commentary

Series 1 Episode 6: Hail Smiling Morn Or Thereabouts

S1E6b

In which Blamire whips out his brownie and asks Compo for a better exposure…

Andrew: I had no idea that Clegg had two houses during the course of the series. This first one doesn’t seem as fitting somehow. That sofa is far too 1970s for a start.

Bob: You’re right, but… it’s not just Clegg’s house, is it? It’s his marital home. We’re not sure how long it’s been since his wife died, but it’s clearly still HER house… look at the patterned wallpaper, the plush sofa, the ornaments and soft furnishings. Clegg’s later house is a single man’s home, but this one has seen a woman’s touch. It’s nicely done.

Blink and you'll miss her... the late Mrs Clegg!

Blink and you’ll miss her… the late Mrs Clegg!

Andrew: During this episode, I think we get our one and only look at Mrs. Clegg. Compo says, ‘She were always ugly, then?’ but – to be fair to the woman – the fleeting glimpse we get of her wedding picture reveals a slim and fairly attractive bride. Perhaps she was just ugly on the inside? But just check out the lingering look Clegg gives her photograph at the end of that scene. Despite all of his bravado, he does seem to miss her, or at least to have admired her.

Bob: I love Clegg’s lengthy anecdote about his and his wife’s aborted camping expedition, where she wept and ‘pined for her draining board’. Lovely writing again, and superbly played by Peter Sallis. And yes… the passing look that he gives the photo is very touching. You could blink and you’d miss it, but the love and the loss is all there in a brief, beautiful moment. I wonder if that second of silence was scripted, or if it’s pure Peter Sallis? A gorgeous character moment.

Straight from Blamire’s Box Brownie

Andrew: I’d love to get hold of some of the photographs that Blamire takes during the course of this episode. Moreso than the staged publicity shots, they really seem to capture the playfulness of our trio when they start mucking about. It would seem unlikely, but it would be nice to think that those negatives are still locked up in a BBC archive somewhere.

Bob: That’s a fab little sequence. I think the gentle pastimes that they pursue in these early episodes are more effective and believable than the stunts that came in later years. There’s actually a scene in the Spring Fever episode, two weeks earlier, where they’re idly drifting down the river on a raft made from planks and empty barrels. And it’s just casually dropped into the episode as an incidental feature… a bit of background to the REALLY important stuff – the dialogue. Same with the photography here… it’s very nicely done.

Blamire: She married a University lecturer!

Clegg: Well don’t hold that against her, anybody can make a mistake.

Andrew: That’s my day job! I suppose I should be offended by Clegg’s comment, but to be honest I can sort of see his point…

Bob: Yeah, but university lecturers were GENUINELY weird in the early 1970s. Most people would never have actually seen one outside of the Open University on BBC2. The nearest things to universities anywhere near me in the 1970s were Teesside Polytechnic and Cleveland Art College, and even those were seen as dangerously subversive refuges for hippies, communists and other similar beardy-weirdy types. Breeding grounds for potential Mr Wainwrights! It was only in the 1990s that ‘going to uni’ became the almost universal experience that it is now.

Camping it up!

Camping it up!

Some more lovely long-forgotten vocabulary in this episode… Compo says ‘Speak up, we can’t hear you in the Fourpennies’ to an arguing Sid and Ivy – presumably a reference to the cheap seats at a theatre? And Ivy delivers a classic put-down to Sid – ‘Three pints of ale, and you think you’re Jack Benny’. I wonder how archaic that sounded in 1973? The height of Benny’s popularity had arguably been thirty years earlier, and yet… it’s same as making reference now to someone who was popular in 1981. Kenny Everett, or Russ Abbott, maybe? Wibbly wobbly, timey wimey.

Andrew: Are there many abandoned farm buildings scattered along the countryside these days, or have they all been converted into stylish apartments and getaway cottages by the team from Grand Designs?

Bob: No, they’re out there. I walk a lot on the North Yorkshire Moors, and there are still some gloriously rugged and desolate little places. Fancy watching Series 2 in one of them? I’ll bring my laptop…

 

Series 1 Episode 3: Pâté and Chips

S1E3b

In which our trio visit a Stately Home with Compo’s nephew and family…

Andrew: A very rare trip out of Holmfirth in this episode. Actually, from what I’ve read of your childhood, this is how I imagine your family outings. Just with fewer kids. Any truth to that?

