Posts Tagged ‘BBC’

EXCLUSIVE: An Interview With Stuart Fell

Image from The Bournemouth Echo

Image from The Bournemouth Echo

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.

Stuart in costume, for the 1978 'Doctor Who' serial 'The Invasion of Time' (Image Courtesy of BBC )

Stuart (Far Right) in costume, for the 1978 ‘Doctor Who’ serial ‘The Invasion of Time’
(Image Courtesy of BBC )

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!

Stuart_Fell-2

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.

Advertisements

6.3 The Odd Dog Men

In which things get a little hairy…

ANDREW: Right away we have another name for the database; Mabel Stoddard, whose father had a propensity for “just going out” and didn’t consider Compo suitable. During the war, Mabel married an American who had two pips on his shoulders.

BOB: It’s another nice opening, alright! “You were never really the warrior class”, snorts Foggy to Compo. “You’ve got something deeply civilian about those legs”. I could handle a full episode of this, and – now I think about it – I’m surprised that Roy Clarke never actually attempted a pure three-handed episode. Or did he? Does Full Steam Behind come close? The dialogue between the three main characters is so funny and believable that I can barely think of a sitcom that lends itself more readily to this stripped-down format.

ANDREW: Mabel Stoddard has got me thinking. As Compo reveals more and more women whom he claims to have loved (or at least lusted after) and lost, I’m starting the get the impression he has spent his entire life being rejected! It’s not overt, but Clarke imbues every one of his characters with this sort of depth and I’m loving it.

BOB: I wonder! Even his wife left him for a Pole, didn’t she? Although his quest for romance might not have been helped by the fact that his idea of the “first move” seems to be grabbing whichever middle-age woman is closest to him and attempting to force a kiss on them…

ANDREW: Is it just me, or is the sight of a poodle in Summer Wine land almost Lynchian in its incongruity?

BOB: Congratulations on being the first person ever to equate Last of the Summer Wine with Twin Peaks! Can you imagine Ivy’s reaction if Sherilyn Fenn turned up in Sid’s Café and started tying cherry stalks in knots with her tongue? Her feet wouldn’t touch the ground. Compo’s reaction to the runaway poodle made me laugh out loud, too – “Ey up, someone’s made a right bog up of shearing that sheep!”. And I liked the exasperated dog-owner… “All I ever see it do is eat toffees, lick the wife and pee on my geraniums”. It’s an unwritten law in sitcom land that male dog-walkers must never actually like the hounds that they’re forced to drag around the streets.

Foggy, meanwhile, is inspired to launch a new business venture…

ANDREW: This episode offers somewhat of a return to normality as, in principle, Foggy’s plan to walk dogs for money makes perfect sense. It’s only further on, when he lets slip his fantasy of walking the royal corgis, that he reveals himself to be a total barmpot.  Does Foggy actually believe he could be hand-picked by the Queen, or does he need to believe this kind of thing in order to cope with his feelings of inadequacy?

BOB: I thought exactly the same – a dog-walking business is a great idea! And one that I think has actually taken off in the last few years? I’ve definitely seen businesses like that advertised around here, so Foggy was clearly miles ahead of his time. I hope he was planning to call the business “Foggy’s Doggies”, though. Anything less would be a crime. I like the following exchange in the café, too…

CLEGG: You’re not afraid of hard work.

COMPO: Sure?

CLEGG: Yes, you’re afraid of easy work.

As for Foggy’s delusions of grandeur, I think he just gets carried away. Do any of us launch a new venture assuming that it’s going to be a failure, or just a moderate success? We always think it’s going to end in quadrillions of pounds and limitless social prestige. That’s the only reason I’m doing this bloody blog. I want us to be Summer Winos by Appointment to Her Majesty.

ANDREW: Well, I know the Queen Mum was a fan…

The use of “stupid bitch” is one of two things that conspire to make this episode feel like a throwback to the Blamire years, the other being just how long it takes for the plot to get going.

BOB: Yes, it’s slower than we’re used to now, isn’t it? We get some very traditional sitcom stereotypes during their cold-calling escapades as well – doors answered by saucy housewives and irate husbands alike. There also seems to be a running joke of Foggy being almost knocked over by the same purple wagon, speeding through the streets of Holmfirth. Is this a little homage to something, or am I reading too much into it?

ANDREW: With their struggle to carry the “self assembly modular high impact and stain resistant unit” into the kitchen, Sid and Ivy prove once again that they should have had their own spin-off sitcom. I quite like the idea that in their show Foggy, Clegg and Compo are the guest stars who occasionally show up. In Sid and Ivy’s world an entire episode is devoted to trying to assemble that unit.

BOB: Another cracking one-liner as well…

          IVY: (angrily) You’ve got no idea!

          SID: You wouldn’t say that if you knew what I was thinking…

I agree, I could easily handle a full episode in which Sid and Ivy were the main characters. Shame that, in such a long-running series, it didn’t happen at least once.

ANDREW: I love, love, LOVE the scenes in Sid’s Café between the trio and Wally. I think we learn more about Wally in this episode than ever before; his boyhood nicknames were Inky Batty and Little Laughing Walter Batty. This presumably all changed when Nora got hold of him. Wally had to make himself more attractive before Nora would take him on (like a fool, he did) and when asked what she looks for in a man, Gladwin delivers the deliciously deadpan, “total submission”. My very favourite revelation, however, is that Wally finds Foggy sexier than Nora!

BOB: Wally Batty NEVER fails to light up this series, and Joe Gladwin’s performances are magnificent. He has truly tremendous comic timing, and I think Wally’s life story intrigues me more than any other character in Summer Wine. The others do indeed paint him as a happy-go-lucky young man whose entire persona was ground into submission by his marriage to Nora! By the time we meet him, he’s virtually in a state of permanent shellshock. I actually want to write Wally’s biography. Prospective titles include “Howdo”, “Pigeon-Toed”, and “If The Cap Fits”, but I’m open to other suggestions.

