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Christmas Special 1978: Small Tune On A Penny Wassail

This expanded look at ‘Small Tune On A Penny Wassail’ is excerpted from the book ‘Summer Winos – Volume 1: 1973-1978’. This new companion to Last of the Summer Wine features greatly expanded blog entries, a foreword from Jonathan “Crusher” Linsley, and other added extras you wont find online. For more information on how to order, click HERE.

In which our three wise men attempt a Merry Christmas…

Andrew: I wonder if the production team received a note after the last festive episode – “Not Christmassy enough!” If so, they certainly seem to have taken it to heart. I mean, you can’t get more into the spirit than opening the episode with a shot of Jesus in his manger!

Bob: That’s in the window of the hardware shop round the corner from the cafe, isn’t it? There’s usually a bona fide cat asleep in that window these days! He’s not in a manger, though, he’s on a cushion with his name on it. And it’s not Jesus. It’s Smudge. But yes, a proper Christmas episode! No sleight of hand, no fake festivities at the height of summer, this is Summer Wine on Christmas Day… and it’s slightly incongruous seeing a wintry, tinsel-festooned Holmfirth. We’re so accustomed to that gentle, early autumnal feel.

Mind you, I say Christmas Day… this was actually broadcast at 10.40pm on Boxing Day! Was that the latest time slot the show ever had? I bet Roy and Sydney Lotterby were spitting. Even my dad might have gone to bed by then (cue sound effect: clink of fresh beer bottle being opened).

Andrew: There might be a good reason for that. Roy Clarke’s less than enthusiastic personal attitude towards the season seems to be on full display throughout this instalment, no more so than when Compo’s cheerful approach to a passing teenager is met with the decidedly less festive: “Pissing Christmas”. He mutters it under his breath, but that’s definitely what the subtitles suggest he’s saying! Still, I think it’s a bit rich of Compo to complain about the lad’s “blue language” – we all know the kind of things that he can come out with!

Bob: Oh, you clever little bleeder. I had half a dozen views of that scene, trying in vain to decipher the teenager’s expletive, but it never occurred to me to switch the subtitles on! Deaf people get bonus Summer Wine filth, then?

Still, for a man who – in the previous episode – was grumpily proclaiming that he hates Christmas, Compo seems in remarkably good cheer. And who the hell got him a brand new digital watch? Big Malcolm?

Andrew: When we first meet Compo in this special, he’s essentially being ignored by his quarrelling neighbours. When we first encounter Clegg, he’s trying to make a friendly phone call to somebody named Gordon, who clearly doesn’t have the time of day for him. And when we see Foggy, he’s just been to the church service on his own, and in typical fashion manages to annoy everybody in the vicinity. The trio are spending Christmas Day together not out of choice, but through circumstance – and because there’s nobody else around for them. It’s rather melancholy, to say the least, but Clarke doesn’t dwell upon it. Today, the idea of the disenfranchised elderly spending time alone over the holidays is, depressingly, more relevant than ever.

Clegg can't contain his excitment

Clegg can’t contain his excitement

Bob: Nicely put. And, in my usual facile fashion, can I also point out that the vicar inadvertently poleaxed by Foggy outside the church is played by John Dunbar, thus making him the same vicar who presided over Gordon’s wedding in Series Three?

I was also rather intrigued by the fact that Clegg clearly doesn’t have a phone at home, and has to traipse out to a proper red telephone box to call the ungrateful Gordon. I absolutely did know people who were yet to join the telephone revolution by the late 1970s, but they were pretty few and far between. Surely Mrs Clegg would have wanted one in the house? Perhaps, once she’d died, Clegg decided that he used it so little it wasn’t worth paying the line rental. Men never used to talk on the phone. My dad would answer it as an absolutely final last resort if he was at home alone, but would otherwise just shout, “PHONE!” to the entire household whenever it rang, usually followed by a muttered, “It won’t be for me.” And it never was.

Anyway, Gordon is played by Larry Noble, who… (drum roll)… previously appeared as the trio’s tight-fisted friend Mouse in the Series Two episode ‘A Quiet Drink’. For the sake of a simple life, should we just assume it’s the same character, and that Clegg is simply using Mouse’s given name on this Holiest of Days? And Drew… he “doesn’t have the time of day for him”? That’s a bit harsh – poor Gordon’s shed is on fire! Actually at first, I also thought he was just trying to get rid of Clegg. As my Uncle Trevor used to say when he was bored on the phone: “Get off the line, there’s a train coming!” But no… I think his shed genuinely is on fire. Cut the man some slack, Drew.

