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Series One, Episode Two: Inventor of the Forty Foot Ferret

First Broadcast – BBC1, 9.25pm, Monday 19th November 1973

In which Compo is persuaded to actually visit church…

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: Before we begin properly, I’d just like to note the title of this episode. Despite the fact I’ve never owned one, I adore ferrets and I think that Compo is at least partly to blame for that. As a kid, his descriptions of the slinky little angels made them seem so exciting… you could stick them down your trousers!

Bob: You’re a freak, Smith.

Andrew: That’s still an unfulfilled ambition, I should add.

Now, this episode opens with a sequence that is rather moving with the benefit of hindsight. As he frogmarches Compo towards a church, Blamire declares that “a man should have some religion”. Just as soon as he gets the scruffy little ha’porth inside, however, Compo does a runner. It’s all gently childish and playful and funny, but the moving part is this – as Compo makes a beeline from the church, he runs up a path that takes him directly past the plots in which Bill Owen and Peter Sallis would be laid to rest, decades later. There’s something really beautiful about that.

Bob: Yes, it’s very poignant. It’s St John’s Church in Holmfirth, and the two actors are buried next to each other. I couldn’t believe it when we discovered that. It’s so touching.

Andrew: This episode is all about British class and religion. You have Blamire as the bossy, middle class church-goer, Compo as the scruffy, sub-working class atheist and Clegg as… well, just Clegg really. He gets my favourite line of the episode; “Who needs eternity? Suppose you’re waiting for a bus.” As we’ve said, this is a series that, later in its run, came to be identified with sedate Sunday fayre like Songs of Praise. But in these early episodes, Roy Clarke is directly questioning whether organised religion has any point at all!

Bob: I think the depiction of faith in this episode actually speaks volumes about early 1970s society. Blamire, every inch the conservative Christian, is never the butt of the joke. Instead, it’s Compo – gauchely suspicious of the church and its conventions – that we’re encouraged to laugh at. As we touched upon when we discussed the pilot episode, Christian faith in the early 1970s was still a cornerstone of British life, and it’s treated seriously here.

Andrew: This isn’t angry, boundary-breaking satire, though. The characters take the mickey out of each other, but at this point in their lives they’ve all ended up in the same predicament and – despite what they say or believe – they’re just mates. If anything, Clarke seems to be encouraging acceptance and tolerance. Sort of progressive for its time. Progressive for today, actually!

Clegg (Peter Sallis) and Compo (Bill Owen) in Inventor of the Forty Foot Ferret
A theological debate in action

Bob: True, but there’s definitely an anti-establishment feel to it all. When pondering the existence of the afterlife, Compo comes out with the splendidly resentful, “I’ve had lectures all my life from fellers in trilby hats”, and then there’s Clegg’s “uncomfortable feeling that the Almighty’s not that competent”. Clegg is very world-weary in these early episodes. It’s never made explicit, but with him having recently lost his wife and been made redundant from his job, could you actually make a case for Clegg having slipped into depression? It’s tough to imagine what life would have to offer him if it wasn’t for his daily mooch with Blamire and Compo. They really do keep him afloat.

Andrew: Over the course of this episode, the trio wander around as we cut from location to location. There’s nothing unusual about that per se, but what I really like is the way their conversation continues uninterrupted. On television, this makes sense. But if you think of them as real people, the trio either have long spells of silence as they wait for the camera to catch up with them or – as I prefer to think – Clarke is implying that they just keep chatting away about the same things, over and over again. So much so that we can still follow the flow, no matter what time of day we drop in on them.

There’s real Yorkshire weather on display during the filmed location inserts, as well. In later years, the series will become well-known for its sun-drenched landscapes, but again, this episode is perhaps a little more honest in its depiction of the countryside. The wind is blowing a gale and mist obstructs our view of the sweeping vistas of the Holme Valley.

Bob: It looks freezing! This isn’t so much Last of the Summer Wine as First of the Winter Brandy. I absolutely love this sequence, in a desolate, derelict farm building complete with bricked-up fireplace, stray bales of hay and the wheel from a rickety old cart. I find the bleak, windswept countryside scenes in these early episodes incredibly evocative of my childhood. And there’s a magnificent minute of sleight-of-hand scatology, where we’re really led to believe that Compo has attempted to have a poo around the back of the building! He hasn’t… he’s been trying to light a fire. “It weren’t easy without any paper… I got right down behind that dry stone wall but it were still no good…”

Andrew: When Compo, presumably for the 10th time that week, bums a cigarette from Cyril, Blamire takes consolation from the idea that his handout is contributing to a little bit of lung cancer within his friend. Can you imagine the series directly mentioning cancer in any other period of its existence?