ANDREW: Surely it has to “You Have To Laugh” accompanied by the most miserable picture we can find.

BOB: Actually, genuinely, I’d like to read a biography of Joe Gladwin, as I find his performances fascinating… and yet the earliest acting credit I can find anywhere is from 1959, by which time he was already in his mid-fifties. Anyone any idea what he did before that?

ANDREW: Thanks to the scenes in Sid’s Café and with Wally, I enjoyed this episode. The dog walking plot, on the other hand, left me cold. The ending was particularly weak.

BOB: The dog-walking just kind of fizzles out, doesn’t it? Although the ending sees our heroes being chased around by a very unscary-looking Old English Sheepdog. For me, the one outstanding revelation in this episode is Foggy’s real first name – Walter! Is this the first time we’ve heard this? He looks like a Walter, and I can’t help but think that it’s Roy Clarke’s little nod to The Beano’s resident Softie, to whom Foggy bears a startling resemblance. 

6.2 Car and Garter

In which Compo feels the need for speed…

BOB: Can I admit to a little tingle of excitement every time we reach the debut episode of a regular character?

ANDREW: Please do! We’d best enjoy the experience before saying goodbye to people becomes a more common occurrence.

BOB: Oof, you morbid soul. But ladies and gentlemen, it’s Wesley Pegden! As soon as I saw smoke billowing from beneath a garage door, and the sound of a muffled explosion, I knew exactly who we were going to meet.

There’s a classic opening line to this episode as well: “How do you get marmalade off a ferret?” asks Compo. It’s one of life’s eternal mysteries, isn’t it? Also, an exchange that I remember heartily laughing at back in 1982, and my dad doing likewise…

           COMPO: When you straighten up, why doesn’t the blood rush straight to your feet?

           FOGGY: You don’t think anything’s going to be in a rush to get to your feet…

Brian Wilde’s delivery is a perfect mix of warmth, self-satisfaction and disdain. And I cannot help but feel hugely sentimental whenever I hear a line in anything that made my dad and I laugh together. I know them all when I hear them… in Fawlty Towers, Monty Python, Porridge, you name it… as soon as I hear that line – even if it’s for the first time in thirty years – I’m transported back to the front room, and a little routine we would play out: if we both laughed simultaneously at the same thing, then immediately afterwards we’d exchange a fleeting look of mutual appreciation across the room. It was completely involuntary, and my mum found it fascinating. But I’ve always shared a sense of humour with my dad, and we absolutely bonded over TV comedy. And he had fabulously progressive tastes… I know plenty of my contemporaries who were banned from watching The Young Ones when they were kids, but I was introduced to it by my dad. He loved it, and we watched it together… along with all of the edgiest 80s TV comedy you could think of. One of the highlights of my early teenage years was staying up late on a Friday night and watching the likes of Who Dares Wins on Channel 4 with him. Thanks, Dad.

And I’ve just realized that the above paragraph makes it sound like my dad is dead! He’s not everyone, he’s fine. Cancel the flowers.

ANDREW: Good to hear, I’m always on the lookout for a guest reviewer…

BOB: I love Gordon Wharmby in Summer Wine, although has he been surrounded by a bit of urban mythologizing over the years? I’m sure I remember reading somewhere that he was a local amateur dramatics enthusiast without a previous professional acting credit, but that does him a bit of a disservice. True, he wasn’t a trained thespian and combined part-time acting with a day job as a painter and decorator, but he had been part of Oldham Repertory Theatre, and had also done small parts in Coronation Street, amongst others.

What I didn’t realise was that he’d actually auditioned to play the angry man on the roof at the end of the previous episode, In The Service Of Humanity! It’s a one-line part (“Hey, bring back that ladder!”), but he impressed Roy Clarke and Alan JW Bell so much that they asked him to read for Wesley in Car and Garter. Bell, apparently, found him “absolutely real”, and the part was his. However, Wesley was – I’ve read – previously earmarked as a guest role for a well-known TV actor! Anyone know who that might be? This could be Summer Wine’s April Walker moment!

ANDREW: I wonder if, as they were casting this part, Clarke and Bell were specifically looking for a Fred Dibnah type. The Bolton-born steeplejack first rose to fame in 1978 and, although it never struck me until now, Wesley’s likeness to the man is striking.

LShZ2_WrWkHj-KnJpkPA2jlKtWk 

A brief detour to the café sees Sid being harassed by Ivy. Has the phrase, “In the kitchen” ever been spoken with such menace? What really struck me about the scene, however, is the smattering of applause it receives at the end. This is unusual in Summer Wine land and, although I’m not trying to be critical, I don’t understand what the scene did to elicit such a reaction. It’s not a standout. Perhaps scenes routinely received this sort of reaction and, under newcomer Alan Bell, a tiny snippet accidentally made it through to the final edit.

BOB: There’s a staggering scene in Clegg’s house that actually made me rewind the DVD to double check that I’d heard it correctly. They’re talking about Sid, and Foggy – rather amazingly – delivers the opinion that (brace yourself) “Ivy seems him as something of a big dick”.

Whhhhhhhhat?!?!? It’s not even a one-off. “There are far too many boring, serious beggars about,” muses Clegg, immediately afterwards. “We need all the big daft dicks we can get”.

Am I being incredibly prudish here? It’s hilarious, but I always thought ‘dick’ was up there with ‘cock’ and ‘prick’ as an insult I wouldn’t have expected to hear in Summer Wine! Certainly not in this later era, anyway. The reaction from the studio audience suggests that they’re a bit taken aback as well!