Andrew: I thought the actor looked familiar, but didn’t realise he was Mouse! I love this kind of thing; the expanded Last of the Summer Wine universe is banding back together. It’s just like Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War.

Back at Clegg’s place, the host is in full-on Grinch mode, expressing his mild annoyance at how early Christmas rears its head, and how long it seems to hang around once it does arrive. The more things change, the more they stay the same, I suppose. Complaining about Christmas stuff being in the shops earlier and earlier every year is just as much a cliché today as anything actually associated with the big day itself. Not a year seems to go by without me doing battle in the pub with somebody whining about the same thing, as if it was a new development.

Bob: I love the stillness of this very 1970s Christmas morning. Clegg is peeling potatoes, Foggy is impaling little cubes of cheese with cocktail sticks, and a bored Compo pours brown ale into a dimpled pint glass at 10am, unable to find anything but dreary carols on Clegg’s antiquated TV set. This really is the Christmas Day of my very early childhood: dark, deserted streets, teenage lads with flares and new skateboards, and an air of resolute jollity amid the all-pervading austerity.

Just to put things in context, the winter of 1978/79 was James Callaghan’s “Winter of Discontent”, in which the country was brought almost to its knees by an epidemic of industrial action. Binmen, train drivers, lorry drivers, even – famously – gravediggers went on strike, in the middle of the most extreme snowfalls since 1962. It really was an extraordinarily bleak hour, and my memories of that Christmas are of threadbare tinsel and the cheapest of entertainment; of my gran raising a thimble glass of sherry in front of Larry Grayson’s Generation Game. And yet, weirdly, watching this, I want it back. All of it, in a big bundle of misty-eyed cosiness.

Andrew: This episode should remind you of family, because Foggy and Clegg are basically playing mother and father to their child, Compo, whose sole desire is to get on with the opening of his presents. And the episode itself is bathed in its own unique nostalgic glow. “Christmas is magic when you’re a kid,” muses Compo. “Grown-ups never get any fun presents.”

Bob: Of course, he’s right. It’s only with the benefit of hindsight that I can put my childhood festivities into the context of such bleakness. At the time, aged six, it was simply the brightest, sparkliest day of the year – a riot of 75p Star Wars figures and, hey… I loved Larry Grayson. Still do. When the entirety of the Generation Game finally goes up on Netflix, can we work our way through that as well?

Meanwhile, Foggy is pondering the possibility of the Russians attacking on Christmas Day, when Britain’s defences are clearly off their guard. Yes, add impending nuclear apocalypse to our growing list of 1978 reasons to be cheerful. He really is concerned about the threat of a Soviet attack, isn’t he?

There are class issues on display here, too. In my experience: working class families pile into the front room before the crack of dawn, and every last present is torn open right then, in a frenzy of excitement. Wrapping paper and excited dogs everywhere. Whereas middle class families open them after the Queen’s speech, with polite understatement. No need to guess which respective camps Compo and Foggy fall into, or – indeed – our families. It’s a difference reinforced by this exchange:

COMPO: What time’s dinner?

FOGGY: Lunch. Dinner is at night.

When I was a kid, there were three compulsory meals every day: breakfast, dinner and tea, and then an optional supper. Even school dinners, at mid-day, were called school dinners! Nobody ever had a school lunch. It was only when I rashly entered into a relationship above my social status that I discovered that lunch even existed, and that dinner was – ahem – a moveable feast that slightly more well-to-do people ate at 7.30pm or later… 7.30pm! That’s obscene. We had our tea at half past five, and within the hour my dad was out of the bath and ready to complain about Top of the Pops.

Andrew: And don’t get me started on “pants”.

Bob: Foggy, interestingly, also points out that Compo has no children of his own! Mark that down for future reference in about six books’ time. Although he did once go out with a woman called Hilda, who looked like Mussolini, and the last visitor to his house was a man from the gas board – “him from Haslett Street… married to the eldest Bagnall lass.” It’s the little details sometimes.

Teddy Turner receives instrudctions from Mrs Pumphrey...

