First Broadcast – BBC1, 9.25pm, Monday 12th November 1973
In which our heroes rid Compo of evil spirits, lose a front door key and attempt to attend a formal dinner dance…
NOTE: Our thoughts on this episode were first posted to this site way back in 2014. The text below was revised and expanded as part of the preparation for the first Summer Winos book in 2020.
Andrew: I like the way the first episode of the series proper opens with a shot of 1970s kids mucking about on a field, as it clearly reinforces the theme of older people reverting to adolescence. In this instalment, our three main characters giggle over adult magazines, loiter at bus stops, and fail to gain entry to a posh dance. It’s like The Inbetweeners with a midlife crisis!
Bob: I’m fascinated by the 1973 Holmfirth shops visible in these early scenes, as our heroic trio walk to a very old-school barber’s for Blamire’s regulation short-back-and-sides. Is that the “Tong Sang” Chinese takeaway? And that appears to be the “G.W. Castle” car showroom, a name that we know appears on a completely different, and much smaller, shopfront in later episodes… it’s visible in the background of lots of shots from Nora Batty’s steps. Was that the head office, possibly? And is there a slim chance that we’re beginning to take this quest just a little too seriously?
Andrew: No Bob, this is exactly the sort of thing that people need to know. As we’ve spied it early on, I think “G.W. Castle”-spotting should be our side quest.
Bob: Yeah, because as it stands we’re just not thinking about this programme in enough detail. Ye gods, the grimness of the locations, and the depiction of the grottier side of 1973 British life, continues in the barber’s. There’s a topless calendar in full view, and Judd the barber snips around Blamire’s barnet with a cigarette drooping from his lips. My friend Garry, who grew up in Leeds in the 1960s and 1970s, remembers being ushered out of a barber’s by his mother when it became apparent that there were cut-out pictures from pornographic magazines sellotaped around the edges of every mirror in the room. It’s easy to think of 1973 as being a more prudish, uptight era, but did this apply less to areas of society deemed to be men’s refuges? Barber shops, locker rooms, football grounds, social clubs, and so on? Not only does Judd’s shop have the calendar on the wall, it has a selection of similarly adult magazines spread casually on the table for waiting customers to enjoy. Much to Compo’s delight.
Andrew: Blamire is wearing the thousand-yard stare of somebody who is rather uncomfortable with, and scared of, being touched by his barber. I can sympathise. Actually, I can’t imagine Blamire being comfortable being touched by anybody.
Bob: The times they are a-changing though, aren’t they? Compo gives the impression that it’s already becoming harder to find traditional short-back-and-sides barber’s. As he points out, “everybody does Teasie-Weasies”. And blimey, there’s a reference for the teenagers: it’s an allusion to “Mr Teasie-Weasie Raymond”, the first celebrity hairdresser on British TV and a household name in the 1950s and ‘60s. A rather flamboyant chap with a French accent and a clipped moustache, he had salons all over the UK, and became the template for camp TV sitcom hairdressers for decades to come.
But not Judd, who is firmly of the old school. And he’s played by Frank Middlemass, who I didn’t recognise at all without his trademark white beard. He did a brilliant line in blustering old buffers in everything from Upstairs Downstairs to Ripping Yarns to Juliet Bravo; and he was from Eaglescliffe, Stockton-on-Tees, which is barely a mile from where I’m writing this now. So I’m proud to see a little bit of Teesside infiltrating Last of the Summer Wine, complete with vintage nuddy mags and a droopy fag stuck in his cakehole.
Andrew: It isn’t long before Clegg’s mind drifts, as it seemingly often does, to one of the many names from his past. His tangent here, about a man called Mostyn Litefoot, is a bit of an eye-opener!
Mostyn fell in love with the Huddersfield Girls High School netball team… except for the goalie, who reminded him of Wallace Beery. “It just goes to illustrate how we make problems for ourselves,” muses Clegg. “We all have our netball team-sized dreams.”
Bob: It’s a sequence that wouldn’t get within a country mile of a 21st century sitcom, but it’s presented as entirely matter-of-fact that one of Clegg’s acquaintances had entirely inappropriate feelings towards underage girls. There’s nothing amiss with the main characters’ attitudes towards this – they clearly disapprove, and there’s nothing remotely salacious about the conversation – but it’s still a jaw-dropping moment for modern audiences. As you say, Clegg uses it to illustrate his theory that people make their own difficulties, rather than the modern world itself having become intrinsically more complex or dangerous. He says: “The world’s no worse than it ever was, except for Mostyn Litefoot syndrome.” It’s an incredibly complex philosophical point to make, especially in a men’s barber’s.
And yes, Wallace Beery… a hangdog Hollywood character actor of the 1930s and ‘40s, best known for his performance as Long John Silver in the 1934 adaptation of Treasure Island, and for his Academy Award-winning turn in 1931’s The Champ. I like the fact that the popular culture references dropped into the musings of Compo, Clegg and Blamire all tend to concern the film and musical stars of their childhood; the silver screen icons that they saw in the Holmfirth fleapits of the pre-war era, rather than the square-jawed film stars of the 1970s. It’s perfectly observed.