ANDREW: Well, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the genital connotation in the word is attested in an 1891 dictionary of Farmer’s Slang. Then there is the idiom “Clever Dick”, which has been used as recently as a 2012 game show C4 hosted by Anne Widdicome entitled Cleverdicks. I realise that none of this answers your question, but it’s nice to make the effort sometimes.

BOB: I still think this is filth, and should be banned. Neverthless we get to the crux of the episode… Wesley is building what he sees as the ultimate high-performance car, and needs a test-driver, and our heroes volunteer Sid for the job, believing it will increase his standing in Ivy’s eyes. Interesting to see that, in these early stages, Wesley clearly isn’t taken with Compo’s sense of humour – there’s a real prickliness to their exchanges.

ANDREW: And then we encounter another odd audience response. Bell cuts to a close-up of Foggy and the audience roars with laughter. It isn’t until a few seconds later that we cut to a wide shot which reveals Sid in his ridiculous racing gear. Usually, during this kind of sitcom gag, the set and performers are shielded from the audience. They only see the action play out on monitors, just like viewers at home. I’m convinced these moments have something to do with a change in production techniques, maybe the studio floor layout had been modified.

BOB: I didn’t notice any of this! It’s all real to me, guv. What is this ‘studio floor’ of which you speak? Ivy, meanwhile, is having none of Sid’s daredevil exploits and forbids him to take part (as well as taking a little sideswipe at his implied proclivities – “Don’t be making a fool of yourself if that bus conductress comes in, and don’t have her poking my sandwiches with her bell finger!”) and so – predictably enough – Compo is roped in to drive Wesley’s cobbled-together sports car.

ANDREW: It’s a cliché, but women really are unpredictable sometimes. Just the other week, Emma was upset with me. By way of apology, I baked her a loaf of break in the shape of, erm… a big dick. While I was baking, this seemed like the greatest idea in the world, but it didn’t go down well… so to speak. What I’m trying to say is I sympathise with Sid!

BOB: Bake one for me. We’ll eat it together while we watch Getting Sam Home. I’ll look after you, my angel. 

ADDREW: As for the Bus Conductress, I like to think she’s the same feisty character we saw during series two’s ‘Forked Lightning’. I seem to recall you took a shine to her.

BOB: I can’t remember her! I’m such a fickle fool. There’s a bizarre twist here… Nora is actually impressed! And, not only that, she wears the garter that Compo gives her to keep her wrinkled stockings up. And proudly gives him a tantalizing glimpse of it! I’m not sure how I feel about this, actually… it’s very funny, but would Nora actually do that? Although I can also see the argument that we need to see a certain affection reciprocated between them, otherwise you’re just left wondering why she doesn’t just call the police on him every week.

ANDREW: Like I said, unpredictable.

BOB: I also wonder if this the episode that really kick-started the whole ‘wrinkled stockings’ phenomenon. I know they’d been mentioned in the series before now, but Compo’s hatred of them is major plot point of this episode. And it was around this time that wrinkled stockings became one of the major cultural identifiers of Last of the Summer Wine… you certainly wouldn’t read an article about the show (or about Kathy Staff herself) without them being mentioned, and I think that might have stemmed from this very episode.

ANDREW: Yep. This will become one of the series’ most celebrated running gags and eventually leads to this oddity…

I’d love to know who plays the onlookers in this episode. They’re a small crowd and they don’t look like actors. I wonder whether they were locals, crewmembers, relatives of crewmembers… anybody know?

BOB: What strikes me most about this episode is that Alan Bell was spot on with regards to Gordon Wharmby – he is indeed “absolutely real”. It’s a fine performance, and a great encapsulation of that breed of middle-aged Northern men who spend all of their spare time in overalls beneath a car and need a garage (or a shed, or just some private space to retreat to, unencumbered by female tutting and clucking) to retreat to. I see a lot of my Dad in Wesley.

ANDREW: Actually, what impressed me most about this one was the direction. I know I’ve harped on about a couple of production oddities, but the film sequences really sparkle in this episode. Bell’s signature landscape shots perfectly puncture the studio bound and character based stuff and one sequence, where Ivy returns to the café only to flee upon seeing Sid in his racing get-up is really dynamic. Just look at some of these shots.

Picture 12

Picture 14

All in all, good stuff.

6.1 In The Service of Humanity


In which Foggy becomes an emergency service…   


BOB: Can I chuck in a personal milestone at this point? This is, undoubtedly, the first series of Last of the Summer Wine that I actually watched as it went out. We’re into January 1982 here, Monday nights, and I was nine years old. And the show was already a talking point amongst me and my classmates. Juliette Kaplan (Namedrop! KLANNG!!!) told us that Summer Wine was always beloved of young kids, and in the case of me and my friends, she’s absolutely right. We’d quote it at school on Tuesday mornings, and act out some of the stunts in the playground at dinner break. It’s hard to imagine any modern nine-year-olds finding such common cultural ground in a mainstream sitcom in which the main characters are all over sixty, but – in January 1982 – we had three TV channels and barely a video recorder or a games console between us, so this was the stuff that bound us together.

ANDREW: My experience couldn’t be more different. By the time I tuned in, the show was a family experience, but never ever brought up amongst my peers. Secretly, my skateboard might be a runaway sofa hurtling down a hill in Yorkshire, but this was never a shared fantasy. My friends just weren’t watching. It’s certainly brought me together with people in later life, though.

BOB: Watching this, I’m also a bit taken aback at how much of the language entered my everyday life! “Bog off” became a regular insult around my house in 1982, me and my Dad in particular would regularly fling at back and forth at each other. And undoubtedly Compo is to blame!

ANDREW: Compo is on good form here. “My brain gets confused sometimes,” is a particularly delightful instance of the character getting to a nonsensical thought decades before Karl Pilkington would.  I also love the discussion of his mother, apparently the kind of woman who could have inspired the inventor of the bulldozer. If Foggy’s memory of her throwing the rent man at him isn’t incorporated into First of the Summer Wine, I’ll be sorely disappointed.