Teddy Turner receives instructions from Mrs Pumphrey…

Andrew: Foggy’s in a world of his own, fondly recalling his Christmasses with the army, and even Clegg is looking back and questioning his decision to give up smoking in order to live longer. What’s the opposite of rose-tinted spectacles? Brown-tinted?

And just as a side note, I think this is the first time anybody has mentioned the fact that cigarettes have all but vanished from the series since the grittier Blamire era. Should we designate this the end of Summer Wine’s social realist period? We’ll find out next series!

Bob: Yes! Even Compo has given up, hasn’t he? Actually… with Blamire gone, and Clegg now a resolute non-smoker, he’d have to. Where else would he get his fags from?

Anyway, to alleviate the boredom, Foggy suggests they take a trip to the hospital to visit their ailing friend Edgar. And Drew… your Avengers: Infinity War comparison is complete! This episode now has a hat-trick of returning guest actors, with Edgar being played by the wonderful Teddy Turner. Exactly a year since he delivered Nora’s good news telegram at the end of ‘A Merry Heatwave’.

And he’s remarkably cheerful! I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen Teddy Turner smile before. It’s a very enthusiastic studio audience this week too, isn’t it? They’re absolutely roaring at Compo crawling under the beds and pestering respectable lady visitors to the ward. Edgar, however, is actually perfectly happy not to see anyone. As Compo states afterwards, “He’s got colour television and all the nurses he can eat.”

A little bit of related social history: here we are in late 1978, and it was only in 1976 that the number of colour televisions in the UK first outstripped the number of black and white sets. Does it put a different perspective on these first four series to realise that huge swathes of the population – in fact, a majority in the early years – would have been watching them in black and white? I think it does.

Andrew: After their hospital visit, our trio make their way home through empty streets. I know this is most likely just a by-product of the show’s unseasonal production, but one thing I find really refreshing here is the complete lack of snow, or even references to it. I can’t think of a more accurate depiction of the typical British Christmas than the dull weather and the silent streets on display here. Every other Christmas television special seems to go all out on the festive cheer and fake snow, or to at least have characters pining for it. On the streets of Holmfirth, the only hint that this is Christmas is the occasional glimpse of a decoration through a window.

Bob: It never snowed at Christmas in the 1970s!

We’ve mentioned a few times that the series is slowly turning into an ensemble piece, and there’s a big step towards that here, as we swiftly flit back and forth between three very different kitchens. Sid and Ivy are cooking for the latter’s relations (“If they have to eat this much, how come we never see them down at the cafe?” grumbles Sid); and then we head to the Batty household, where Wally is being forced into his annual crack at the washing-up (“Every blasted Christmas”) amid sounds of further family merriment from the front room.

It’s not that long since we only really saw these characters if they interacted with the main trio, and we certainly never got much of an insight into their home lives. But here they are, bold as brass in their own houses – they’ve become independent fixtures in the show in their own right. And they play a really important role in this episode: the festive obligations of Sid and Ivy and Nora and Wally, all slaving away in their kitchens for a legion of Christmas visitors, provide a family-centric counterpoint to our trio’s lonely yuletide.

Nora, amazingly, actually seems to like her unseen relatives. There’s her Susan; there’s Clara who is “watching her figure” (crack open the Nimble bread and Ryvitas, Drew); and there’s the reputedly hilarious Dudley from Garstang, who “does impressions of a set of bagpipes.” Wally, predictably, hates him. “I laughed when he broke his leg.”

Back at Clegg’s house, Foggy, Clegg and Compo are attempting to crack walnuts. Good grief, hours of my precious childhood were wasted on this thankless festive pursuit when I should have been merrily destroying my six-year-old brain with a bottle of my gran’s QC Cream.

And Clegg has cooked the full Christmas dinner for the three of them, hasn’t he? After witnessing his adroit ironing skills in ‘Greenfingers’, I think we’re rapidly speeding towards the unlikely conclusion that Clegg is a domestic titan. Although points are deducted for not guessing that he and Foggy would buy each other exactly the same jumper in the pre-Christmas sales. Come on Cleggy, it’s a sitcom! What did you expect to happen?

Andrew: And in a moment that proves Christmas really is for the kids, Compo is the only one truly thrilled with his presents – a book of horse racing statistics from Clegg, and a dressing gown from Foggy that would put Colin Baker’s Doctor Who costume to shame.

