Series 2 Episode 6: Ballad For Wind Instruments & Canoe

In which our trio pursue canoeing, and fail to drop Compo right in it…

Andrew: This really is the first of the stunt episodes. While there have been elements of physical comedy in the past, nothing matches up to a canoe ride. Still, though, the decision to take to the river in a canoe extends naturally from the trio’s status as layabouts. However, the sight of Compo dangling over a bridge, and of the trio in Victorian bathing suits, must be the broadest comedy the series has offered so far. A sign of things soon to come… it all looks rather appealing, though.

Bob: Yes, I thought the same… this is the first of the real ‘caper’ episodes, in which our heroes embark on an unlikely physical escapade that inevitably ends in disaster. Usually with the involvement of a large physical prop… and, of course, in this case it’s the canoe that drifts into their lives as they idle away an afternoon at the river’s edge.

Andrew: Speaking of stunts, this must be apex of Clegg’s adventurous spirit. The character I grew up with would be far too worried to go diving into the deep end of a stream, let along propose a canoeing expedition. I wonder if the incoming introduction of Foggy will prompt this evolution.

Drew's time-travelling Steve Pemberton

Drew’s time-travelling Steve Pemberton

Bob: Clegg’s very adventurous at this stage, isn’t he? This is the latest in a few examples of Clegg desperately wanting to break away from the confines of Holmfirth and go out… well, adventuring. ‘The key to thousands of tranquil miles of British pollution,’ he deadpans. ‘Mile after mile of waterway, we can get drowned almost anywhere…’ I wonder how long it’s meant to have been since his wife died at this point? You get the impression he’s been through a long recovery phase and is now keen to start enjoying himself and testing his mettle a little.

Andrew: Post-Traumatic Spouse Disorder.

Bob: Interesting that you mention Foggy, as I thought a few of Blamire’s lines in this episode pre-empted the introduction of Brian Wilde’s character. In particular, the opening scenes where he’s musing about his military career… ‘I’ve seen men delirious with jungle fever,’ he barks. ‘I’d like to see you lot try to make a camp in a mango swamp’. Roy Clarke definitely carried over some of this attitude into Foggy’s character, with a crucial difference… with Foggy, it’s made very clear that his military musings are almost all complete fantasy, and his ‘hard man’ trappings are constantly debunked and undermined by Clegg and Compo.

With Blamire, there’s no such debunking – so we have to assume that his stories are all actually true, and he’s genuinely a force to be reckoned with. It’s official – Blamire’s absolutely hard as nails!

Andrew: Has Steve Pemberton travelled back in time in order to play Arnpepper? It’s an uncanny physical and vocal resemblance. It’s a great character part, and the template for many Summer Wine eccentrics to follow.

Bob: Yes, Arnpepper is a fine character, although I didn’t spot the resemblance to Steve Pemberton! He looks more like Ronnie Corbett to me. His introduction is great, though…  drifting half-submerged along the river, two minutes behind his wayward canoe. ‘Howdo lads, have you seen a canoe?’ he shouts, casually, to our heroes. ‘What colour?’ deadpans Clegg. Brilliant stuff.

And it’s nice to see another scene in a disused farm building, as he attempts to dry off and bequeaths his canoe to our three heroes! John F Landy, who plays Arnpepper, did a lot of fine TV character acting in the 1970s and 80s. He pops up in Minder and Boon, amongst many others.

Montmorency not pictured...

Montmorency not pictured…

Andrew: Arnpepper mentions Look North. I don’t think I’ve ever heard Look North mentioned on television outside of… well, Look North. Now that it is mentioned I have a strange feeling of ownership. ‘That’s my local news programme, that is!’

Bob: I felt exactly the same, although I feel a bit of a party pooper in pointing out that the Yorkshire version of Look North is different to ours… it’s a separate programme made by BBC Leeds. But lines like that work wonders in grounding the show to a very specific place, and giving the characters a base in reality. Arnpepper is an eccentric, surreal character, and therefore exactly the kind of man that would want to get his five minutes of fame on regional TV! And oh, in the 1970s, regional TV was always more than happy to oblige.