BOB: So our trio find a pile of abandoned clothes at the side of the river, and assume – rather grimly – that they’ve stumbled upon a suicide.

ANDREW: Has walking into water ever been a particularly popular method of suicide? You see it crop up in stuff like The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin and even The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. It’s a TV staple.

BOB: It’s been a very famous method of fake suicide!

ANDREW: I love how Clegg questions there being a dead body in the water, suggesting instead that the man might not be quite dead yet. How morbid!

BOB: It’s interesting to see Foggy actually intimidating Compo into respectfully removing his hat – and Compo does it! Do we think, deep down, Compo is actually a tiny bit scared of Foggy? Or at least has a lot of respect for him? It might explain why, when it comes down to it, Compo never actually refuses to take part in any of Foggy’s harebrained schemes, no matter how dangerous they might look.

ANDREW: I didn’t pick up on that, but that may be because I’m distracted by what I think must be post-production dialogue looping. There’s a strange air of detachment to a lot of the delivery here and given how much the wind seems to be disturbing the reeds and bushes it surprises me that we don’t hear so much as a rustle. I bet it turns out I’m wrong.

BOB: It’s not a suicide, of course, it’s a canoeist out for a paddle… and… hang on, is that an uncredited Tom Owen?! Or am I going mad? I’m really not sure!

ANDREW: It does look like him! Wikipedia makes reference to a cameo appearance by a Tony Good, but I’ve no idea who this is. His character isn’t listed on IMDB and he doesn’t appear to have any other credits to his name. Answers on a postcard…

BOB: I really like the scene in Clegg’s house here… it has a very comforting domesticity, with Clegg ironing while Foggy and Compo chat amiably. It’s a lovely cosy scene, reiterating the fact that – for all their differences – these are three characters very comfortable in each others’ company. Foggy, inspired by the canoeing incident, wants to form a small-scale rescue service for “decent, little people”. It’s an idea they pursue in the café, where Compo suddenly appears to have started smoking again! How long is it since we last saw a cigarette in Summer Wine?

ANDREW: That did strike me as odd, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to go back and check every episode again!

This is a great, character-driven plotline and actually quite touching, really. Foggy’s desire to, “answer the call whenever it comes” is what drives him from one episode to the next. This week he’s a medic, the next he’ll walk dogs. The activity does’t matter, so long as he’s doing something for somebody. My heart broke when he reflected upon finding the clothes by the river and said, “I felt useful. Just for once we were doing something important. Helpful.”

This is all perfectly in-keeping with the theme of the series as a whole; our trio, albeit sometimes reluctantly, are on a quest to find a something useful to do with the rest of their time on earth. A purpose.

BOB: I like Clegg’s line here… “If it’s all the same to you, I had planned to fritter my life away harmlessly”. It’s a sentiment I’m happy to share. How many series have we got left to watch, Drew?

ANDREW: Enough, Bob, enough. In this case, however, I’m siding with Foggy. Despite their protestations, it’s nice to see Compo and Clegg indulge Foggy a little. We’re a far cry from the nastiness of Full Steam Behind.

BOB: Lovely bit of physical comedy here, as Foggy – in his new home-made Red Cross tabard – attempts to interfere with the aftermath of a minor car accident and gets a full-blooded punch on the nose for his troubles. It’s filmed in long shot, with a perfectly-timed “Oof!” from Brian Wilde, and it made me laugh out loud. I’m a simple soul at heart.

ANDREW: Laugh out loud? I winced! There’s something about the sound effect which accompanies the whack that made it sound particularly painful and mean-spirited. He’s a truly tragic figure in this episode. Every time he tries to help, he gets trodden on. Poor Foggy!

Still, this abuse serves to bring out Ivy’s motherly side in the café. A particularly northern maternal instinct has kicked in, so she’s happy to fuss over his wounds but quick to remind him what a daft sod he is.

BOB: Foggy’s nose, Compo suggests, has gone from “early George Sanders” to “more like Colonel Sanders”. This seemed like a staggeringly early KFC reference to me, but apparently the UK’s first Kentucky Fried Chicken takeaway opened in Preston in 1965! I’m pretty sure that, by 1982, they were yet to reach Middlesbrough. I actually remember being confused by a Kenny Everett sketch about McDonalds around this time, because I had no idea what McDonalds actually was! Maybe I just had a sheltered upbringing. It was all fishcakes and arctic roll in our house.

ANDREW: And then we’re off to the football for a territorial skuffle with some St John’s Ambulance volunteers. Go on, then. Which ground is this?

BOB: Painted blue, so I’m assuming this must be Leeds Road, Huddersfield Town’s original ground? Filled with glorious slices of football history… Denis Law began his career at Leeds Road, England 1966 hero Ray Wilson spent twelve years here, and England manager Herbert Chapman was in charge in the 1920s. Seeing it here, I can just imagine those rosy-cheeked fans, wrapped in blue and white hats, rattling rattles, chanting chants, paying a handful of pennies to while away a freezing Saturday afternoon on a packed terrace. Lovely.

The ground was built in 1908, and demolished in 1994 to make way for a retail park with a big B&Q. Don’t get me started, Drew. Really. Don’t get me started.

ANDREW: It’s probably best you get it out of your system in a safe environment like this.

BOB: You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry. I’m not convinced you like me when I’m not angry. And so we head towards the end with a very welcome glimpse of my hero, Wally Batty, in fine form in the local pub.

ANDREW: I’m at the stage now where the simple appearance of Wally is enough to elicit an audible cheer!