Bob: Ha! Ha! Bill Owen would have made a great Doctor. In his tatty TARDIS with dog-ends chucked all over the console room floor. As it is, Compo is inspired by his present to break into the opening lines of ‘I’ll See You Again’, composed in 1929 by Noel Coward – surely the most accomplished dressing gown-wearer of all time. It’s certainly a close-run thing between him and Muhammed Ali.

And, amazingly, it’s Compo who has pulled out all the stops: he’s bought Foggy and Clegg a digital watch each from Nora’s “club”, probably on a weekly repayment of £1.72 for the next 30 years. Oh gosh, here’s a poignant thought: was the watch that Compo was showing off to the foul-mouthed teenage skateboarder in the episode’s opening scene actually a present to himself, bought as part of the same catalogue order? Surely it was.

Andrew: Back in the Batty household, Wally comes out with one of my favourite lines so far, the Freudian slip: “Why don’t you go sit down, Nora? You’ve been on your mouth all day!”

And again, Sid and Ivy inject some real heart into the show. In what I believe is our first glimpse of their actual kitchen – as opposed to the one in the cafe – they’re all bluster and arguments, but then there’s a genuinely tender moment between the pair of them… and a black nightie. As Sid sheepishly hands over this early Boxing Day treat, hastily wrapped in a carrier bag, we stay with Ivy as she unwraps the unexpected garment and finally gets a taste of the kind of passion she was pining for on her Series Three trip to the seaside. The little smile that breaks through her gruff exterior is both heart-melting and heartbreaking at the same time – my favourite moment of the special.

Bob: Yes! She is, incredibly, utterly thrilled. Despite all appearances to the contrary, there are still little frissons of excitement to be found in the darkest depths of that marriage. Although you wouldn’t think it from some of Ivy’s complaints: “I knew you’d be miserable all day,” she fumes. “It’s always the same when you wear those trousers.”

OK, a little thought here that has begun to intrigue me: by anyone’s standards, Sid’s just not miserable at all. He’s constantly cracking jokes. But our friend Mike Scott, who knows a thing or two about comedy, has a pet theory that sitcom characters basically don’t know they’re cracking jokes. It just happens to be the language they use… it’s the comedy equivalent of the characters in an opera who sing their entire body of dialogue. So is Sid actually a miserable sod, who – for the purposes of the sitcom format – just happens to speak in jokes, because that’s the medium of the genre?

Andrew: Hang on. If I’m not aware of it, could I be speaking in jokes all the time, too? Am I merely an imagined sitcom character? It would go some way to explaining why my living room only has three walls.

If there’s a festive moral to be found here, is it that the grass is always greener on the other side? Wally and Sid are surrounded by happy laughing families, and yet it couldn’t make them more miserable.

Bob: Yes, the pair of them slope off to Clegg’s house, mistakenly believing there’s endless merriment to be had around there. And there’s a lovely little touch as they do so. Outside Nora’s front window, you can hear a bizarre parping, squeaking noise coming from the living room; clearly the sound of the insufferable Dudley’s bagpipe impression. I’m with Wally all the way here. What a prick.

Andrew: Our climax sees Compo joining in with some skateboarding frolics. The must-have present of 1978 appears to have been a skateboard – at least in Roy Clarke’s mind. And it’s good to see kids using them for what they were meant for. None of this Tony Hawk rubbish, they’re just bombing down hills at dangerously insane speeds.

Look out for the Dodworth Colliery Band!

Bob: The must-have present of Christmas 1978 was undoubtedly anything with a Star Wars logo on it!* The film had been rolled out across the country earlier in the year and British kids had gone mental for it. Skateboards were definitely pretty hot at the same time, though.

Andrew: And, crucially, they weren’t copyrighted up to the hilt! It isn’t long before we’re witness to a head-on collision with the town’s brass band, and I’m all for this kind of stunt. Compo’s turn on a skateboard is not only perfectly in keeping with his character, but also totally suited to the situation. Sydney Lotterby’s direction is superb during this sequence as well. With careful cutting and well-orchestrated camera setups, he turns a minor kerfuffle into a Hollywood-style suspense sequence.