There’s a nice line in that strange pie-eating scene in the café as well. Sid offers to pay for the pies, to which Ivy angrily retorts ‘You know we’re saving up for that mobile chip van!’ A van that I don’t think we actually see onscreen for another eight years, when it becomes a crucial part of the Getting Sam Home feature-length special that I know we both adore. Although that show is based on a novel that Roy Clarke wrote during these early years, so I guess the mobile chip van was heavily in his thoughts during 1974/75!

Andrew: Archaic reference alert! Compo refers to Blamire as Joe E. Brown during the biggest gob completion. That almost flew over my head, but rekindled some memories of old-time Hollywood comedy. Today, he’s probably best remembered for delivering the final line in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot. Here’s the gob in question:

‘Well… nobody’s perfect!’

Bob: Indeed, and I noticed Compo actually says Joe E Brown’s legendary line ‘Nobody’s perfect’ later in the episode! I wonder if Roy Clarke had seen Some Like It Hot around the time he wrote this episode, and thought he’d pay a subtle homage? Although Joe E Brown died in July 1973, so I suppose it might have been a personal tribute to Joe himself? Whatever, it’s a clever little touch.

As you’ve said, the closing scenes are very broad (especially the swimming costumes disguised with leaves and branches – far more conspicuous than just walking home in the costumes themselves!) but the canoeing scenes themselves are heavenly… the sun-dappled river, the shady, rustling trees and our three idle heroes drifting lazily into nothingness. It’s almost a metaphor for the show itself at this stage.

Series 2 Episode 2: Who's That Dancing With Nora Batty, Then?

In which Blamire tinkles the ivories and Compo contemplates life down under…

Andrew: Nora and Compo’s neighbour Gloria emigrating to Australia sets something of a precedent, as Nora ends up moving there herself when she’s written out of the show. I might be misremembering, but I’m sure other characters move Down Under as well. I wonder if Roy Clarke sees it as the perfect antidote to Yorkshire gloom?

Bob: Emigrating to Australia was a big thing in the 1960s and 1970s… it was seen as the ultimate antidote to working class British life, not just Yorkshire. The Kinks even made a concept album about it (Arthur Or The Decline And Fall Of The British Empire, from 1969 – check it out, it’s their best album) and the cliché of barbies on the beach on sunny Christmas mornings was a huge draw for many disillusioned Brits tired of the darkness and drizzle. I’d be surprised if there were any families around in the 1970s that didn’t lose at least one member or close friend to the lure of the Antipodes. I certainly did  – I’ve got quite a few cousins that have been over there for nearly forty years now.

I think there’s an onrunning storyline in Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em as well, with Frank and Betty contemplating the move? I haven’t seen those for a long time, though.

Anyway, isn’t Gloria lovely? It always seems slightly incongruous when Roy Clarke introduces younger characters to Summer Wine, but I wish we’d seen more of this giggly, earthy redhead – there’s a nice, threeway dynamic between her, Norah and Compo, with Gloria clearly being very fond of them both. She reminds me of the young housewives I used to see around Teesside in the 1970s… all headscarves and Nimble bread. Apparently Angela Crow, who plays her, was a Coronation Street regular in the early 1960s, but I’ve never seen any of those episodes. She still seems to be acting regularly on TV, bless her.

Andrew: Yes, she was in Corrie – she was Doreen Lostock, the barmaid in the Rovers Return, in the very early days.

Bob: Is this the first mention of Norah’s wrinkled stockings as well? We’re ticking off the ‘firsts’ here!

Tipping the Draylon...?

Tipping the Draylon…?

Andrew: Any thoughts on the new librarians, Miss Probert and Miss Jones? I’m not quite sure what to make of them yet, and I certainly miss the animal lust of Mr Wainwright and Miss Partridge. Aren’t series that underperform in the ratings supposed to ADD sex rather than take it away? Then again, I’m definitely getting a bit of a velvet-tipping vibe from the new duo.