BOB: Should we add Compo’s Auntie Connie to the Names Database, Drew? Mentioned by Wally as a woman who owns a canary, and “gets the gas board out every time it falls asleep”. I laughed out loud at this as well. A good episode for belly laughs, this one!

ANDREW: It’s nice to see a glimpse of Wally’s evil streak. Nora is stuck under the bed at home (“Just luck I suppose” – Wally) and he uses her demands for help as an excuse for a pint. “It’s turning out to be a really magical Tuesday!” he proclaims.

BOB: Foggy’s rescue service is finally pressed into unlikely action!

ANDREW: Oddly, I seem to recall that the scene in which Nora is rescued from beneath her bed as being one of the scenes played in a constant loop when news of Kathy Staff’s death broke on News 24. I suppose it’s a testament to her vocal characterization that they’d choose a clip in which she spends the majority of the time bellowing out of sight!

Rescue accomplished, Foggy gets a second wind and re-embarks upon his plan to provide rescue equipment for the canalside.

BOB: The trio end up “appropriating” a long ladder to exercise a little drill at the water’s edge. Which ends, predictably enough, with Clegg and Foggy in the water and a stranded roof-repairer unable to get down. Good stuff though, and a really enjoyable start to the new series. 

ANDREW: It’s nice to see a slapstick climax that’s relatively grounded and integrated into the story (i.e. no giant pigeons in sight). In fact two slapstick climaxes for the price of one! It’s part of the story though, so I can forgive it’s gratuitousness.

1979 Christmas Special: And A Dewhurst Up A Fir Tree

In which Foggy eyes up a festive investment…

BOB: Can we finally draw the conclusion that Roy Clarke’s not a fan of the festive period? Another Summer Wine Christmas special, and yet again it’s given a twist so that it’s not as Christmassy as we might expect. It’s set in late summer, with Foggy wanting to meticulously plan ahead for the forthcoming festivities! I can just imagine Clarke sitting down at his desk to write this on a sunny day in April, with steam flying out of his ears. ‘Christmas special? I’ll give them a Christmas special alright…’

ANDREW: Foggy claims that they are experiencing a pleasant day – the perfect kind of day for a well trained sniper, in fact – but I’d say this is one of the dullest, most under-exposed and grotty looking film inserts seen on the show so far. It’s meant to be set in late summer, but ironically could just about have passed for December had Clarke written a more traditional special.

BOB: Still, nice to see a bit of genuine plaggy-bag sledging! An essential part of any impoverished 1970s childhood. Or, indeed, second childhood. With ICI logos on the bags for added effect.

ANDREW: Then it’s off to Foggy’s house for a slideshow of last year’s washout of a Christmas. Actually, have we seen Foggy’s house before? I’m sure he was in a boarding house or something the last time his living arrangements came up. Foggy’s slides reveal the extent of our trio’s bad festive planning, including a Christmas tree fashioned from a bit of old privet and a dinner that consisted of one fish finger and a chip. This is all attributed to Compo’s desire to do all their shopping on Christmas Eve.

As a side note, I really love seeing slideshows or home movies in sitcoms. They give the impression that the characters exist outside of the half hour periods of time we spend in their company.

BOB: And so – our trio traipse around Holmfirth in August, desperately seeking Christmas cards and festive sweets. To no avail, obviously.

ANDREW: It’s strange to find a Summer Wine environment of this period that hasn’t really changed much. Card shops are still as cheap and cheerful as ever and the alternatively saccharine and cheeky designs of the cards themselves don’t appear to have evolved over the intervening decades.

It’s also quite refreshing to have a sitcom that revolves around characters fretting over the fact that Christmas hasn’t started early enough rather than that now hoary old cliché about it arriving earlier every year.

BOB: Nice to see that the café is grubby again! Sid’s walls were fabulously grotty in the earliest series, but I remember being disappointed that they’d had a fresh lick of paint a few years back. Now they seemed to smeared in dust, grime and chip fat once again, so all is right with the world.

ANDREW:  It’ll be all that summer holiday-maker trade; the chip pan’s been on overdrive.

BOB: Lovely little exchange here between Compo and Foggy as well… ‘Didn’t they ask you to join MI5?’ asks Compo, with a giggly barb in his voice. Foggy just gives a resigned but sincere shake of the head, leaving us in no doubt that – in his mind – his life is that of a fearsome and ruthless soldier whose dedication to Queen and Country is absolute. So many great sitcom characters thrive on the disparity between their perceived and actual lives, and Foggy is a prime example of that. The military heroics in his head, contrasted with the humdrum cowardice of his everyday life, are up there with Basil Fawlty’s pretensions to the aristocratic life and Delboy’s delusions of entrepreneurial success. Brian Wilde’s subtle performances play a huge part, too.

ANDREW:  Despite all of his delusions, he’s genuinely regretful that he hasn’t been called upon to serve his country. You can see that MI5’s snub still stings. As you say, it’s a brilliant performance.

BOB: Good to see the classic ‘Ouch, shrapnel wound playing up!’ routine beloved of so many 1970s sitcom characters, too! Even Basil Fawlty, in fact. We assume that with both these characters, the old war wounds are imaginary, and yet there were plenty of middle-aged men around in the 1970s who did carry these kinds of injuries. Again, my childhood was full of them!

ANDREW: Don’t be so sure. I spend close to twenty-five years believing that my next-door neighbour had suffered a shrapnel wound to the palm of his hand during the war. It turned out he’d just gotten pissed one evening while ashore in New York and had fallen off the dock when returning to his Merchant Navy ship!

BOB: I really like the way that the relationship between Nora and Ivy has been developed over the last few episodes. From frosty exchanges in the café, we’ve now reached the point where they’re taking tea together, sipping from dainty china cups and – it seems – swopping notes on how to deal with Compo’s amorous advances. Some delightfully vicious dialogue here, with magnificently surreptitious barbs being placed into the most seemingly-innocuous lines. ‘Would you like some sugar?’ asks Ivy, ‘You might find it relaxes you, and takes your mind off the airing cupboard’.

