Recently, Summer Winos had the opportunity to sit down and interview Stuart Fell, one of the great unsung heroes of Last of the Summer Wine. If a skateboard needed mounting, a ladder needed climbing, or a dry-stone wall needed falling off, Stuart was the man the BBC turned to. Chatty, active and cheerful, he was kind enough to guide us through his long career as a stunt-man.
What did you aspire to be as a child?
Well, I was born Morecambe in Lancashire, which isn’t a million miles away from Holmfirth… but my Father was in the RAF during the war and we travelled around a lot. My father was posted to Scotland. We spent a few years there before being posted to places all over the country, as well as abroad. My brother and I were always exploring the countryside and doing quite dangerous things, and one or two of my schools had some very good gymnastic coaches, which was quite rare in those days.
But I started life in electronics. I was an electronic tester, but I didn’t like working indoors… so I joined the army. The regiment I joined was a parachute regiment, which I got on well with. They earmarked me as a Physical Training instructor because I was able to stand on my hands and do a backflip… that type of thing. And I was in Borneo and gained quite a lot of experience with more modern weapons than a lot of the established stuntmen had previously been used to. They’d been on things like 303s and old-fashioned mortars, but the army had brought in newer weapons. So I was trained in those, and I went on lots and lots of courses. I enjoyed learning things in the army – climbing, underwater swimming… anything I could get onto, really.
So I imagine that, at this point, becoming a stuntman wasn’t at the back of your mind?
Well, as a child on the RAF camps, there was a cinema for all the airmen and we pretty much got free access to it. They’d change the film every night, and they were always action films. So my brother and I would re-enact the films that they showed there. We were film buffs. It was always in the back of my mind that I’d love to get into films, but it was almost impossible. I wrote several letters to try and get into different productions, but I never got a reply so I took a job as an electronic tester. But, when I came out of the army, I had become a gymnastic coach as well as a training instructor so I went to a stunt agency and said, “Look, I’m a gymnast and I’d like to become a stuntman.” To which they replied, “Oh, bugger off.” (Laughs) And they were right. You had to have a lot of experience. You had to know how to move and how to act… and it’s not just the ability to do these things; you’ve got to know where the studios are for a start, so that you can get there! Lots of little things that you should know.
But I got into a conversation with another agency and this chap said, “Look, I wouldn’t go around stunt agencies asking to get in because it’s very, very close knit. But because you’re a gymnast, why don’t you go around saying you’re a tumbler?” And there were agencies, and there probably still are, that were jobbing agencies. If you wanted a midget, they had midgets. If you wanted a bearded lady, they had bearded ladies… many of those people were variety folk. So I went to an agency that took on these small parts. Although I didn’t realise it, the fellow was actually going bankrupt… but he took me on and I was surprised to get quite a lot of work from him.
So I got onto things like Hark At Barker that had lots of comedy slapstick sketches. Ronnie Barker kept asking for me, and he started writing scripts to include me. That was the start. Anyway, the agent went bankrupt and I lost quite a bit of money out of that, but in the meantime I had been going to a gymnasium in Tottenham Court Road where the established stuntmen went to train. One fellow, Derek Ware, ran an agency called HAVOC. They were all at the gym every Saturday morning and they accepted me because I’d been getting some stunt work off my own bat anyway, through this agency.
They gave me some work on Doctor Who, and after that I never looked back. Doctor Who used to work nine months of the year, and I didn’t mind playing monsters. A lot of actors didn’t like playing them, because their faces were covered! And some didn’t like taking television work in case it interfered with a film that was coming up that might offer, say, three months continuous work. I wasn’t likely to get on a film, so I was just taking all of this television. And the people who made Doctor Who did lots of other drama for television, too. So when they went onto things like Poldark, if they needed stuntmen then they’d choose the people they’d worked with. So without realising it, working on the different Doctor Who productions was establishing me for other drama series. I found myself getting a lot of work through ITV and BBC by simply being available to work with different directors that I’d already been introduced to, and worked for.
I also started getting quite a lot of comedy work. Ronnie Barker, as I said, did Hark at Barker and then – shortly after – started doing The Two Ronnies. He used to write a great deal of the scripts and he would sometimes say, “Get Stuart in, and he’ll arrange this because he did something similar on Hark at Barker.” Knowing somebody like that… that was great. He would often write the scripts with me in mind.
Time is essential in television. You can’t hold them up. With films, they’d tell you what they wanted and give you a couple of days to rig it. You might do a test shoot and the director would say, “Yes that’s what I want,” and you’d do it. But in television it’s not like that at all! They’d say, “Look, Stuart, we’ve got about fifteen minutes before we lose the light. Can you do something very quick for us?” So you often did that… and I’ve got a reputation for being accommodating, I suppose.
