timeless, stark quality that contrasts with the surrounding sweeping countryside and made it a favourite place for film and TV directors long before Last Of The Summer Wine came along.
However, the success of the show (after a slow start, it became a ratings smash) really put Holmfirth into the public consciousness and since the 1980s it has become a regular and popular stop on the tourist map.
In a case of life imitating art, certain aspects of the village eventually took on their TV roles: Ivy’s café, for instance, was actually a paint shop dressed for effect but eventually it was turned into a real café to cash in on tourist interest.
Complementing the central trio and the superb location were a bevvy of minor characters drawn from Yorkshire folklore and Clarke’s distorted comedic imagination: formidable wives, henpecked husbands, sexually-charged mistresses, inventors, pigeon fanciers, balding Lotharios and more.
The largest of these larger-than-life caricatures was Nora Batty, the daunting, uncompromising, wrinkled-stocking housewife who – in Compo’s lustful eye – was a veritable sex-bomb.
Poor Nora had to use a broom to beat off the tiny, sex-starved smelly one who launched himself at her in a frenzy of groping hands, like an octogenarian octopus.
Other recurring characters included Nora’s husband Wally, who was unconcerned over Compo’s advances, half hoping that he would succeed; and the ménage a trois comprising Howard, his wife Pearl and his floozy Marina.
As the show progressed some of these lesser characters enjoyed ever greater roles, and when Thora Hird joined the cast the lads finally found a permanent and serious threat to their shenanigans.
The sad death of Bill Owen on 12 July 1999 proved the greatest trial for the successful series. By the time of his death, Owen’s portrayal of Compo had earned him a place in the nation’s collective heart, and the idea of the series continuing without the presence of Owen was unthinkable.
But following three sensitively written, brilliantly played episodes dealing with the aftermath of Compo’s death on his friends, Owen was replaced by his own real-life son, actor/producer, Tom Owen, as Compo’s long-lost son, Tom.
The transition was successful and the show continued into the new millennium much as it had the last quarter of the previous century.
Brian Wilde died in his sleep in March 2008, after suffering a fall some weeks earlier. He was 80.
Julie T Wallace