I like their potential tactics for dealing with Compo as well. ‘You should have dropped the chip pan down his trousers’ sniffs Nora. ‘The sooner it gets covered in batter, the safer for everyone’. Ouch.

ANDREW: I think this is one of my favourite lines so far!

BOB: This leads to an extraordinary scene in which they lure Compo to the café with their feminine wiles, only to publicly divest him of his trousers! Drew, can we mark this down as Summer Wine’s first-ever honey trap?

ANDREW: I’m not sure if honey is the right word. Treacle, maybe.

BOB: And so we get to the crux of the episode… Foggy, at the height of his festive preparations, has bought 100 Christmas trees for £10, from ‘Big Eric’ in the bar. Trouble is, they’re all 100ft high, and firmly entrenched in the local woods! Delboy would have been proud of such a scam.

nelson_eddy_jeannette_macdonald

ANDREW: While Foggy goes in search of his forrest, Compo and Clegg are quite happy to hang back and wait around for Nelson Eddy, star of the Mountie-tastic Rose Marie (1936) alongside Jeanette MacDonald. He’s mercilessly parodied by Dick Vosburgh and Frank Lazarus in a musical entitled A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine. I only mention this as the genesis of said musical just so happens to be detailed in my book, Marx and Re-Marx: Creating and Re-Creating the Lost Marx Brothers Radio Series, available in all good book shops. Go on, it is Christmas!

BOB: A nice little episode, although yet again I’m disappointed that it wasn’t as fully Christmassy as it could have been. I’m an old sitcom traditionalist, and I like my Christmas specials to be full of fake snow, tacky decorations and our main characters cooped up together around a dining-room table being reluctantly nice to each other. Maybe next time?

An Interview With Juliette Kaplan – Part Two

Since Summer Winos has been on one of its little breaks for a few weeks, we thought it might be nice to release the second part of this interview ahead of schedule. If you need to catch up, part one can be found HERE. Don’t forget, you can get your fix of all things Kaplan at www.juliettekaplan.com.

How did your one-woman show come about?

I actually had the temerity once when I was out of work to phone Roy Clarke and say ‘How would you like to write me a one-woman show?’. There was a long pause, and a sharp intake of breath, and he said ‘…why not?’. So he wrote a script, called Just Pearl, and it toured all over the country, in about fifty venues.

When was this, in about 2003?

Yes, that’s right.

Do you ever revive it?

I was supposed to recently, for charity, but ended up twisting my back and had to have an operation. But Just Pearl will be resurrected at some stage. Absolutely.

For those of us who haven’t seen it, what’s the show about?

About Pearl’s life with Howard, and what happened before Howard. She’d met somebody else, but he was killed in the war. And in the show, she’s on the phone to Howard, keeping one step ahead of him. Funnily enough, I sell them on my website – I’ve just been out this morning to post some.

Did you have a great deal of input into the script?

Roy wrote the script, and sent it to me, and then I worked on it and wondered how it could best be staged. I asked if he minded if we transposed various things, because I’d  been to the Edinburgh Festival and seen a show about Abraham Lincoln. The actor walked onstage to dead silence, put the make-up on, then just turned into Abraham Lincoln. And I thought… I’m going to do that. So my show starts with me turning into Pearl in front of the audience. I put the make-up on, put the coat on, and say ‘There you are… there’s Pearl’. And the audience likes that sort of thing.

I’d like to talk about Roy Clarke’s writing, actually… one of his techniques is the repetition of situations, so – for example – we see Howard and Marina nearly getting caught in the act virtually every week, and the audience embraces that. From an actors standpoint, do you need try to keep those scenarios fresh?

No, because the scripts were always fresh. When you think of the disguises that Howard and Marina would get into… they were so funny, and how Roy thought them up, I have no idea. One thing I think that I’ve never done is get stuck into a rut, just churning out Stock Character Number 14. Every script, to me, has something in it that I can analyse and turn into a real person.

So when it comes to a character like Pearl, do you have her background in mind? Where she comes from and what her history is? Do you carry that around with you?

I don’t carry it around with me, but when I realised that I’d got the part and was going to be a regular, I evolved a scenario. I think she worked in a Building Society, because she’s very neat and organised. And I remember once having a scene with – I think – Thora Hird, and she said ‘You’ve never had children’. And Pearl replied ‘We were waiting for the spare room to be done’. And it never got done.

What brought Howard and Pearl together, do you think?

In my mind – which might be far from the truth – Pearl was in the Building Society, and Howard came in, with all his papers in a mess. And Pearl liked organisation so said ‘Right, I’ll have to sort you out… meet me afterwards, buy me a cup of tea, and we’ll get all your papers in order’. I don’t think he had much choice! She was not an attractive woman, so I think she probably thought ‘I’d better snap this one up…’. She wasn’t attractive on the outside, anyway. Inside, she was a beautiful woman.

I like that! Howard as an ongoing project.

Absolutely. I can’t think of what Howard used to do, though… actually, I suppose he might have been working in the Building Society as well…

Being the onscreen partner of Robert Fyfe for so long, what kind of relationship does that bring about? Are there times when it feels like you’re a real married couple?

Just good mates. I never wanted to shag him! (laughs)

There’s the quote to sell the interview!

I’ve met his wife, and she’s a darling, but I can’t say that – as a partner – Bob has never really turned me on! (laughs) Added to which, I don’t believe in relationships in the theatre. I was married to someone who ran a gift shop, and I always said that he kept me grounded. We were driving along one day, and saw a film set, and I said ‘Look over there… it looks like chaos, but it’s organised chaos, and everyone knows what they’re doing’. And he said something to the effect of ‘Crazy people doing crazy professions…’ So there you go.