Were you surprised when Last of the Summer Wine came into your life? I can imagine how stunt work would be a big part of something like Doctor Who, a show with a lot of action in it, but Last of the Summer Wine had been running for a couple of years before you first took part, and it had a reputation as quite a sedate, script-driven sitcom.
I can’t actually remember if I’d worked with him (director Sydney Lotterby) directly before, but somehow Sydney knew of me… or someone in his office knew of me. There was a sequence, I think in the second series, with a carrot and I was asked to give some advice on it! The special effects department asked me if I could come and have a look at this carrot and see if I could do something with it, but I wasn’t available to do anything.
But I believe that, for the second series, the figures had dropped and they weren’t going to do any more, but they’d got a Christmas special, and they’d given Compo a skateboard. It was the very last scene and it was a runaway skateboard with Compo on it, and a superb brass band in a lovely lane near Holmfirth, with steps and dustbins everywhere, and all sorts of obstacles down the lane. They said, “This is virtually the last scene. The brass band is coming up the hill playing Christmas carols and Compo is on his way down, because he’s been playing with these kids and their skateboard. See what you can do for us.” So we did it, and it turned out quite well, and I remember Roy Clarke saying to me that this was the missing ingredient. He said that, up to then, they’d never got up to any falling about or falling down. But the Christmas special was successful, and they’d given the series another go, so he was going to try and write in scenes for the lads to do. Not very ambitious, because they were old men!
As a result, Sydney Lotterby used to ask me to go on the location recces. We would talk about the stunts and find some dry walls to fall off! In my enthusiasm I would try to build the stunts up and whenever there was a stunt it seemed to fit quite nicely with the balance of the series. I mean, obviously, they were old men weren’t they? They weren’t supposed to kill themselves! They were just supposed to be funny… pratfalls, falling on their bums, and in ditches. Anyway, they used to spend their money getting me up there and shooting it. I would tell them what I might need and it worked! Viewing figures started to go up, and I seemed to get asked to do it every year for the next 21 years.
After a while, Alan Bell came in as director and the pressure was on him. They didn’t give him an awful lot of money to make these things, I must say. I used to improvise greatly and try to save them some money. His problem was that the cast were three old men, and they couldn’t do their own standing-in very well. In films, you have a lighting stand-in when you’re setting up, but in television they don’t do that. They just get the actors to stand there for a few minutes and get the lighting sorted out. But Yorkshire is notorious for lighting, and it would take longer than normal! We had a huge, silver reflector that would reflect the light, wherever it was, onto the three of them. So they needed somebody to stand there instead of the cast, then they’d call the actors to do their lines before they went back to their caravan. That cost them extra money, getting three stand-ins. It also meant they would have to call me up, and sometimes it chucked down with rain so they had to ask you to stay an extra day… which cost them more money! It was very inconvenient really, having these three extra people to stand in for the cast, and then the stunt wasn’t able to be used because it was chucking down with rain or they were losing the light and it was wasting away their money. So they cut down on things like advanced recces.
Anyway, we had quite a good relationship working on that, but it was a bit annoying because if I had been able to recce it and ask for the right budget and equipment, we might have been able to get it done better. But anyway… that lasted 21 years. If I was available I used to go up there and do the stunts, and it was great fun. I hope it helped with the success of the programme.
And then along came an accountant, who looked into ways that they might be losing money, and she put her finger on it and said, “Look, the stuntman has to come all the way from London! Can’t you get a stuntman who lives up here?” Anyway, by chance there was a chap that had been a stuntman in London, and he’d bought a pub near Holmfirth so he was very local. So they found it a bit cheaper to get him in, and he did quite a lot of the work.
Bill Owen had a very distinctive way of moving. Did you try and imitate that when you were standing in for him?
He did have a very distinctive way of moving, but you learn how to watch those characteristics and mimic them. Yes, it was easy to copy, to be honest. There were lots of shots with frogman suits and flippers and climbing up walls, and I was able to mimic him with no trouble at all because he had very characteristic movements. We were also the same height! By coincidence, years ago when I first started doing stunts, Bill Owen’s son had very early success in a children’s series and – by chance – I doubled for him as well. He had a series that involved him riding a scooter at high speed around country lanes with an American girl on the back, and I doubled him in that. Toffering Towers, it was called.
They were happy days, those.
When you think back over all of the different stunts you were asked to do for Summer Wine, were there any that even you were a bit wary of?