Bob: It’s nicely done, and I love the lanky teenagers who take Compo under their wings and lend him their gear! All the young kids in this episode seem to know him, don’t they? I can imagine him being a popular figure with the local youngsters, probably cadging crafty fags off them round the back of the cafe. This is such a perfect little scene, actually. All through the episode, Compo has been an uncharacteristic picture of misery, precisely because he can’t act like a child at Christmas. He’s a 60-year-old man who wants toys to play with, just as he did 55 years earlier. He’s been jealously eyeing up skateboards in the streets all day, and – now that he’s actually got onto one – his face is finally a picture of joy.

And indeed, it’s the Dodworth Colliery Brass Band who march cheerily through the freezing streets. What a genuinely lovely sound that is… just beautiful, and so Christmassy. They’re still going strong if you want to book them? Maybe we should get them to play at the party we throw when we’ve finally finished this insane quest, sometime in early 2045.

Andrew: I’ll best call them now, we don’t want to chance a double-booking.

And it’s definitely worth pointing out at this juncture that the skateboard sequence represents the first contribution from actor, gymnast, and stuntman Stuart Fell – doubling for Bill Owen. He’d previously been asked to consult on the giant carrot shenanigans in ‘Greenfingers’ during Series Four, but wasn’t available. We know this because Stuart is a very pleasant chap and kindly agreed to be interviewed by us, back in the earliest days of the project. I think I’ll hand it over to him now:

“It turned out quite well, and I remember Roy Clarke saying to me that this was the missing ingredient. He said that, up to then, they’d never got up to any falling about or falling down. But the Christmas special was successful, and they’d given the series another go, so he was going to try and write in scenes for the lads to do. Nothing very ambitious, because they were old men!As a result, Sydney Lotterby used to ask me to go on the location recces. We would talk about the stunts and find some dry walls to fall off! In my enthusiasm I would try to build the stunts up, and whenever there was a stunt it seemed to fit quite nicely with the balance of the series.”

Quite an important moment, then. This is the point at which Clarke and Lotterby really started to see the potential for much greater elements of physical comedy than we’d seen previously. As stunt performer and arranger for the next two decades of the series, Stuart Fell would manufacture and willingly throw himself into countless bizarre scrapes, and I’d argue that in the process he helped make Compo – and Bill Owen – a mainstream icon. An aging and yet simultaneously ageless pixie, capable of doing anything the situation demanded.

Bob: I’m actually intrigued by the fact that Stuart seems to be suggesting the show’s future had been in doubt at this stage. Doesthat explain why there’d been no full series in 1978? Was it a case of: “Do another Christmas special, and we’ll see how it works out”?

Andrew: All in all, I think this instalment really justifies the “special” label. It feels like no other episode to have gone before it, with a new structure and our first proper taste of a Summer Wine Christmas. I do think Clarke gets to have his cake and eat it, though – it feels like Christmas, but he’s also expressing disdain for the festive season at every possible opportunity! Even the triumphant appearance of a festive brass band is undercut by Compo running them over. Perfect.

Bob: Yes, a lovely episode. It was funny and warm-hearted with the usual streaks of perfectly-judged melancholy and bleakness, and – as such – the perfect encapsulation of a 1970s northern Christmas. And it has another “voiceover” ending, culminating in our three heroes clinking glasses together and chuckling gently. Just lovely.

Did I miss something here, though? What’s the title all about, ‘Small Tune on a Penny Wassail?’ Is it mentioned anywhere?

Andrew: Just a neat pun that’ll look good in the Radio Times.

Bob: Oh good grief, yes. A Penny Wassail substituted for a Penny Whistle. I’m 47, Drew. You’ll sometimes need to spoon-feed me. Probably literally, by the time we’re finished with this madness.

*Actually, we’re both wrong. Hungry Hippos, Simon and Connect 4 were the biggest-selling toys of Christmas 1978.

To see comments from the previous version of this review, click HERE


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    December 31, 2020 12:51 amPosted 1 year ago

    I suspect Sid and Wally may be right when they say that the trio “always have a better time than us” at Christmas. There’s much to be said for spending the day with your cohorts in foolishness and not being obligated to host people that you wouldn’t miss if they didn’t turn up at all! (Even if it means being roped into a hospital visit.)

    Looking forward to your book! 🙂

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    December 17, 2021 8:09 amPosted 8 months ago

    I watch this festive episode every xmas day, along with the equally fabulous “Whoops”. Christmas as i remember them. Merry Xmas 2021 everyone.


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