Last of the Summer Winos

It is late September 2009 and Bob Fischer and I are perched atop the perimeter wall of an old primary school somewhere just outside of Holmfirth. One of our partners has been roped in to taking a picture, while the other is sat with us; taking on the role of Foggy Dewhurst. Yes, we’re attempting to recreate a scene from Roy Clarke’s long running and much maligned sitcom Last of the Summer Wine; the feature length special, Getting Sam Home, to be exact. We are beyond hope…

Later, during that same trip, Bob suggested it might be “fun” to watch all of Last of the Summer Wine from the start. Despite pointing out that we’d probably be old enough to star in the show by the time we reached the finale, I liked the idea, but there had to be some justification for doing so other than that we are rather strange people. I suppose these blog posts represent that justification, flimsy though it may be.

Last of the Summer Wine has a reputation for excessive cosiness and when it is mentioned in conversation many are quick to dismiss the series as, “that sitcom where old men roll down hills in bathtubs all the time.” Surely, though, with 295 episodes and almost forty years under its belt, one shouldn’t be so quick to judge. Depending on which era one views, there are different elements in play. Summer Wine can be a slapstick comedy, but it also embraces elements of satire, black humour, observation and social realism. Hopefully, over the course of God knows how many instalments, we might be able to win you over.

About fifteen years separate Bob and I, but we both grew up with the series and before embarking upon this quest we decided to share our background. What did the series mean to us before we had the chance to reassess it?

Bob: It was actually a big favourite at school around 1981, and those are my first memories of consciously watching it. Aged eight, but me and all my similarly aged friends watched and loved it. I actually remember talking about it at school with my friend Andrew ‘Sug’ Sugden, and commenting that it was a show about ‘three tramps’. He hastily put me right…

Looking at the episode guide, there wasn’t a series in 1981 though, so we must have been watching repeats of earlier episodes. I definitely remember a few us giggling about the title ‘The Kink In Foggy’s Niblick’, which is from 1976, so that would be right.

The first ‘new’ episodes I watched would have been the Jan/Feb 1982 series, and loads of those were really familiar when I watched the DVDs… it’s the classic ‘Wellies To Wet Suit’ series.

Andrew: For me, Last of the Summer Wine was always one of those things that was just there; part of the Sunday routine along with a proper dinner and a last chance to run about a bit in the evening before school. I couldn’t say when I first tuned in, but I do know that it was always the Clegg, Compo and Foggy line-up in what I later leaned was its second phase. As far as I knew then, that was the way it had always been, so looking back now at other eras is quite strange.

The fact that it ran for so long is really mind boggling and, as we set off on our marathon, quite intimidating.

So, without further ado…

0.1 The Pilot/Of Funerals and Fish

In which we are introduced to three old men trying to fill their time.

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 in order to take advantage of the free ride. Off the bat, this introduction encapsulates a lot of what I love about the series at its best; 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 claustrophic back yards and alleyways, and the authentic grime of an early 70s industrial Yorkshire town. 

I’ve wondered recently why the streets of my 70s 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’.

ANDREW: That 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 and I quite like the fact that the BBC have decided to celebrate the end of the series with a Songs of Praise Special when it actually began with two of the principle characters questioning 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 their 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.

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5 responses to this post.

  1. I watched the pilot at lunchtime, and ordered the first two series on the strength of it. I was very young during the Michael Bates era, but I remember it being a very different show in the 1970s from what it later became as your blog suggests. So you’ve reeled me in!

    Reply

  2. My hair is terrible in that picture at the top. Far too short. Can someone photoshop a green woolly hat onto me?

    Reply

  3. Posted by Joe on April 21, 2011 at 3:04 am

    I didn’t know Russell Crowe was a Jet Set Willy fan!

    Reply

    • Posted by Andrew T. Smith on May 2, 2011 at 10:22 am

      The only similarity between Fischer and Crowe is that they get lary after a few pints!

      Reply

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