Bob: Yes. I find all of these early episodes staggeringly evocative of my early childhood. The black, soot-stained buildings, the chugging, unreliable cars, and the security of family life, for better and for worse. We get to meet unspecified relatives of Compo in this episode – the charming Chip and Connie and their kids – and they reminded me so much of the young-ish relatives that surrounded my childhood in the mid 1970s. The uncles, aunts and cousins who – by the time they hit 25 – were securely married with a small army of kids and a job that they’d reasonably expect to hold down for the next forty years of their lives.

It’s gone now. Look at me, for crying out loud… I’m 37, single, childless and spend my working life effectively messing about. And most of my friends have similar lifestyles. And yet a significant chunk of me pines for Chip and Connie’s life. There’s a great moment in the pub towards the end of the episode where they exchange a loving look and a very tender peck on the lips. I’ve no idea if it was scripted, but it’s a lovely, lovely touch.

Andrew: There’s a nice little moment of melancholy in this episode that I didn’t actually spot the first time I watched it. Just before they are about to set off for the country home, Ivy is holding Connie and Chip’s baby.

Ivy: We’ve got none you know. All I can do is mother him.

(Gestures to Sid)

Ivy's left holding the baby...

Ivy’s left holding the baby…

Chip cracks a joke about letting her have one of theirs, and says how he thinks everyone should be sterilised, but as Ivy is waving goodbye to Compo’s extended family there’s a very poignant musical cue that suggests something telling about the fact that she and Sid have never had kids. It’s quite a beautiful little moment, combining fine writing, acting and composing, and it adds great depth to the supporting characters. Taking this into consideration really sheds new light on their relationship.

Bob: Oh, I didn’t spot that at all! Eagle-eyes Smith strikes again. I do love the way that we’re slowly discovering more about these characters, but at a charmingly slow pace. I think this is the first episode to suggest that Compo carries a torch for Nora Batty, isn’t it? He’s stolen her washing line to hold up his trousers, and says ‘I thought I’d wear it close to me skin’.

And I loved the scene in the café, where Compo and Chip both eat bread and dripping. Again, just gloriously evocative of its time… I don’t suppose anyone under the age of 30 has any idea about ‘dripping’ any more (do you, Drew? Come on, be honest) but I vividly remember it being a staple part of the North-Eastern diet at least up until the late 1970s. It was edible, so it got eaten. Waste not, want not. 

Andrew: Dripping’s the stuff that comes off meat when you cook it, isn’t it?

Inspecting Blamire's valuables

Inspecting His Lordship’s valuables

Bob: Well done! He said, slightly patronisingly. And another sign of the times… the ripple of excitement amongst the stately home tour party when it seems as though His Lordship is about to make an appearance! There’s hushed deference, and Clegg even frantically combs his hair. I remember the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977, when every street around my house was bedecked in red, white and blue bunting, and the high street became a carnival, complete with a float procession and a fairground. Unthinkable in 2010, the world is just that tad too cynical.

Andrew: Taking of charming moments, during one scene where the trio are walking towards the café, Michael Bates checks and adjusts his watch when the church bell goes off. Now that’s either good dubbing or fine improvising, and I can’t imagine that the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop went anywhere near Last of the Summer Wine.

Bob: Sensational! I missed that as well. Such a fine actor. It’s lovely little touches like that that show you how quickly they began to inhabit these characters.

Andrew: Classic line here:  ‘I should fetch a shovel old lad, he’s crapped all over t’carpet’.

Bob: Indeed! Swiftly followed by a lovely poignant exchange in the pub, as they drunkenly recall their wartime romantic exploits.

Blamire: It soon passes, doesn’t it?

Clegg: Aye. You don’t get a lot of time given for being 19.

Roy Clarke at his best, and a finely-timed moment of melancholy. Has Blamire been perennially single? I had the impression he’d been married, but this episode suggests his entire romantic life consists of a few chaste exchanges over three decades earlier. It’s a very downbeat ending.

Series 1 Episode 2: Inventor of the Forty Foot Ferret

S1E2b

In which Compo is persuaded to actually visit church…

Andrew: Before we begin properly I’d just like to note the title of this episode. I love ferrets and I think Compo is partly to blame. As a kid, his descriptions of the slinky little angels made them seem so exciting… you could stick them down your trousers!

Bob: You’re a freak, Smith.

