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The Pilot: Of Funerals and Fish

Pilot 1

In which – hey – three old men attempt to while away their autumn years…

Bob: It’s heart-warming to see how many of the traditional Summer Wine staples are in place even at this stage… our three anti-heroes, full of whimsy and grump, Nora Batty hanging washing over the steps, and Ivy running that legendary café with her trademark rod (and buns) of iron.

Andrew: Norman Clegg enters the scene riding a bicycle while clinging to the back of a hearse, taking advantage of the free ride. Off the bat, this introduction encapsulates a lot of what I love about the series at its best; it’s both dark and light-hearted, contemplating death and celebrating life at the same time.

Bob: But it’s got a very different feel to the series of the 1980s and beyond. No sweeping vistas of rolling countryside here… we get claustrophobic back yards and alleyways, and the authentic grime of an early 1970s industrial Yorkshire town. 

I’ve wondered recently why the streets of my 1970s childhood on TV and in pictures look so different to their modern-day counterparts. And I think I’ve cracked it… it’s the soot! Holmfirth in 1973 is a riot of smoking chimneys, and the blackened buildings are testament to the days when central heating was considered an expensive luxury. In these early years, it gives the whole show a much grittier, grottier feel than the one we came to know. 

So this isn’t the Summer Wine of hillsides and child-like old men in bathtubs, it’s the Summer Wine of disillusionment and middle-aged, working class boredom. Norman Clegg smokes, swears and says the word ‘orgasm’! Blamire despises the world that awaited him when his army duties were over, and a penniless, wheezing Compo starts the episode having his ancient, rented TV repossessed. In the words of the eye-rolling Nora Batty outside, ‘it must be Tuesday’.

‘They’re tekkin’ his telly again…’

Andrew: The use of the word ‘orgasm’ really shook me, as it seemed completely out of step with the Summer Wine I grew up with as a kid in the 1990s. The sort of people who have praised the series recently for its ‘family values’ and gentle comedy surely must have forgotten all the political, religious and sexual debate going on in these early years, and I quite like the fact that the BBC celebrated the end of the series with a Songs of Praise special – when it actually began with two of the principle characters questioning the nature of faith!

Bob: And it’s fabulous. And it’s obvious from the off that the three main protagonists are perfectly cast… Bates, Sallis and Owen make their characters utterly believable and three-dimensional from the very first lines. Lengthy, rambling, perfectly-performed dialogue takes us completely into their world – their whimsical, filth-filled childhoods, their frustrating, slightly shop-soiled adult lives. It owes more to Alan Bennett and Ken Loach than anything we ever saw over the subsequent 37 years.
Why wasn’t it on the DVDs?

Andrew: Just a bureaucratic oversight is my guess. Or a lack of research. Whatever the reason is, it does strike me as a shame. Although you don’t miss out on hugely important detail if you skip it, there’s a lot depth of character in the pilot, and Clarke sets out his stall very concisely.

One down, two-hundred-and-ninety-four to go.

25 comments

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    July 27, 2015 12:33 pmPosted 2 years ago
    ELEANOR LAWSON

    All of the elements of Summer Wine was present in the pilot. It was kind of an embryonic presentation.

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      July 27, 2015 6:54 pmPosted 2 years ago
      Bob Fischer

      Absolutely, it really sets the programme’s stall out. Does anyone know if the pilot was ever released on VHS? I’d love to find a proper copy.

      Reply
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    July 31, 2015 2:06 pmPosted 2 years ago
    Ray

    Still never quite been able to make out the dates on Edith’s grave. Is it 1900-1971? If we assume Clegg was a similar age it makes the characters really too old for how they’re portrayed. Redundant rather than retired?

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      July 31, 2015 4:37 pmPosted 2 years ago
      Andrew T. Smith (Author)

      I think we’ll remain stumped unless the episode turns up on a DVD release rather than a low-quality Youtube upload! I could easily imagine that Edith’s grave was made without the producers ever intending for us to be able to read it… Or maybe Clegg just got her birthday wrong when he filled out the info!

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      July 31, 2015 9:16 pmPosted 2 years ago
      ELEANOR LAWSON

      The gravestone has been given what ranks as a forensic examination and under the most detailed scrutiny, the date is still illegible. It has been worked out that she was basically the same age as Clegg give or take a few years.

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      September 24, 2015 10:44 pmPosted 2 years ago
      Sharon

      Just watched a broadcast quality version of the pilot today, it is available via the BFI Mediatheque. But I still can’t make out the dates on the headstone! It’s a clear enough picture, but it looks most like 1000 – 1971, or 1900 – 1971 at a push.

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        August 15, 2016 9:18 pmPosted 1 year ago
        David Brunt

        Now, with the wonders of the Pilot eventually escaping on DVD.