Bob: Oh, definitely comedy lesbians, in the traditional sitcom ‘comfortable shoes’ style. Some lovely Roy Clarke dialogue again… ‘We’ll have an entire section labelled FOR DEGENERATES and see who has the nerve to browse through it…’ ‘That Mr Charlesworth has had Sex Amongst The Eskimos for eight weeks now…’ The early 70s was the era when ‘proper’ sex began to infiltrate mainstream culture for the first time – the age of the Confessions films, Linda Lovelace and a legion of ‘mucky books’ appearing in mainstream shops following the relaxing of the obscenity laws in the 1960s. I remember my parents having a book called Dear John by Olle Lansburg that clearly fell into the Sex Amongst The Eskimos territory, although I imagine with the benefit of hindsight it’s incredibly tame! I’m with Miss Probert, though. Ban the lot of them.

Andrew: Yeah, yeah… having spent the night in your spare room I feel it necessary to mention your hidden stash of Wrinkled Stockings Monthly.

Bob:  I noticed a nice thing about Michael Bates in these library scenes as well… he varies his Yorkshire accent. Clearly Blamire wants to ‘better himself’ and so Bates plays many of his scenes with an almost RP voice, but when Blamire gets angry or frustrated he slips into broader Yorkshire. Mollie Sugden used a similar technique as Mrs Slocombe, but Bates is much more subtle.

Andrew: Shep, the shell-shocked Lollypop Man, is a quite wonderful creation, the cantankerous old army veteran who hates children, but who giggles like a schoolboy himself at the mention of one of Compo’s old flames.

Jack Woolgar looks on the bright side

Jack Woolgar looks on the bright side

Bob: That’s a great scene. Shep is played by Jack Woolgar, who was forever popping up as tramps and dirty old men in 1960s and 70s TV shows. And another bleak, deserted outbuilding gets used as a shelter for layabouts and middle-aged smokers! Again, Angela Crow puts in a lovely performance when Gloria turns up to joins them, and breaks down into little sobs as she realises what she’s leaving behind. Lesser writers than Roy Clarke would have heaped on the pathos and wrung every last emotion from the scene, but no… our heroes give her a cigarette and drift away, leaving her with her thoughts. And there’s 1970s Britain for you, again… there was much less time for sentiment and self-indulgence. Three fifty-year-old men know full well there’s nothing they can say to a crying thirty-year-old woman, so they gently leave her alone and wander off to find something else to do. It’s a very different era.

Series 1 Episode 6: Hail Smiling Morn Or Thereabouts


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


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


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


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


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

In which our trio look for ways to while away their autumn years…

(NOTE: Our thoughts on Last of the Summer Wine’s first episode were first posted to this site way back in 2014. They were revised and expanded as part of the preparation for the first Summer Winos book in 2020)

Andrew: Here we go, then; Episode One! From the get-go I can tell you that this isn’t quite the series that I remember from growing up. Last of the Summer Wine, in my minds eye, is bathed in sunlight on a bright and clear Sunday afternoon, but the landscape we open upon is overcast, with the wind blasting the grass on the hillsides of Holmfirth. This is definitely not the slickly-produced sitcom that I remember, either. A lady in the studio audience coughs her way through the theme tune and nobody thought to bother taking it out!

Bob: Yes, 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 photographs, 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. And we begin the episode with a penniless, wheezing Compo having his ancient, rented TV repossessed. In the words of the eye-rolling Nora Batty outside, “it must be Tuesday”.

How young does Bill Owen look?! And by young, I obviously mean middle-aged, greasy and knackered. Still, he’s very much not an old man, is he? The same goes for Kathy Staff. Mrs Batty might be a bit sour-faced, but she’s far from the intimidating battleaxe the country came to know and love. And did she just refer to her husband as “Harold”? Given that we later meet her fella and he’s called Wally, does this mean that the pilot isn’t canon? This is the sort of important thing we need to get to the bottom of, Bob!