Andrew: This episode is all about class and religion, really. You have Blamire as  the bossy, middle class church-goer, Compo as the scruffy, sub-working class atheist and Clegg as… well, just Clegg really. He gets my favorite lines of the episode; ‘Who needs eternity? Suppose you’re waiting for a bus’. Again, this is a series that has come to be identified with the likes of Songs of Praise, but in these early episodes Clarke is questioning whether organised religion has any point at all!

A theological debate in action

A theological debate in action

Bob: I think the depiction of faith in this episode actually speaks volumes about early 1970s society. Blamire, every inch the conservative Christian, is never the butt of the joke… instead, it’s Compo – gauchely suspicious of the church and its conventions – that we’re encouraged to laugh at. Christian faith in the early 1970s was still a cornerstone of British life, and it’s treated seriously here.

For an extra bit of poignancy… the church they visit is clearly St John’s in Holmfirth, where Bill Owen is now buried. They walk very close to his current resting place in one scene.

Andrew: This isn’t angry, boundary-breaking satire, though. The characters take the mickey out of each other, but in the end they’ve all ended up in the same predicament and – despite what they say or believe – they’re just mates. If anything Clarke, seems to be encouraging acceptance and tolerance. Sort of progressive for its time, really.

On the other hand, there is a very 1970s rape joke and Clegg says the word ‘poof’! In the light of this, I take back everything I said about the use of the word ‘orgasm’ earlier in the series. The word ‘poof’ is the one that feels out of place now.

Bob: Both of those lines gave me a jolt as well! Clegg comments that Blamire’s mother ‘brought up a little poof’, and Compo tales the wartime tale of ‘Hilda Mason and those four Yanks… everybody knew it were rape, but she were never prosecuted’. Did you spot the delightfully incongruous swearing in the café as well? Compo tells Sid that his wife left him for a ‘pissing Pole’.

Abandoned Fa

Barnstorming!

All just more examples of the grittiness that gradually dissipated as the series continued, I guess. In that context, the portrayal of Mr Wainwright, the librarian, and his married fancy lady is interesting. They’re clearly the prototype for Howard and Marina, and yet while that latter relationship feels like a bit of playground kiss-chase (they never seem to get further than a chaste cuddle… actually, do they ever even kiss?) the extra-marital affair here is much more lusty, and we’re clearly led to believe there’s been some distinctly heavy petting going on behind that mahogany counter.

I love the location work in this episode, too. We get out into the countryside, but it’s WINTER – not something we see a lot of in latter-day Summer Wine. It’s bleak and windy and desolate, and we spend a lot of time in a delightfully derelict and ramshackle old mill. Was this the workplace that Compo spent much of his life avoiding? I’d like to think so.

And yegods… Jane Freeman’s legs in the cycling scene at the end are truly a sight for sore eyes.

Series 1 Episode 1: Short Back and Palais Glide

S1E1e

In which our heroes rid Compo of evil spirits, lose a front door key and attempt to attend a formal dinner dance…

Andrew: I like the way that the first episode of the series proper opens with a shot of 1970s kids mucking about on a field, because even in these early episodes the theme of pensioners reverting to adolescence is quite clear. Our three main characters giggle over adult magazines, loiter at bus stops and fail to gain entry to a posh dance; it’s like an episode of The Inbetweeners with an old-age cast!

Bob: As for the plot, it’s fairly light… Blamire gets his hair cut, Compo loses his house key while being upended in the library to shake evil spirits from his head, and the trio blag their way into the dinner dance to retrieve it from Wainwright the prissy librarian – before retreating, typically, to the backroom where Sid ferries them bottled beer and chicken butties from the buffet.

But it doesn’t matter, it’s a hugely enjoyable start to the series proper. Good to see Compo flick an authentic 1970s V-sign at the end, as well. Nobody gives proper V-signs any more!

Look at the muck in 'ere!

Look at the muck in ‘ere!

Andrew: Actually, with that V-sign and Clegg’s eyebrow-raising mention of rape, it’s probably worth noting that the first three episodes of the series have awarded a ‘12’ certification from the BBFC. I’m not trying to suggest that this means that the early years of Summer Wine are a den of filth, but they are a little at odds with the cosy, family-friendly, inoffensive reputation that the series gained in its later period. Just look at that topless calendar at the back of the barber’s shop!