        It’s 1909 – 1971.

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          August 15, 2016 10:04 pmPosted 1 year ago
          Bob Fischer

          So poor old Clegg has only been a single man for two years. I think there are a few little lines in these early series where you can tell it’s all quite raw, and fresh in his mind.

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    July 31, 2015 2:08 pmPosted 2 years ago
    Ray

    And the actors were only in their 50s. Like me now! Finally reached Summer Wine age.

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      July 31, 2015 9:06 pmPosted 2 years ago
      Bob Fischer

      I’ve always assumed the characters are roughly the same age as the actors… with the possible exception of Brian Wilde, who was a mere 48 when he was cast as Foggy!

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        August 15, 2016 9:22 pmPosted 1 year ago
        David Brunt

        If I’ve worked it out correctly:

        Peter Sallis was 47 in the Pilot.

        Michael Bates was 51.

        Bill Owen was an incredible 58.

        Kathy Staff was around 43.

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          August 15, 2016 10:02 pmPosted 1 year ago
          Bob Fischer

          So I’ve finally reached the stage in my life when I’m older than some of the main Summer Wine cast were when they were actually IN THE BLEEDIN’ SERIES.

          Drew and I need to get a shift on watching all of these. Tempus fugit, and all that…

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            August 15, 2016 10:08 pmPosted 1 year ago
            David Brunt

            I’ve miscounted Sallis. He was 51.

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              August 16, 2016 9:01 amPosted 1 year ago
              Bob Fischer

              Let’s stick with 47. I like the idea of Clegg having a showbiz age.

              Reply
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    May 19, 2016 11:25 pmPosted 1 year ago
    Mike Jenkins

    It’s definatly 71 she passes away

    Reply
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    August 18, 2016 12:34 amPosted 1 year ago
    Eleanor

    When Kathy Staff first hired on, they had to pad her up. After a few years (or more than a few years), she didn’t need so much padding as nature took over.

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      August 18, 2016 10:46 amPosted 1 year ago
      Bob Fischer

      I know the feeling… 🙂

      Reply
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    June 17, 2017 6:43 amPosted 4 months ago
    Simon S

    I think that’s probably the most normal vicar=type they ever use; later ones seem to be doing a turn on secondment from other shows. I always think the “I finished the book / you know where the others are” bit is suggestive of secrecy, though maybe the church just ran a book club.

    I also can’t credit that you can cycle with one hand and hold onto a hearse with the other even if you were Bradley Wiggins.

    Some intriguing personal stuff; that Blamire and Compo go way back, but Clegg clearly wasn’t in their class. Cyril also pronounces it “Simon-ite” too.

    When Clegg gets Compo to bring his bike along, Compo doesn’t quibble, as he later would if Foggy or someone gave him orders.

    The Tory/Labour demarcation lines are quite timely just now…

    Since Clegg and Compo do have homes to go to, why do they go out to the library at all (I can get why Blamire would refuse to visit Compo, but does Clegg not want the others at his place?)

    How steep is that riverbank when Compo pours the fish back?

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      June 17, 2017 4:10 pmPosted 4 months ago
      Bob Fischer

      Oh, I can understand them going to the library… it’s the old ‘getting out of the house’ ennui. They’re growing old, and they’re all bored, and none of them want to spend all day sitting in the house listening to the clock ticking.

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        June 18, 2017 7:52 pmPosted 4 months ago
        Simon S

        Aye well, this was the lost land before daytime telly began… assuming you’ve got a telly…

        Reply
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    June 17, 2017 4:13 pmPosted 4 months ago
    Bob Fischer

    I keep meaning to say from both of us too, Simon… thanks so much for throwing yourself into this marathon viewing session! I know you’re a prolific poster on here, and it’s always interesting to see your thoughts.

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      June 18, 2017 7:57 pmPosted 4 months ago
      Simon S

      My pleasure. The worst temptation is just to quote a lot of it:

      “I reckon the world’s basically sound as long as there’s racing at Chepstow.”

      “The world is full of folk hating folk for hating folk.”

      “Think about it, Cyril, is it any weirder than the truth?”

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        June 19, 2017 10:21 pmPosted 4 months ago
        Bob Fischer

        We have to resist the same temptation when we’re writing the reviews!

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          June 20, 2017 7:22 pmPosted 4 months ago
          Simon S

          Resistance is Useless

          (oops) 😉

          Reply
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    June 17, 2017 11:42 pmPosted 4 months ago
    Adanor

    What is really odd that the men off-camera were just like their on-camera personalities. Michael Bates was always at odds with Bill Owen and Peter Sallis was the peace maker.

    Reply

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