If your idea of funny is three old codgers hurtling out-of-control down a hill in a bath tub then Last of the Summer Wine was probably your favourite programme. And you would have been in good company, with Prince Charles, the Queen and before that the Queen Mother all admitting to watching it.
The above scenario sounds farfetched, but it always seemed like it happened nearly every week. For 31 series. Yes, 31. Starting off as a one off during BBC1’s Comedy Playhouse on 4 January 1973 (with the first full series starting on 12 November that same year) by the time it ended on 29 August 2010 it had become the longest running comedy show on British television. It is also the longest-running sitcom in the world. For non-fans of the programme the criticism that it was pretty much the same episode over and over again could be levelled at it; but others loved for its warm depiction of elderly people and gentle, if at times overly-farcical, humour which could be watched safely by the whole family.
As with so many now-loved shows, Last of the Summer Wine was not an initial success, with the first series not making much of a mark on the ratings. The BBC stuck with it, and the second series climbed much higher. Then things took off. Back in the days when there were only four channels to share the split of the ratings, an episode shown in February 1985 nabbed the BBC 18.8 million viewers. Roy Clarke wrote every single one of the 295 episodes that went out in the UK, and subsequently in over 25 countries around the world, and if that wasn’t astonishing enough, whilst doing that he also found the time to scribe many other television series, including Open All Hours, Keeping Up Appearances and Last of the Summer Wine’s prequel, First of the Summer Wine.
Last of the Summer Wine was essentially a comic rambling of three old men who didn’t do much more than meander around the beautiful Yorkshire village of Holmfirth, interacting with the eccentric locals and whimsically philosophising about the life they once led, and how things are now. Last of the Summer Wine boasted a large and memorable cast, and the trio changed from time to time over the years but the most popular line-up comprised of Compo, Clegg and Foggy.
Dishevelled and grubby, William ‘Compo’ Simmonite (Bill Owen) had an immensely childlike outlook to life, and because of this ended up being the one who spent a lot of time getting into scrapes and sticky situations. Much of his time was spent daydreaming about his neighbour Nora Batty (Kathy Staff); a plain-talking woman right out of the stereotypical comedy ‘strong northern woman’ box. She barely tolerated Compo’s affections in the early years, preferring to shove him off her front step with her broom rather than let him near her, but the sight of her famous wrinkled stockings still sent him into a swoon. Later on she did seem to develop a slight fondness for her scruffy suitor but being of stern stuff she didn’t make it easy for him to woo her.
Peter Sallis was the only cast member who appeared in all the broadcast episodes. A shy widower with no interest in finding another lady to share his days with, Norman ‘Cleggy’ Clegg was happy to wander through the rest of his life either in the company of his two playmates or contentedly by himself. He became the voice of wisdom to Compo’s excitement, and the one who could pithily sum up whatever peculiar situation they found themselves in with a quiet aside in his typically dry sense of humour.
Making up the third corner of this slightly unconventional triangle was Walter C. ‘Foggy’ Dewhurst, an ex-soldier who reminisced often about his fighting days. In a comparison to Basil Fawlty saying ‘I fought in the Korean War you know. I killed four men’ to which his wife Sybil replies ‘He was in the Catering Corps; he used to poison them,’ Foggy talks with gusto about the time he spent in the military in Burma during World War II, when in fact he worked there as a sign writer. More bravado and bluster than action, Foggy was in reality fairly timid when faced with anything difficult and often made the trio’s problems worse by forcing on them his own inept solutions.
When Bill Owen died in 1999, Tom Simmonite became a new character in the show. Playing Compo’s long-lost son, Tom Owen was also Bill’s son in real life; a fact that was impossible to deny when you saw just how similar the two were in looks. On occasion it was easy to forget that it wasn’t actually Bill you were watching. Many other names well-loved in British households appeared in Last of the Summer Wine, both in minor and major roles. Dame Thora Hird played Edith ‘Edie’ Pegden on three occasions; twice appearing in episodes during 1986 and 1987, and then returning in 1988 for the remainder of her life. She was still a favourite on the show at the age of 91, and when Hird died in 2003, Clarke wrote Edie’s death into the script as well. Dora Bryan, June Whitfield, Trevor Bannister (from Are You Being Served?) and Jean Alexander (the one and only Hilda Ogden) all played recurring characters during the show’s long run, with Norman Wisdom also playing the fool to great reception in occasional episodes between 1995 and 2004.
If you miss the show, you can still soak up the atmosphere in Holmfirth itself; take in the Last of the Summer Wine exhibition installed in Compo’s house before partaking of a cup of Yorkshire tea in the Wrinkled Stocking Tea Room (the image of Nora Batty’s crumpled leg ware doesn’t seem a particularly enticing one for somewhere that sells food but hey…). Finish your day out by buying a Cleggy mug or a Nora and Compo bottle opener from the gift shop. Last of the Summer Wine lives on!