Bob: And more fabulous early 70s grottiness! Have a good butchers at the café in this, it’s absolutely filthy. The walls are coated in damp, grime and cobwebs. Look at the screengrab… there’s decades worth of congealed muck and chip fat on that back wall! A fantastic double act from Sid and Ivy, though, and you forget how much of an important figure Sid was in these early series… he has the one line in this episode that made me laugh out loud:

Ivy: I came here to dance, but fat chance of that with you. You don’t even know how to hold me.

Sid: (Making a strangling motion) Put your neck in there…

Mr Wainwright approves a withdrawal

Roy Clarke’s love of odd Northern dialogue shines through constantly. The devil is in the detail, and Clegg gets most of the best lines. He talks of Compo making a nest, a ‘simple construction of mattress fluff and old Sporting Chronicles’. He pricks dinner dance doorman Charlie Harris’ pomposity with the splendid riposte ‘I’ve seen you making imitation rude noises for the entertainment of the Young Conservatives’. Although, a heartbeat later, Compo’s perfectly-timed aside, ‘And your Eileen had to get married’ is laced with brilliant old-school Northern nose-tapping knowingness.

I loved Mrs Partridge’s comment about her 12-year-old son as well… ‘he’s never been strong, and everything goes to his chest’. Roy Clarke’s ear for the rhythms and absurdities of speech is just perfect. I could hear my mother saying that line, word for word, in my own grimy, early 1970s childhood.  Does anyone talk like that any more? 

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.

Series 6 Episode 2: Car and Garter

BOB: What strikes me most about this episode is that Alan Bell was spot on with regards to Gordon Wharmby – he is indeed “absolutely real”. It’s a fine performance, and a great encapsulation of that breed of middle-aged Northern men who spend all of their spare time in overalls beneath a car and need a garage (or a shed, or just some private space to retreat to, unencumbered by female tutting and clucking) to retreat to. I see a lot of my Dad in Wesley. Read more

Series 5 Episode 3: The Flag and Further Snags

In which Foggy’s plan finally comes to fruition!  

Bob: Good grief, it’s a sequel! I hadn’t looked too closely at the episode titles, so I really wasn’t expecting that, and really… the previous episode had nothing about it that suggested a second part was essential to conclude the story. I just assumed Foggy’s plan to erect the flag had come to nothing, like pretty much all of his ideas so far. Here’s hoping things pick up in this episode. I’m desperately in need of an Empire Strikes Back!

Andrew: Maybe the BBC ordered one more episode than Roy Clarke was expecting? That might explain why The Flag and Its Snag felt a bit padded.

Bob: And crikey, we start with an incest joke. ‘Billy Butterwick had a cousin on the railway once,’ giggles Compo. ‘She said she wouldn’t tell her mum, but she did’. Hear that scribbling? That’s Mary Whitehouse taking notes. 

Nice to see Stan Richards in this episode, bumbling around the Railway Parcels Office when Foggy goes to collect his flag. Later to become hugely famous as Seth Armstrong in Emmerdale Farm, although he only made his Emmerdale debut in 1978, so probably hadn’t quite achieved national treasure status when this aired!

Seth Armstrong is watching you...

Seth Armstrong is watching you…

Andrew: He’s gently sinister here. I bet his house is full of unclaimed goods from the Sorting Office. I love Compo’s method of breaking into Foggy’s parcel. There’s something primitively satisfying about opening a package without having to turn to a cutting implement. Don’t laugh, I’m afforded very few opportunities to feel manly.

Bob: There’s a nice bit of physical comedy here as well, with Compo’s trousers being pulled asunder by the snagged string on Foggy’s parcel. I laughed out loud. Trousers ARE funny.

Andrew: And it’s executed much more effectively than last week’s messing about with donkeys and dry stone walls. Perhaps that’s the luxury of sitcom rehearsal time at work.

Our trio venture back to base in order to solve Compo’s predicament, said base being the café, of course. This just a sign of my unobservant nature, but this is the first time I’ve noticed that Sid and Ivy have their prices written up on a chalk board behind the counter. Egg and Chips for 55p and a cup of tea for just 5p – lovely.

Bob: There’s an unexpected but rather lovely bit of character development in this episode… Wally Batty is a member of the Old and Ancient Order of Bullocks! It’s obviously Roy Clarke’s gentle spoof on Freemasonry, although there’s a distinctly smalltown feel to all of this… they meet in the café, and Wally – we learn – has become a Bullock to advance his standing in racing pigeon circles. And, you have to assume, to get out of the house.