I noticed on your IMDB entry that, for the episode ‘Elegy For Fallen Wellies’, you’re listed as choreographer! Was that for the cabaret routine? How did that come about?

Yes! Well, I’d been a dancer. We were getting ready to shoot, and Alan Bell wanted shots where we were tight together, but Jane Freeman wasn’t happy about dancing. So I suggested we do the ‘train step’, pushed myself in, and Alan very kindly gave me a credit as choreographer. It was fun doing it, and can you think of a better way for Compo to have died than in shock at seeing Nora Batty’s stockings?

Those are superb episodes.
Those three episodes, I think, are the best Roy Clarke has ever written. I’d never contacted him before, but I wrote to him to say how brilliant they were. And to thank him. Actually, I’d never actually met Roy until I asked him to write the show for me! But yes… I loved dancing. I did ballet for eight years at drama school, but you’ve got to grow up the right shape, and I didn’t! I grow up with big hips and a small waist, and they don’t want that in a ballerina.

So you look for your chances to dance…

Oh yes. When I was doing panto, there’d always be a dance routine. I remember Bob Fyfe and I doing Cinderella in Leamington Spa, and we had a number to ourselves… the Sand Dance! And Chu-Chi Face… Bob’s a very good dancer! Great fun.

In 2009, when it was first suggested that Summer Wine was about to end, you were once of the most vocal of the cast. Why did you feel the need to step up? What was your reaction?

Absolute horror. We’d been told to do that series, find out what the ratings were, and then the decision would be made about whether to carry on. But Jay Hunt (BBC1 controller) axed the show without ever seeing those episodes. I went up to her at a dinner and asked her why, and she said ‘We want new, young, fresh blood’. I pointed out that the new, young, fresh blood are all out in the pubs and clubs on a Sunday evening! What about the people who want to stay in and watch something good on TV instead? She said ‘I knew I’d get something like this…’, turned away… and tripped over her orange high heels! (laughs) If it’s something good, that the audience likes, that constantly gets high ratings, then why pull it? I was furious.

The young people that she’s talking about are the generation who don’t watch scheduled TV anyway… they watch it using iPlayer, and downloading, freeing up the schedules for people who don’t watch TV in that way.

We also got a lot of children watching the show. The kids loved it. When Barry’s hanging off the edge of a kite, when the boys are rolling downhill in a barrel because they’re three little boys… (pause) Roy once said that when he was first given permission to write the show, he didn’t know how to write it until it struck him… they’re three little boys, unencumbered by wives, sweethearts, anything. I once said to Bill Owen, ‘You’re like Just William, but with a pension book’. We got a lot of our audiences from young kids.

That’s the case with Bob Fischer and myself. He started watching around 1980, as a kid, and I was the same in the early 1990s. And now that we’re older, we’ve come back to the show with a whole new level of appreciation. That’s one of the reasons the show could keep going… it works for different generations. It’s like Sesame Street, or Doctor Who… it gathers as it goes along.

It’s quite amazing. Especially as Roy Clarke has written every single word. And they’re spot on, he has such a philosophical outlook on life. That comes through Peter Sallis, as Clegg… he’s the character that will espouse the philosophy behind the jokes, and that’s what gives the show its depth.

It’s a unique brand of philosophy of well, rooted in Yorkshire.

I’m not sure I agree actually…

Sorry!

No, it’s fun! When Fiddler On The Roof was first produced, it was suggested it would only work for Jewish people, but it didn’t… it worked all over the world. The Chinese, Africans, Americans all related to it, because it had universal themes of family. And I like to think that Summer Wine was a universal family, too. Every family has got one of ‘those’.

So, the offbeat eccentric, the grumpy old man…

Yes. In my eyes.

What was the feeling going into production on that final series? Knowing it was coming to an end?

We didn’t know. We had no idea. We got the scripts, but had no idea we wouldn’t we doing another one. There was one episode where Pearl took Howard back, and it went through my mind then… if all these knots are being tied up…? But no, we had no idea, really. It was an arbitrary decision to kill it. And the BBC gave us a lunch! I remember at a previous lunch to celebrate the 30th anniversary, they were heaping praise on us, and I got up – and I told you I’d been a bigmouth since I went to New York – and said ‘If you think the show’s so marvellous, why don’t you increase our budget?’ (laughs). I like to say the things that other people think, but haven’t got the guts to say.

It was interesting you picking up on Howard and Pearl’s story coming to a conclusion in that final series, as they seemed to be the only characters that really did get that kind of closure.

We always said that if Howard and Marina ever actually got it going, that would be the end of the show! But in those six episodes, Pearl throws him out… and then, in the final show, takes him back. And there was a scene with us walking together, with Howard trying to explain himself, and I got caught up in the emotion of it. And Alan Bell said ‘No… don’t play it like that, play it absolutely straight’. And I realised how right he was. We finished the shot, and I called him over, and said ‘You know what? You’re a bloody good director’. If I’d got all emotional, it wouldn’t have had any effect on the audience. Because I didn’t, they felt more for him… rather than me, taking him back. Damn good.

How did you eventually find out that the show was ending?

Alan sent us all a letter. It was a total, complete shock, and it affected us all the same way. Gobsmacked isn’t the word. But… as I say, there is a possibility that Roy might write some more.

That’s great news. To round things off… two questions. First one might be more difficult… can you pick out a single moment from filming Summer Wine that stands out as a highlight?

I don’t know if I can… oh, I remember once having a line that I delivered in a certain way, and somebody made a comment about trying it differently. And Alan Bell said ‘No – Juliette knows how to play this part, leaver he alone’. He always let me try something different. He may have wanted it a certain way, but he’d always give the chance to try it my way. There was a professional respect there that I really appreciated.