Bob: No, but that’s maybe just a reflection of changing attitudes in society. I remember illness and death being talked – and indeed joked – about without much sentiment when I was young. Much more so than in more recent times, I think.

Andrew: Compo heads up a tree in the hopes of reclaiming an ensnared kite, leading to a bit of messing around that would usually provoke a roar of laughter, but I’ve just noticed something – throughout the course of this episode there has been almost no laughter during the filmed inserts, despite there being quite a lot during the studio-bound videotaped bits. I wonder if playback of the filmed stuff wasn’t working correctly for the studio recording session, and the audience were struggling to hear it? Then again, there is the odd gag here and there that gets a response. It’s just weird, and something you wouldn’t find in a modern-day sitcom – the sound mix would make sure everything was consistent.

Meanwhile, Mr Wainwright is becoming increasingly bold behind the library reception desk, proclaiming Mrs Partridge to be “a lovely wild thing whose body is made for carnal pleasure.”

Bob: I know! These scenes behind the desk are verging on the indecent! Mr Wainwright and Mrs Partridge are, I guess, the prototype for the later characters of Howard and Marina, and yet while that latter relationship felt like a bit of playground kiss-chase (they never seem to get further than a chaste cuddle… actually, do they ever even kiss?) the extra-marital affair here is much more lusty. We’re clearly led to believe there’s been some distinctly heavy petting going on behind that mahogany counter. They’re clearly stopping just short of performing… well, an actual act behind there!

Andrew: I don’t think they’re stopping!

Despite his ambitions of class warfare, Wainwright is clearly going through as much of an existential crisis as Clegg.

WAINRIGHT You don’t know what it means to me at my time of life. To find out that Karl Marx isn’t enough!

Bob: I like the little glimpses that Mrs Partridge provides into her loveless domestic life, too. “All the poetry’s gone, but he’s got his Black and Decker…”

Andrew: A frustrated Blamire regrets the fact that, for 10 quid, Compo could have been packed off to live in Australia. He’s not talking about a package holiday, but the genuine emigration drive that took place after the Second World War. Brits who upped sticks and made new homes in Australia and New Zealand were colloquially referred to as “Ten Pound Poms”, as a £10 processing fee was all that was required to secure assisted passage on specially-chartered ships and aircraft. The idea being that the influx of workers would support various booming Antipodean industries – so I’m not sure how much use Compo would have been.

Bob: With his back?

Andrew: Besides, he claims to have preferred Canada as a potential destination. This was, rather charmingly, fuelled by his viewing of Hollywood films starring Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald, but in a predictably grounded way Compo saw himself as a prospective fur-trapper rather than a member of the Mounted Police!

Incidentally, there was a touch of the forbidden passion of Wainwright and Partridge (or Howard and Marina) to the real-life pairing of Eddy and MacDonald. Madly in love, they were forbidden to marry by their studio and MacDonald was instead paired up in a marriage of convenience with a husband known to have physically abused her. Eddy was also married, but nevertheless the co-stars continued to see one another, sharing several covert homes and even staging a mock wedding ceremony.

Bob: I can see us going down a similar path. Into the cafe, and Clegg pretty much admits that, if the trio were married and/or gainfully employed, then their current relationship would be virtually non-existent. “The camaraderie of the ageing redundant cuts across all social classes,” he muses. This really is a support group as much as a friendship.

And Blamire’s reference to Compo as “Powerful Pierre” rang a bell with me, but I had to look it up! Rather marvellously, Powerful Pierre was a recurring villain on The Huckleberry Hound Show, an unshaven brute with a French accent. Is this our most contemporary pop culture reference to date? The Huckleberry Hound cartoons were all made between 1958 and 1961, but were still being shown on BBC1 all the time in the 1970s, during an era when even childless adults like Blamire would watch kid’s TV while they waited for the news to start. Shame he wasn’t around a few years later when The Flumps was on. Perkin Flump was a dead ringer for Compo.

And more lines that gave me a jolt – Clegg comments that Blamire’s mother “brought up a little poof”, and Compo tells the wartime tale of “Hilda Mason and those four Yanks… everybody knew it were rape, but she were never prosecuted”.

Andrew: In light of this, I take back everything I said about the use of the word “orgasm” earlier in the series. These are the lines that feel out of place now!

