5.1 – Full Steam Behind

In which our trio take a tank engine for a walk…

BOB: September 1979, and Summer Wine comes back for its first full series in two years. I’m assuming the gap year was down to Roy Clarke’s writing commitments… in 1978, his series Rosie – the police sitcom with Paul Greenwood – was broadcast, and earlier in 1979 Potter – with Arthur Lowe as the titular retired busybody – made its TV debut. On first impressions, the break from Summer Wine has done him a power of good, as this episode is one of my favourites of the entire run.

ANDREW:I’ll admit off the bat that the odds have been HEAVILY stacked in favour of me loving this episode. I haven’t seen it for a looong time and can’t recall any plot details, but I’m predisposed towards liking it simply because it features a steam engine. The Lady Vanishers, The Titfield Thunderbolt, Thomas the Tank Engine, the episode “The Royal Train” from Dad’s Army, and instalment 308 of The Muppet Show have all won me over with steam power.

I’ve no idea what it is about steam trains that appeal to me. I’m not one to amass trivia about their manufacturer’s or their model numbers and I was born far too late to hold any nostalgic attachments to that era. There’s just something about the sight of an iron beast puffing through the English countryside and the smell of coal and oil and water forcing tonnes of machinery forward along the rails that really does it for me. If Emma was here, she’d be rolling her eyes at me now as I do tend to get a little carried away. Take for example, my twenty-fifth birthday…

 

That getup is disturbingly close to that seen upon Foggy’s entrance in this episode, railway memorabilia clasped excitedly in hand.

BOB: I’m with you all the way, which explains why this episode is a bit of a watershed episode for me. Previously, Foggy has been portrayed as a well-meaning idiot… all of his strange schemes and ambitions are decidedly hare-brained, and Clegg and Compo’s objections to them are generally entirely justified. However, in this episode… brace yourself… sit down… put one hand on the sideboard and breathe deeply… FOGGY IS RIGHT! On a glorious summers day, a vintage steam train is travelling from Keighley to Oxenhope, and all he wants to do is take Compo and Clegg to greet it along the route.

And they don’t want to go! And I can’t, for the life of me, work out why. The sun is shining through sun-dappled leaves, the railway is a gorgeous, bumbling branch line meandering through countless sleepy villages, and I absolutely share Foggy’s enthusiasm for the whole, beautiful venture. ‘Have you no regard for the poetry of steam?’ he blusters. His wild-eyed joy, for once, is both justified and infectious.

ANDREW: Yes, this may be the first time I’ve ever sided with Foggy against Compo and Clegg! There’s nothing wrong in a healthy interest in railway preservation, I tell you!

At the aforementioned birthday, I too had to lure certain friends along with the promise of a pub at the end of the line. I hardly complained as we knocked back pints, but secretly I would have been happy to chuff up and down the line all day, pushing children out of the way in order to get a better view of the engine driver.

By the way, as our trio make their way to the railway, there’s a lovely sound gag – the first of two in this episode. Just as Compo challenges anybody to tell him what is wrong with his trousers and Foggy and Clegg stop dead in their tracks, so does hazlehurst’s music. That had me giggling like a loon. The second sound gag is a sitcom staple, with a well-timed steam engine’s whistle drowning out an expletive from Compo.

BOB: I adore the scene in the railwayman’s shed… a part-abandoned refuge, in the middle of sleepy nowhere. My mother will kill me if she reads this, but my friends and I used to regularly seek out similarly remote rail sheds back in our distant childhoods, and use them as makeshift HQs for our assaults upon the adult world. ‘There’s something tremendously nostalgic about places like this,’ sighs Foggy, leaning back with a distant look in his eyes. ‘I’d like to come here for a few hours every week, just lie on this sofa with a railway timetable and listen to the trains go by…’

‘Tat!’ spits a genuinely disgruntled Compo, and I want to dangle him off a bridge by his wellies. Compo and Clegg really are unpleasant company in this episode… the pair of them never stop whining throughout, about something that’s a genuinely lovely idea! Oh dear, can you tell I’m actually getting angry about this?

ANDREW:It isn’t long, of course, before Compo sets things in motion and our trio are faced with catching up to a runaway train. All of the action is still conducted at a Summer Wine pace, however. That is to say a leisurely one.

BOB: And Compo IS actually dangled off a bridge – dropping onto a speeding carriage to attempt a rescue mission. ‘What’s life without a slice of danger?’ snaps Foggy. ‘Longer,’ replies Compo. Nice stuff, but I’m not sure I need Summer Wine attempting to pre-empt Speed. The scenes set on the train itself are lovely, but it’s clear that we’re entering further still into broad, trad-sitcom territory.

Anyway… how geeky do you want to get with all this train stuff? An insane shiver of excitement ran through the very fibre of my being when I realized that, in one scene, it was possible to see the number on the train itself. It’s KWVR (Keighley and Worth Valley Railway) L89. It didn’t take much Googling at all to bring me here…

LINK

 …and if you scroll down to locomotive No 5775, that’s the chap. And although ‘in need of overhaul’, it’s currently on display at Oxenhope Railway Station! Surely a day out is on the cards…

ANDREW:You filthy temptress. The climax of our episode sees the trio attempt to stop the engine at the station where the local mayor, assembled dignitaries and a brass band are waiting. And once again it’s the Dodworth Colliery Miner’s Welfare Brass Band, led by musical director Graham O’Connor!

But what is that they are playing? A diagetic rendition of Hazlehurst’s Summer Wine theme. I’m not sure how I feel about that, actually. It’s very jarring for me to have the real-world trappings of the show invade the fantasy land of Clarke’s creation. In the context of this episode, what is the name of the song that the band are playing? Is it “The Last of the Summer Wine”? Does this make Ronnie Hazlehurst an on-screen character? My brain hurts!

BOB: Yes, are we starting to see hints of post-modernism creeping into Summe Wine country? That struck me as being really jarring, too.

ANDREW:So, did I love this episode above all others? Surprisingly, not really! I did like the episode, but it doesn’t tap into my tank engine obsession in the same way the abovementioned examples do. I think it all comes down the fact that Foggy’s passion for steam is tempered by Clegg and Compo’s not giving a fig – just as it should be in Summer Wine land. This world of Clarke’s creation is no place for one-dimensional rose-tinted nostalgia.

BOB: I’m surprised! It really is one of my favourites, but I agree that Clegg and Compo do come over as unnecessarily curmudgeonly.

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3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by jakob1978 on September 23, 2012 at 2:52 pm

    I’ve always found this episode rather over-rated, but then coming from a family of Rail Enthusiasts, i well know (and have felt on many occasions) Compo and Clegg’s reluctance to go and stare at a steam engine 🙂

    This was however Peter Sallis’ favourite episode, and Brian Wilde in an interview in the 90’s mentioned how much he’d enjoyed the making of it too.

    Reply

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