Wine appreciation

How has this sitcom lasted so long, asks Chris Hallam

Last of the Summer Wine has been on our screens since 1973. This is, on the face of it, insane. It is, after all, a sitcom based around the premise of three old men enjoying their retirement in the Yorkshire Pennines. Had writer Roy Clarke deliberately set out to create a scenario less likely to endure for 37 years, then you would have thought this would have seemed ideal. Yet here it is.

While it seems absurd to imagine that Bless This House, Love Thy Neighbour or Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em could still be being broadcast ten years into the 21st century, the fact is Last of the Summer Wine is still on. Or at least it will be until Sunday August 29.

Its longevity is all the more remarkable for the fact that this really was what Seinfeld was often falsely said to be: a show about nothing. The series essentially centred on a trio, the most famous being ultra-pompous, ex-military man Foggy (Brian Wilde), lecherous semi-tramp Compo (Bill Owen) and the more thoughtful Norman Clegg (Peter Sallis).

The line-up changed over the years (only Clegg has endured throughout) and a crop of supporting characters arose around them, but the set up has largely always been the same. Although not senile, the trio enjoy a second childhood, often involving physical comedy or some effort by Compo to romantically impress local battleaxe Norah Batty (Kathy Staff). All set to the late Ronnie Hazlehurst’s evocative theme tune and relentless incidental music.

And that’s pretty much it. The series makes a mockery of the Simpsons joke that British sitcoms rarely last more than six episodes. There have been 292 episodes of Last of the Summer Wine – more even than long running US series such as Frasier, Friends and Cheers (although not The Simpsons). Personally, I’d struggle to remember a storyline from more than a few episodes, although most viewers seem to have a half-remembered image of the trio riding down a hill in a tin bath implanted in their brains.

There was less physical comedy when the series began with the late Michael Bates’ character Cyril Blamire filling the role later taken by Foggy in 1973. Foggy gave way egotistical ex-headmaster Seymour (Michael Aldridge) in the mid-80s, only to return when Seymour himself left in the 90s.

A short lived spin-off 20 years ago, First of the Summer Wine set on the eve of the Second World War saw Peter Sallis playing Clegg’s own father. Although enjoyable, the series missed the point. The novelty of the original lay in seeing old people behave like children. Where was the humour in seeing people only just out of school recapturing their childhood?

In the last decade, there has been a general feeling that the main show has outstayed its welcome. Bill Owen’s death in 1999 provoked the remarkably poignant Elegy For Fallen Wellies episode, which witnessed Compo’s funeral. The episode could potentially have marked an appropriate and moving end to a series already past its natural shelf life.

Instead, the series has plodded on becoming a virtual retirement home for any comedy actor of the 70s and 80s, Brian Murphy (George and Mildred), Stephen Lewis (On The Buses), Burt Kwouk (The Pink Panther films) and even Russ Abbott have all found a place there, Frank Thornton of Are You Served? already having replaced Foggy. Even now, it is only a BBC decision to cancel it which has brought the flow of wine to an end.

Yet maybe it is wrong to criticise a show which is not only virtually catchphrase-free but which has, for whatever reason, found a definite niche in the popular psyche.

Will Rev, Vexed or Grandma’s House still be on in 2047? It seems unlikely. And it is as well to remember: it could have been much worse. At least this isn’t the 31st series of Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em.


Published: 16 Aug 2010

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