Bob: Again, it’s jaw-dropping by modern standards, but it was acceptable TV dialogue in 1973. And it’s absolutely in character for this grittier, early incarnation of the main trio.

Andrew: There’s another reference to Compo’s wife as having run off with a “fizzing Pole”, with a hen-pecked Sid regretting that you don’t see much of that these days.

Bob: For years I thought that line was a post-watershed “pissing Pole”, but you’re absolutely right… It’s the long-lost Yorkshire swear word “fizzing”! Sorry, I just see filth in everything.

Andrew: From the cafe we move on to the laundrette, which now certainly feels like a relic from the past. At least outside of major cities like London, where – in my experience – space and decent household plumbing still seem to be at a premium.

Then it’s off to an abandoned mill for a kickabout with some rusty oil drums. We’re really seeing the glamorous side of Holmfirth in this episode!

Clegg (Peter Sallis) and Blamire (Michael Bates) enjoy some a picnic in an abandoned farm building.

Bob: There’s genuine venom in this scene. “A chuffin’ Pole took my missus… how much more do I owe?” spits Compo, as he boots an old iron drum downhill with vicious, angry resentment. Did his whole life fall apart during the war, do you think? Thirty years without work certainly suggests that the industrial accident that injured his back took place sometime around 1943. He accepted the desultory “compo” that was offered to him, and has eked out the rest of his life in absolutely abject poverty.

And over 8,000 Polish airmen arrived in the UK in 1940 to fight in the Battle of Britain… did Compo’s wife leave him for one of them?

Andrew: The trio make their exit from this industrial site by wandering through an abandoned factory corridor strewn with broken glass and dead mice. “Aww,” muses Clegg while holding one up by the tail, “Does the Almighty mend his broken mice, I wonder, somewhere?” Our trio are the broken mice of British society. This can’t just be because the show is being filmed in 1973. Can you think of any other sitcom that wallows in quite so miserable a setting? Hogan’s Heroes is set in a prisoner of war camp and they rarely stop smiling, for God’s sake!

Bob: Back to church, and Blamire is genuinely convinced that Compo will be changed by the experience. It’s touching in a way – his overt motivation through all of this is to smarten up Compo into a “respectable” member of society, but I think he also genuinely wants his friend to find some happiness and salvation from what we’ve now established has been a pretty miserable existence.

Andrew: Another example of the genuinely idiosyncratic audience reaction that you wouldn’t hear in a sitcom laugh track these days: the crowd member who squeals, “Look at ‘is face!” as Compo mocks a brass eagle on display in the church. I wonder what part of their psyche that moment touched and whether or not they were given a sharp elbow in the ribs by their companion!

Bob: I loved that! And credit to Bill Owen for resisting what was surely an extraordinary temptation to react with a bit more mugging.

I’d also like to point out another wonderful line from Clegg. “Maybe we had to die to get here from some other place?” he muses. Isn’t that almost a Buddhist philosophy? The continuing, repeated cycle of death and rebirth until one finally achieves Nirvana? Wikipedia describes this ultimate, blissful state as “the blowing out of desire”, so maybe that’s what Mr Wainwright and Mrs Partridge were trying to achieve behind the desk in the library.

Andrew: When Blamire says, “Come on, time I was home” I think Michael Bates lapses into a bit of his other famous comedy performance; the head bobble on display here is very reminiscent of Rangi Ram in It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum. Then again, given that Michael Bates was born and raised in Jhansi, India, this could just be a natural bit of instinctual communication.

Bob: What a lovely, philosophical episode. And in this closing scene, with Sid and Ivy cycling through town, there’s an incredibly telling revelation that passes almost unnoticed. “In it?” snorts Sid, as a caustic retort to one of Ivy’s comments, “I’ve been in it ever since that night we threw caution to the wind behind the baths”. I could be reading too much into this, but the implication I take from that comment is that – ahem – a passing dalliance in a back alley led to their shotgun marriage, with Ivy, according to the parlance of the day, being “in trouble”. And yet their marriage is childless. Trust me, there’s a real, unspoken sadness at the heart of that relationship.

Andrew: Yes, that was a fantastic bit of philosophical musing disguised somehow as a half-hour sitcom – dark and angry, but somehow utterly relatable and, in a strange way, rather comforting.

1 comment

1 Comment

Nov 02, 2023

I visited the graves recently for the first time. I was very touched and to see bill and peter in this episode near to their resting place is very moving.

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