Second question… what does the future hold for you?

Well I might be doing a tour next February. I’ve been asked, and we’ve almost agreed, depending on what the pay’s like! (laughs). And, as I’ve said, Roy is coming out of retirement, he is doing something else, so I might yet have another script to learn. And then I’m going to South Africa! I’ve just done a couple of cruises, and I went paragliding. Paragliding and snorkelling! My two big hobbies.

What?! Where do you go snorkelling?

I started in Hawaii… then I’ve in snorkelled in Israel… and Sharm El Sheikh, several times… then in Marmaris, in Turkey. It’s a different world. I always carry my gear around with me!

Image courtesy of ‘The Daily Mail’
(Boo, hiss, etc.)

5.6 Here We Go Into The Wild Blue Yonder

In which Compo plans to take to the air… 


BOB: Increasingly, these opening scenes are my favourite parts of the episodes… the conversations between our three heroes are always fabulously funny and well-observed.

Compo: We used to roll Eileen Watkins down this hill.
Foggy: What did she look like?
Clegg: Very dusty, and covered in bits of grass.
 

Cracking stuff, as is the traditional childhood reminiscing, complete with typically florid names and descriptions for unseen characters. Eileen Watkins, it transpires, was in love with Chunky Rumbelow, and was actually a dead ringer for the late King Farouk of Egypt. Complete with twirly moustache, do we assume?

Eileen Watkins


ANDREW: It’s quite stylishly directed as well, with each character literally as well as figuratively having their own perspective; Clegg standing, Foggy sitting, and Compo lying. It just seems a little more carefully composed than recent episodes. Maybe the director had a little bit of extra time.

BOB: Should I be surprised that Sid and Ivy have a microwave oven in 1979? I always think of them as a quintessentially 1980s invention, and am taken aback that someone as – ahem – traditionally-minded as Ivy would have one anywhere near her precious kitchen! I’m pretty damn sure I’d never even HEARD of a microwave in 1979, it were all pressure cookers and deep-fat fryers when I were a lad.

ANDREW: It’s never been mentioned before, but if they don’t know how to use it this might explain why our trio are so often unimpressed by their grub.

The scene in the café is great here, with a rare chance to see the dynamic between Ivy/Sid and Nora/Wally. There’s still something quite antagonistic between Nota and Ivy here, but I love how quickly they bond in their natural habitat – the kitchen. I love how, even on her day out, Nora isn’t content until she resumes domestic duties.

And just what is the expression of a man who knows what he’s doing with a microwave?

BOB: This is, of course, Wally’s idea of taking Nora out for a meal, the old smoothie. ‘Your pastry’s not light enough,’ she snaps, stony-faced, reducing Ivy to tears! At which point Nora softens too, and offers gentle advice. It’s interesting how we’ve seen the relationship between these two women develop over the years, am I right in thinking that they barely seem to know each other in the early series? Here, there’s clearly at least a grudging respect between, and then – in later years – they become firmer friends.

ANDREW: Yes, I think the first sign we saw of a developing relationship was during the seaside episodes. This is a pleasant continuation.

BOB: Interesting to see friction between Sid and Wally as well, when it comes to repairing the microwave! Women are competitive about baking, men are competitive about fixing things. Them’s the rules in Summer Wine world.

ANDREW: People whose sauce bottle tops looked like they had “bunches of raisins on ‘em” were the bane of my childhood existence. I loved and love red sauce (I’d even fill my Yorkshire puddings up with the stuff), but I equally hated the muck that would build up. Just the thought of one dropping off into me food… ugh. May Earnshaw bless the inventor of the squeezy plastic bottle!

Nice bit of casual racism directed at the Japanese as well. It’s been a while since we’ve had a similarly awkward moment. There’s not a hateful bone in the script’s body, but it’s still very odd to see. It’s all worth it from this line from Wally Batty, though:

WALLY: They do say the Japanese are very gifted in the trickier aspects of the marriage bed.

BOB: And so, after some nice character work, we get to the crux of what is clearly shaping up to be a stunt episode… Compo wants to go hang-gliding. And Wally volunteers to build the craft in question. Should I be ashamed of saying that I find Compo a bit annoying in this episode? I prefer his darker-edged persona of the early series, when he was almost a drop-out from normal society. Here, he’s essentially a child in an old man’s body, pulling faces and putting on comedy voices.

Although, again, there’s some lovely dialogue floating around. ‘He’s got a throat like a flush lavatory’ comments Foggy, deliciously, as Compo throws another pint down his neck. Compo, meanwhile, points out that he learnt his boozing skills from Slack Edna, a woman he accompanied on bat-hunting expeditions! Another one for the database, Drew…

ANDREW: Done and done.

BOB: And so we finish with a tree-climbing competition between Foggy and Compo, and – hooray! – a credit for Stuart Fell, the former Parachute Regiment stuntman beloved of Doctor Who fans. It’s a rare CV that includes spells doubling for both Bill Owen and Katy Manning, but Stuart’s pulled it off with aplomb! Is he also the only performer to have appeared in both Last of the Summer Wine and The Empire Strikes Back? Or do we have a Michael Sheard guest appearance to look forward to?

Stuart Fell – Jester of the Year 1993
http://www.tarothejester.co.uk

ANDREW: That sounds like a challenge to me. So I’ve done the leg-work and discovered that stuntman Peter Diamond, a Snowtrooper Guard and Stunt Arranger for Empire played the role of “Motorist” in the 1990 episode “Barry’s Christmas”. Now, I am the master.

BOB: An enjoyable enough episode with some nice moments, but I have a curious feeling we’re being set up for another sequel.

ANDREW: That’s just ‘cos you’ve seen the back of the box. Based solely upon viewing this episode, I would never have expected another installment was coming.