Bob: She did! She definitely did! The entire 37-year-run is now invalidated in my eyes. Let’s call it quits right here. 

Andrew: I know I started this entry with a moan about somebody coughing during the theme tune, but the honesty of the way in which audience laughter was recorded at this point in television history is something I really like. You can hear real individuals on the laugh track; people like the woman who cackles madly when Nora and her friends make reference to the fact that Compo’s wife ran off with a Pole. Nobody else in the audience finds this fact as funny as this one woman and, though we’ll never know, why we can assume she must have felt some sort of personal connection to the gag!

Bob: Maybe she’d run off with a Pole herself? I like that personal touch too; there’s a woman in the studio audience of Monty Python’s Flying Circus who laughs riotously and very conspicuously through several consecutive episodes. I’ve since seen suggestions that it might have been John Cleese’s then-wife (and future Fawlty Towers star) Connie Booth! 

Andrew: I’m sure somebody will contact us and tell me I’m talking complete rubbish, but the use of handheld camerawork in these opening scenes strikes me as very peculiar. It lends the scene a slight – and I do mean slight – documentary feel that I wasn’t expecting!

Bob: Stanley Kubrick learned everything he knew from Jimmy Gilbert. The personalities of our three main characters is established very swiftly; we’ve already seen that Compo lives in a state of shambolic impoverishment, and – as he meets up with Blamire – we get a feeling of the latter’s haughty, detached air; a man whose pretensions to the the officer classes have not been diminished by his return to civilian life.

And then we meet Clegg, chatting on a freezing churchyard bench with a hangdog vicar, and describing how he has recently observed a man carefully carrying a tiny, quivering bird to his hungry cat… “Life’s like that,” he muses. “A complex texture of conflicting moralities.” It’s smalltown, Northern philosophy writ large. There’s a real whiff of Alan Bennett about so many of Clegg’s early musings.

We see him tending the grave of his wife, too… “Edith Clegg, 1900-1971”. So Clegg is a relatively recent widower, and – if we assume that Clegg and Peter Sallis are the same age here – he was 21 years younger than his late wife. That rings true, actually. I can imagine the wistful, idealistic Clegg being mothered by an older woman who was far more capable than him of dealing with the grim practicalities of everyday life.

The vicar, by the way, is played by Michael Stainton, who went on to be the dad in Metal Mickey. I felt it important to make that a matter of public record.

Andrew: Last of the Summer Wine always had a strong bond with the town and countryside in which it was filmed, and this is established from the very beginning – the pilot opens with a full eight-and-a-half minute location sequence before our trio head into a disused chapel and the production switches to the videotaped confines of Television Centre. That’s a hell of a lot of filmed material for a fledgling sitcom, isn’t it?

Bob: I could have been fooled by the disused chapel, to be honest! Even the specially-built sets reek of 1970s British grime. 

Andrew: This is all surprisingly topical, isn’t it? Not in a “news of the day” sense, but in how willing Clarke’s script is to grapple with politics and religion. In fact, on the religious front, it’s quite an interesting view of Britain as a Christian country.

Bob: Yes, Blamire in particular seems to have a leaning towards staunch Anglican traditions – but it isn’t especially presented as a prominent part of his character; it’s just there, in the background. Which I suspect is how large swathes of the population saw the Church of England in the 1970s; even if they weren’t devout church-goers, it was still part of the tapestry of everyday life. And if we want more vintage bleakness… Canon Jamieson, as commemorated on a plaque on the chapel wall, was – according to Clegg – “more than democratic in his ways with the choirboys”. Again, this is dark stuff.

I do love the “talky” nature of all this, though. Despite the frequent use of real-life locations, this would work perfectly as a theatre production. There’s no plot to speak of, it’s simply 27 minutes of perfectly observed character-building, and brilliantly-scripted conversation. 