No… with that terrain, a lot of the stunt work was done on bicycles. Sometimes we were given one old bicycle, and the three of us would be on it. We’d find a suitable hill in the morning, but by the afternoon it would have been chucking it down and become very slippery, with mud on it… or it would have had a tractor going up and down it all day! But for one reason or another, there’d be a danger, a change in the situation. But sometimes it would be very inconvenient to get the whole crew to go to another location, so some of it was a lot more difficult than it looked.
And I suppose some of it was a lot easier than it looked, too! They often used to get behind time, and I remember there was a shot on a scooter, flying over a dry stone wall. I had to find a quarry so that I was in the air for a long time, and then I landed on boxes that the viewer didn’t see… but we substituted compost for them, and Bill landed in the compost heap. And they were so far behind that they sent me, with a second cameraman, off to shoot that on our own! That’s very rare for the BBC because it was a bit risky, as we didn’t have monitors to see what the effect looked like. They would have to return to London and keep their fingers crossed that the cameraman hadn’t made a complete mess of it! It was good fun to be able to do that, because a lot of directors wouldn’t have trusted you.
Have you done stunts in your career where you thought afterward, “Oh blimey, that was a bit close”?
Yes, you do get that sort of thing, but I’ve only had a couple of injuries in my career. The trouble with working for television is that you do the best you can for them, but they don’t have the time to take you along to all the recces and things, and they just guess whether the location will be suitable. And when you get there, sometimes it’s totally unsuitable and they’re going to injure either you, or an actor that’s involved in a taped scene. Sometimes, it’s braver to say “Look, we can’t really do this here”.
Of course, there are a few things that you try to talk yourself into doing, but really you are looking at the wider picture and making sure that no actors get injured. With television you never know quite what you’re letting yourself in for. But again, with television directors, they tend not to be very demanding. They’re not selling these programmes on their spectacular stunts are they? With Summer Wine, it was the scripts, and the countryside. It was shot in the middle of summer, and they used to show it in January and February when it was snowing. Everybody wondered why the programmes were so wonderful to watch! It was something to look forward to, “Look, spring!” I mean, it was wonderful countryside, wasn’t it?
I was going to say, most of your work on the series would have been done on location rather than in a studio, wouldn’t it?
Yes, it had a lot of location filming for its time. Of course, that cost a lot of money as well. The BBC used to knock these programmes out quite cheaply by rehearsing them all week and shooting them in about an hour and a half, one evening after rehearsals… but with Summer Wine, more and more depended on the lovely countryside, so they had quite a lot of filming inserts. Which is quite rare, because it’s so cheap to record everything in the studio on video. They used to shoot the studio scenes in order, and then stop the tape and put in a bit of the pre-recorded outside film. It sounds a bit primitive but they were very clever at getting some good programmes out of video tape.
How does a smaller budget production like Summer Wine compare to when you worked on something like The Empire Strikes Back or Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
(Laughs) It absolutely doesn’t compare at all! On those, they’d say to me on one sequence, “Look Stuart, you’re going to have a pretty tiring day tomorrow, so if you want to bring one or two other stuntmen to stand in for you, do it.” I used to say to them, “How long have we got to do (this scene)?” And they’d say, “As long as it takes!” It’s completely different. Everything is absolutely drawn up with storyboards, whereas on Summer Wine they didn’t do any storyboarding.
Which approach did you prefer?
I used to prefer television, to be honest! With films, you can be involved for about three months, and then when you watch them you’re on for a second, and that’s it! It’s all ended up on the studio floor. With television, they ask for your advice, and quite often they take it. When I started in television, people that watched these programmes didn’t expect to see any action, so it pleased them to see a hanglider being chucked off the top of a roof! They just weren’t expecting it in those sorts of things.
When you watch things back on TV, can you spot the cuts from the actor to yourself?
Yes, I can always spot myself… as could my mother, and certainly my wife! We didn’t have any recorders at home though, so if you were away filming something else or working in the evening on a live show, you’d missed your only chance to see it until they repeated it again. I didn’t get the chance to watch a lot of the things I’d done until they brought out cassettes and DVDs. So now I’ve been collecting the sort of things that I missed, and I watch them for what they are… and they’re quite good.
Films used to use different techniques. They did a lot more undercranking on films. If you did a fight on a film, it was always undercranked. If you rode a horse on a film and it was a gallop, they used to speed that up too… whereas television didn’t have that facility because it was mostly on video tape, so the horses – and fights – appeared to go quite slowly. But it was only because people were used to watching horses going so quick. Cowboys would go ridiculously fast!