Something we rarely see in Summer Wine here as well… proper, hammering, filthy torrential rain. Foggy even has a brolly! There’s a real ‘end of summer’ feel to this episode, and already I like it much more than the previous installment.

Andrew: Certain sitcoms seem to have been blessed when it comes to location shooting. Dad’s Army is another example of a series where nary a drop of rain is glimpsed. Red Dwarf, on the other hand, always seems to have the worst of weather for their trips outside of the studio.

So our trio head off to find ‘The Commodore’. and we’re treated to two 1970s staples; a scantily-clad, shrieking  woman and some ghastly, brown, flower-patterned curtains. The way in which Clarke has the Commodore bastardize Kenneth Grahame is also very cheeky.

Bob: Alright, can I introduce an element of actor geekery here?

Andrew: Can I stop you?

Robert Lang, up to no good below decks

Robert Lang, up to no good below decks

Bob: Robert Lang, who plays the ex-sea cadets Commodore ‘entertaining’ a young lady on his houseboat, was something of a theatrical powerhouse. He was talent-spotted by Laurence Olivier in the early 1960s, who’d seen him playing Theseus in the RSC’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Olivier tapped him up and encouraged him to jump ship to his newly-formed National Theatre Company! The famous critic Caryl Brahms once described him as having ‘quiet grandeur, cogency and gravity’, all essential qualities for a guest role in Last of the Summer Wine.  

And his young lady is a tiny role for Maggie Ollerenshaw, one of my favourite actresses. And clearly one of Roy Clarke’s too, as she’s also Wavy Mavis in Open All Hours, and went on to play Clegg’s mother in First of the Summer Wine! I love her, she’s got brilliant comic timing.

Andrew: I knew that I recognized that voice from somewhere!

Bob: The final stages of the episode are quite odd, in that our heroes are actually separated in a way that I don’t think has really happened before. Foggy steams ahead on his flag quest, while Clegg and Compo stay behind.

Andrew: Well, it is raining.

Bob: I like Compo’s remark about Wally’s pigeon – ‘That’d go well wi’ a few tatties’, which reminds me SO much of the stuff my Dad would say around this time… I had a pet rabbit, which he would (JOKINGLY!!!) remark would make for a cracking pie with a few carrots and peas. The legacy of a wartime childhood, I guess.

Andrew: My dad wasn’t so lucky. He was unknowingly fed his rabbit after my grandad’s weekly pay was delayed. Perhaps that’s why I was only ever allowed a hamster. Who wants to eat a hamster?

Wally really reminds me of one of my uncles here. I think it’s his pride in his racing pigeon photos. With my uncle, it was whippets, but it’s still very familiar. And I mean this as a compliment should you ever read this, Lar! (It’s actually my Auntie Sue who might knack me should she believe I’m comparing her to Nora by proxy).

Bob: And so – amazingly – Foggy’s plan comes to fruition! He DOES raise his flag on the top of the hillside! Until it falls over, obviously. But is this the first of Foggy’s harebrained schemes that’s actually reached a successful conclusion? It’s a watershed episode!

Foggy's flag goes up!

Foggy’s flag goes up!

Andrew: Dare we attempt to restage his attempt on our next trip to Holmfirth? It’ll have to be on a smaller scale, of course, but the idea of a Brian Wilde memorial flagpole strikes me a rather beautiful thing.

Bob: I enjoyed that, anyway. A huge improvement on the previous instalment with some great guest appearances and funny moments.

Andrew: And a fantastic punchline. All in all, I think that just about redeemed the last episode. Still a very strange two-parter, though.

What's in a Name?

The Database is a partial listing of the many unseen characters mentioned in passing throughout Last of the Summer Wine‘s history. Due to the proliferation of nicknames, characters are listed alphabetically by their first name, be that real or imagined. Read more

Series 3 Episode 3: The Great Boarding House Bathroom Caper

I loved these episodes. Can you tell? Absolutely my favourite of anything we’ve seen so far, and I think the series has hit an extraordinary peak at this stage. I genuinely can’t wait to carry on. Read more

Series 2 Episode 7: Northern Flying Circus

BOB: These first two series have a gritty, rough and ready atmosphere that I think slowly begins to lessen from hereon, and lots of that feel is down to Michael Bates who brings a real edge to proceedings. Whereas future ‘third men’ tend to be buffoons, Blamire really isn’t to be messed with Read more

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