Andrew: “Somebody’s got to think about these things, and who’s got more time than we have?” muses Clegg. I struggle to think of another pilot that lays out its premise as neatly as that. In just one sentence, Roy Clarke has set the template for 37 series of television!

Bob: Into the library, and I guess lots of hardcore fans will be aware of the fact that Last of the Summer Wine’s early working title was The Library Mob, with this location providing the hub for our main trio’s daily loafing… even more so than the legendary café in these early years. And, whereas in later episodes they would face the wrath of Ivy and her buns of iron, in these initial episodes it’s the head librarian, the avowed communist Mr Wainwright, who is their nemesis. And good grief, what an introduction we get to him… his opening appearance sees him emerging from below the library’s main desk, where the clear implication is that he’s been – ahem – thumbing through the lower portions of his married assistant, Mrs Partridge! “I have to touch you… it’s a need…” 

Andrew: I love Blake Butler’s performance as Mr. Wainwright. The repressed sexual energy of the character is bursting from the tip of his Trotsky-esque beard. Although for all his bluster about middle-class morality and lefty politics, his choice of D.H. Lawrence as Mrs Partridge’s gateway to erotica is charmingly middle-of-the-road!

Bob: It is by modern standards, but Penguin Books were prosecuted and taken to court for publishing Lady Chatterley’s Lover only thirteen years before this episode was broadcast. It had been untouched by a mainstream publisher for 32 years until then, and the 1959 Obscene Publications Act had a field day with a book riddled with language fit only for the confines of the billiard parlour. It’s right mucky, it is. They should put that on the cover.

Mrs Partridge is nicely played by Rosemary Martin too, who was a regular face on TV in the 1970s and 1980s. She conveys just the right blend of timidity and sexual frustration. “My husband likes to watch The High Chaparral, then I have to get his Ovaltine.”

And this is the strangest erotic moment I’ve ever seen: Mr Wainwright is below the desk, clearly – ahem – “attending” to Mrs Partridge, but reaches up to grab a little green book from the counter, which he then… does something with. Something that drives her to even further heights of desire. As someone who occasionally collects vintage books, I’m going to guess that one would now be described as having “light foxing.”

Andrew: Clegg isn’t the timid character we’ll grow to love is he? Just look at the swagger he displays as he flagrantly lights up a cigarette beside the library’s “No Smoking” sign, and his defiance as he stubs it out into an inkpot under Mr Wainwright’s nose. It’s only right that he be thrown out of the library!

Bob: And when he was nine, he was intimate with Muriel Fairfax in a sandpit. The man has hidden shallows. Compo too is a darker character than in later years; he’s still incredibly bitter about the “scabby Pole” that ran off with his wife – it makes him genuinely angry, although I’m assuming it happened decades ago… possibly even during the war?

Andrew: There’s a stock question that actors in long-running series always get asked on chat shows – “When you first started working on Insert Long-Running Show Here, did you have any idea you’d still be talking about it so many years later?” Almost all of them answer that they had no idea what kind of success the series would enjoy, but this must be especially true for Jane Freeman. Her role as Ivy in this pilot is incredibly small, but she ended up playing the part for almost four decades!

Bob: I know… it’s literally seconds, but she sets her stall out. She’s in a foul temper from the very start. Nice to get an early glimpse of John Comer too, as her dry-witted husband Sid. He’d been a hugely prolific TV and film actor from the late 1950s onwards – he starred alongside Peter Sellers in I’m Alright Jack and Heavens Above!, and he’d made regular appearances in Coronation Street and Z-Cars, amongst many others. But, as with so many actors, it was Last of the Summer Wine that really cemented him as a household favourite, at a comparatively late age. He was nearly fifty when the series started, but to our generation he’ll always be “Sid from the café”.  

Andrew: Cast away from the library and then the café, our trio very much feel like schoolkids turfed out of the house, bored during the last days of the summer holidays – just wandering aimlessly in search of something interesting. The honesty with which Holmfirth is depicted continues too, as Cyril treads in dog muck (probably white), and the trio make their way to a stream that’s absolutely infested with midges. This isn’t a plot point at all, the location is genuinely swarming with them.