Andrew: It also assumes a cultural awareness on the part of the viewer. None of these references are telegraphed. If the audience don’t get them – tough!
Now, if we thought this episode’s edgy interlude was over and done with, we were wrong. Clegg has this up his sleeve:
CLEGG It’s always been quiet around here. Especially round these parts. Except for the Danes, who came up river to rape our forefathers.
Bob: I think it was almost obligatory in 1970s TV shows to use the phrase “rape and pillage” whenever there was a mention of the Viking invasions. Again, difficult to imagine such an emotive word being used so casually on 21st century telly, but not especially out-of-place in the TV landscape of 1973.
And so to the library, where Mr Wainwright and Mrs Partridge continue to delight. Again, the dialogue is just dripping with layers of hidden meaning. “My husband’s sister runs Tupperware Parties…” she frets, clearly envisaging these opportunities to peruse sturdy kitchenware as a fevered hotbed of gossip, where her and Wainwright’s indiscretions may be uncovered and passed onto close relatives of the injured party.
Wainwright, meanwhile, justifies their continued fumblings behind the main desk by musing that they are both “creative souls”! Oh, aye. Just innocently looking for an artistic outlet in the absence of a few watercolours.
Andrew: Wainwright’s burning passion, colliding with Mrs Partridge’s pessimism and mundanity, sizzles comically – but the studio audience aren’t really having it this week, are they? They’re so subdued and I can’t work out why. I suppose we have to remember that it’s highly unlikely – unless they’d also happened to be in the audience for other recordings – that anyone present actually knew who the characters were.
Even so, we’re learning about them very quickly. In the reading room, Blamire spots a mention of an old acquaintance in the newspaper. He could have married this well-to-do gentleman’s daughter, but shrugs off the missed opportunity. In a way, I find him to be the saddest of the trio. Compo is happy in the dirt, and Clegg is at home with his head in the clouds, but Blamire has taken a shot at making it outside of his home town. And failed.
Bob: Another “setting out the stall” moment in this episode: Clegg’s observation that Holmfirth is “God’s number one area for unpleasant women of strong character.” It’s impossible to hear this without thinking of the episodes to follow, and their countless run-ins with Nora and Ivy… and then, in the decades to come, Pearl, Edie, Auntie Wainwright and the rest. It’s incredibly prescient, although “unpleasant”? I’ll contest that in future reviews, when I’ve got more evidence on my side.
Andrew: We soon get an insight into Clegg’s marriage. He and his wife met at a chapel tea, where he asked for cream and she converted him to custard. Setting the pattern for the rest of their life together, I suspect. Clegg paints a picture of a woman who came into his life and took control, remembering that she took his arm during the hymns and that he knew there was no point in trying to sneak out to the pub. On the surface this might bring to mind the “unpleasant women” of which he speaks, but there’s a softness to Sallis’ performance and a happiness in his eyes that brings his frequent griping about their marriage into question. Deep down, Clegg wanted to be looked after.
Bob: More early 1970s grottiness! Good grief, have a butcher’s at the cafe here… it’s absolutely filthy. The walls are coated in damp, grime and cobwebs, and there’s decades worth of congealed muck and chip fat on that back wall. The prices are eyebrow-raising too, all scrawled in chalk on a blackboard near the serving hatch. Sandwiches 10p, Steak Pies 12p, Fish and Chips 25p, Tea 4p, Coffee 7p, and (brace yourselves) a slice of bread and butter for two and half pence. We didn’t know we were born. Although, obviously, you weren’t.
Andrew: Keep a note of these prices as the years pass by and we can chart the rise of inflation. When Ivy’s witch-like qualities are pointed out, Blamire rather rudely suggests that she might be a heavy load for a broom, but Compo immediately imagines that this might not be a bad thing – just imagine having “all that woman” to yourself! Despite all of our trio’s harsh words about women, there’s an air of admiration that shines through. The men are more befuddled by the alien species that is the Summer Wine female than they are offended by them.
Bob: Compo has lost his key in the now locked-up library, almost certainly at the moment that Blamire and Clegg turned him upside down to rid him of evil spirits. And so they embark on a quest across town to regain access to their spiritual home, starting with a house call on Mrs Partridge, who is clearly terrified that they have come to expose her indiscretions with Mr Wainwright to an unsuspecting household.
I loved Mrs Partridge’s comment about her 12-year-old son here: “He’s never been strong, and everything goes to his chest.” Roy Clarke’s ear for the rhythms and absurdities of speech is just perfect. I could hear my mother saying that line, word-for-word, in my own grimy, early 1970s childhood. Does anyone talk like that any more? Do things even still go to people’s chests?
Andrew: Cor! I wouldn’t mind getting to someone’s chest! Etc. Etc.
Bob: Good grief, has Sid James just wandered into the room?