There were a few of us that preferred doing television, and there were some of us that could act as well, so we would occasionally get parts. Not that we benefitted from them, but it was just a bit more fun!
Is stuntwork quite competitive?
We always want to do the biggest and the best that the director will let us do, but a sensible director will say, “But the script doesn’t call for that!” Ronnie Barker did actually say to me once, “Why don’t you just do what’s in the script? Don’t do any more!” And he was right, really. You should just put in what the scriptwriter wrote, and do the best you can for them. But there was a great competitiveness amongst the stuntmen! It’s changed a lot now. There isn’t nearly the sort of work that there used to be for stuntmen. Health and Safety has made a big difference. Once, we were responsible for our own safety, and if we injured ourselves we just went away and licked our wounds for a few months, then returned quietly without any fuss. But Health and Safety came in, and you had to fill in an accident book, and somebody would look at that and make a big fuss about it. And of course, if you injured somebody else that was curtains… you never worked again!
Is there one stunt from your career that really sticks in your mind?
There were one or two little stunts from Summer Wine that were nice to do. I’ve been run over by hovercraft… and in the film Willow I was crushed by a horse, and that put me out of action for a few months. We were galloping towards a castle with a dragon inside… we did this shot about six times and they said, “Would you do it one more time before we break for lunch and give the horses a rest?” But my horse was absolutely knackered and didn’t make it to the castle… he fell on top of me and rolled over and dislocated my hip.
The Kenny Everett Show used to have lots of little funny stunts in them. Again, the scriptwriters used to know us, or know me, and I used to be a dead ringer for Kenny Everett!
How was Kenny to work with?
He was absolutely fine. Very, very easy going… a really nice bloke. Most of them are. I could tell you the ones that aren’t, but… (laughs). It was actually a lot of pressure on these stars if they had a series. Dick Emery was another one I worked for… you just do the best you can, and hope they ask you back. I did about 25 years of continuous stuntwork for TV and then it dropped off a bit when they started tightening up on the Health and Safety… and they said that, when you have an injury, it’s not down to you any more, it’s down to the producer. So they stopped using a lot of stuntwork and a lot of special effects for quite some time after that. But we still had to work, so – because I had been a gymnast – I worked out an act to do at medieval banquets and jousting tournaments, so I got a bit sidetracked with that! I occasionally did a few stunts, but they were fewer and farther between, and there were more and more people coming on the stunt register. So I’m completely retired now.
The last stunt that I can see credited on your IMDB page is for the sitcom Duck Patrol. Was there anything about that job that made you think it was time to draw the line?
It’s funny you should say that actually… on Duck Patrol I was a fisherman fishing in the water, and I believe it was the River Police boat that caught my line and dragged me into the Thames. It’s very, very difficult to be dragged through the water by a motor boat if you haven’t got something like a surfboard to lie on, because your body is being pulled through the water, and there’s a huge bow wave that comes over your head and stops you breathing. And you don’t have a radio with you because you’re in the water! So I was being pulled along by that, and of course I was able to release myself… that was the one safety thing I would allow myself. And they said, “Stuart, we want to do another one, but could you hang on a bit longer?” So this boat catches the line again and drags me through the water, and of course I was drowning in the damn river… and it was freezing cold, in the middle of the winter, and I thought, “This is bloody hard work!” There wasn’t a safety boat or anything. So it does get quite hard, and of course you wake up the next morning and wonder why you’ve got stiff arms and joint pains. To be honest, it is something that you should start thinking about giving up when you’re about fifty! But it’s a wonderful job and I can think of a lot of worse things to do.
So how does a stunt man spend his retirement?
Well, I had quite a good end to my retirement. The medieval banquets I worked on were for tourists at stately homes and castles… places like the Tower of London and Hampton Court. That’s what I’ve been doing for the last few years… juggling and magic and performing for rich American tourists! I used to do a fire-eating act and walk on stilts and do jousting tournaments, too. So that’s how I ended it. And my friend Derek Ware started to teach stage fighting at drama school, so that’s another way of ending it. He had a very good time teaching students how to stage fight. A lot of them just can’t give it up because they can’t find anything else to do!
Now that you are fully retired is there ever an occasion where you’re walking down a road, see a wall and think ‘It would be quite nice to throw myself over that’?
I do a lot of sailing and surfing and windsurfing these days, so I do keep myself reasonably fit. You’ve got to live near the sea to do these things, and I never did when I was looking for stunt work! So I just try to do the things I didn’t get the time to do when I was a full-time stuntman.