Bob: Midges were everywhere in the 1970s! Gardens were always full of them, for no discernable reason, and my arms and legs were permanently covered in bites from the vicious little buggers! They were the hoodlums of the insect world, just hanging around on street corners looking to cause bother. Where did they all go? Is there now a Midge Retirement Home where they all recline in tiny bath chairs, swapping stories of the famous people they’ve bitten? “Did I ever tell you, Ethel, I once took a lump out of Alvin Stardust’s ankle…”

Despite the infestation, our trio catch a tiny, tiddler fish and keep it in a jar. I’d be outraged if modern kids inflicted such an indignity on a poor creature like this, but in 1973 this was an integral part of any kids’ summertime jolly. Again, it’s that school holiday feeling, isn’t it? They’re absolutely regressing to activities they would have previously enjoyed five decades years earlier.

And feel free to put Compo’s pub conversation about the heavenly genitalia of angels on our “That Would Never Have Happened In The Later Series” list, too. This really feels like late-night comedy, and yet it was broadcast on BBC1 at 8pm on a Thursday evening. We’d come a long way since the Obscene Publications Act of 1959. 

Andrew: Outside the pub, who should our trip spot emerging from Lover’s Lane but the Mr Wainwright and Mrs Partridge? Clegg reckons that’ll provide enough leverage to allow our trio back into the library the following day.

Bob: I laughed out loud at Compo’s musings once they return to their spiritual home amongst the bookshelves. “Do you think I’m in love with Nora Batty? Or is it just sex?” The thought of the pair of them actually doing it… good grief, I think even Mr Wainwright’s ardour would be dampened. And then a line that took us both by surprise! “Cyril,” says Clegg to an aghast Blamire, “Your idea of orgasm is a quick flick through Burke’s Peerage!” 

Andrew: The use of the word “orgasm” really shook me, as it seems completely out-of-step with the Summer Wine that I grew up with as a kid in the 1990s. The sort of people who now praise the series for its “family values” and gentle comedy must surely have forgotten all the political, religious and sexual debate going on in these early years! Thinking about it, 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: Can I just point out that I’m glad the episode ends with that poor captured fish being returned to its native stream? 

Andrew: Clegg departs in search of sausage for his tea, and we end exactly as we began, with the credits rolling over the same view of the Holme Valley. It’s only just dawned on me that there’s been a beautifully subtle theme running through the entirety of this episode. When we’re introduced to Compo, his neighbours know the day of the week because his television is being taken away. When we meet Clegg, he enters proceedings just as a coffin in a hearse makes its exit. The trio are thrown out of the library, and then regain access to it. They catch a tiddler and let it go again. They part at the end, knowing that they’re going to go through the same routine the very next day.  This isn’t presented a something tragic – it’s just a fact of life (and death), and in a way it comes across as a reassuring comfort for three characters who’ve been left behind by society. 

The episode has achieved what some of my very favourite sitcom episodes manage – it’s a perfectly self-sufficient piece of television. If this pilot was as far as Last of the Summer Wine ever got, it would still hold up as a beautiful piece of work, and we’d feel like we really got to know these characters well.

Bob: Absolutely. It’s a superb-written and performed piece of TV. And the premise is absolutely explicit and perfectly encapsulated… it’s about three fifty-something men whose working and family lives are effectively over, reverting to childhood because they have no other way of passing the time. It’s both funny and dark, and it positively drips with melancholy. And it’s obvious from the start that the three main protagonists are perfectly cast… Bates, Sallis and Owen make their characters utterly believable and three-dimensional from their very first lines. The 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 ensuing 37 years.

Andrew: Oh, and the waste ground on which the trio bid their farewells is now the site of a Co-op car park. How’s that for progress?

Bob: Get off your high horse, Smith. We always park there. 

Andrew: One down, two-hundred-and-ninety-four to go…

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