Andrew: With its neat little gardens and gleaming front doors, Mrs Partridge’s estate – the sort of aspirational residential area that Blamire regrets bringing Compo to – is a real contrast to the centre of town. This very much isn’t where our heroes belong, so it’s not long before we’re descending overgrown stone staircases back into the soot and grime of the town centre.
Bob: That pretty much sums up my memories of the 1970s; that contrast between old-school, wartime Britain, with its blackened buildings, redbrick terraces and outside bogs, and the upwardly-mobile generation and their new-build estates, replete with central heating and double glazing. It was an era when a section of British society seemed to make a conscious decision to “go up in the world”, and it’s reflected a lot in the sitcoms of the era. It’s pretty much the entire premise of Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads?, also launched in 1973, with Terry Collier belonging to (and pining for) that old world of grotty certainties, and Bob Ferris being pushed by his socially ambitious fiancée into that “new” 1970s of badminton clubs and Campari on the patio… before being persistently dragged back to the “old ways” by his friendship with Terry.
Andrew: I love the way we keep returning to Clegg in mid-anecdote at the start of various scenes in this episode; implying that he’s constantly blathering on about people he used to know. We never find out exactly who “developed a penchant for funny women” and was “last seen loitering sadly outside of Sugden’s Chemists” but to me this just hammers home the fact that Clegg is constantly muttering and chuntering about former acquaintances – whether anybody is listening or not.
Not content with harassing Mrs Partridge at home, our trio now report to the police station in the hopes of tracking down Mr Wainwright. I know Compo has left his house key inside the reading room, but they’re still being proper pests in this episode.
Bob: Cut the man some slack, he’s worried about his ferrets! There’s also a nice comic turn here from James Mellor as the policeman on duty, an actor who spent huge chunks of his career portraying officers of the law and – the previous year – had played the Earth Empire collaborator Varan in the Doctor Who story ‘The Mutants’. There you go, don’t say I never give you anything.
“A very narrow-minded man, the inspector. Rugby Union.”
That made me laugh. That’s very Alan Bennett.
Andrew: Rather worryingly, Wainwright’s address is actually handed over to these reprobates, but before they can reach his house, a sign charmingly advertising “OLD TYME DANCE TONIGHT” distracts them from their mission. Of course, they immediately start stirring up trouble and are turfed out sharpish. Quite right, too – it’s 50 new pence to get in! That’s… hang on… one fish and chips, two teas, a cup of coffee, and a sandwich!
Bob: Stop it, you’re making me hungry. This “dinner dance” is superbly depicted, though. The faded glamour, the curled-up chicken sandwiches, the burly bow-tied bouncer on the door. My parents had lots of friends who went to dinner dances in the 1970s, and I always imagined them to be impossibly glamorous affairs, akin to an Academy Awards Ceremony, but this was quite clearly the reality of the situation. You can smell the Old Spice from here.
Andrew: And doesn’t Jane Freeman look young in Ivy’s posh frock?! Lest we forget, she was only in her late thirties at this point in time.
Bob: Sid and Ivy are a fantastic double act, and you forget how much of an important figure Sid was in these early series. He has the one line in this episode that made me really laugh out loud:
IVY I came here to do some dancing. Fat chance of that with you, though. You don’t even know how to hold me properly.
SID (Making a strangling motion) Put your neck in there…
Roy Clarke’s love of odd northern dialogue constantly shines through. The devil is in the detail, and Clegg actually gets most of the best lines in this episode. He talks of Compo making a nest, a “simple construction of mattress fluff and old Sporting Chronicles.” He pricks the aforementioned doorman’s pomposity with the splendid riposte, “I’ve seen you making imitation rude noises for the entertainment of the Young Conservatives”. And, a heartbeat later, Compo’s perfectly-timed aside, “And your Eileen had to get married” is laced with brilliant old-school northern nose-tapping knowingness.
Andrew: Time is passing by and I’m starting to think that we’re never going to find Compo’s missing house key. Clarke has abandoned what little story there was, just as easily as our trio abandon their plans to track down Mr Wainwright. I like this. It’s a stream of consciousness approach to storytelling that lacks artifice. People do get distracted and life isn’t neatly structured into satisfying arcs.
Bob: Good to see Compo flick an old-fashioned V-sign at the end, as well. Nobody gives proper V-signs any more!
Andrew: Actually, with that V-sign – and Clegg’s earlier, eyebrow-raising mention of rape – it’s probably worth noting that the first three episodes of the series have been awarded a ‘12’ certification from the BBFC. I’m not trying to suggest that the early years of Summer Wine are a den of filth, but I think we’ve definitely confirmed once more that they are at odds with the cosy, family-friendly, inoffensive reputation that the series gained during its later period.
Bob: It’s a terrific opening episode for the series proper, though. And again, there’s not really any plot… just brilliant character-building and conversation. And no… we never find out whether Compo retrieved his house key from the library! You know what? I don’t care.