First Broadcast – BBC1, 8pm, Thursday 4th January 1973
In which our trio look for ways to while away their autumn years…
NOTE: Our thoughts on Last of the Summer Wine’s first 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: Here we go, then; Episode One! From the get-go I can tell you that this isn’t quite the series that I remember from growing up. Last of the Summer Wine, in my minds eye, is bathed in sunlight on a bright and clear Sunday afternoon, but the landscape we open upon is overcast, with the wind blasting the grass on the hillsides of Holmfirth. This is definitely not the slickly-produced sitcom that I remember, either. A lady in the studio audience coughs her way through the theme tune and nobody thought to bother taking it out!
Bob: Yes, it’s got a very different feel to the series of the 1980s and beyond. No sweeping vistas of rolling countryside here… we get claustrophobic back yards and alleyways, and the authentic grime of an early 1970s industrial Yorkshire town. I’ve wondered recently why the streets of my 1970s childhood, on TV and in photographs, look so different to their modern-day counterparts. And I think I’ve cracked it… it’s the soot! Holmfirth in 1973 is a riot of smoking chimneys, and the blackened buildings are testament to the days when central heating was considered an expensive luxury. In these early years, it gives the whole show a much grittier, grottier feel than the one we came to know. So this isn’t the Summer Wine of hillsides and child-like old men in bathtubs, it’s the Summer Wine of disillusionment and middle-aged, working class boredom. And we begin the episode with a penniless, wheezing Compo having his ancient, rented TV repossessed. In the words of the eye-rolling Nora Batty outside, “it must be Tuesday”.
Andrew: How young does Bill Owen look?! And by young, I obviously mean middle-aged, greasy and knackered. Still, he’s very much not an old man, is he? The same goes for Kathy Staff. Mrs Batty might be a bit sour-faced, but she’s far from the intimidating battleaxe the country came to know and love. And did she just refer to her husband as “Harold”? Given that we later meet her fella and he’s called Wally, does this mean that the pilot isn’t canon? This is the sort of important thing we need to get to the bottom of, Bob! Bob: She did! She definitely did! The entire 37-year-run is now invalidated in my eyes. Let’s call it quits right here.
Andrew: I know I started this entry with a moan about somebody coughing during the theme tune, but the honesty of the way in which audience laughter was recorded at this point in television history is something I really like. You can hear real individuals on the laugh track; people like the woman who cackles madly when Nora and her friends make reference to the fact that Compo’s wife ran off with a Pole. Nobody else in the audience finds this fact as funny as this one woman and, though we’ll never know, why we can assume she must have felt some sort of personal connection to the gag!
Bob: Maybe she’d run off with a Pole herself? I like that personal touch too; there’s a woman in the studio audience of Monty Python’s Flying Circus who laughs riotously and very conspicuously through several consecutive episodes. I’ve since seen suggestions that it might have been John Cleese’s then-wife (and future Fawlty Towers star) Connie Booth!
Andrew: I’m sure somebody will contact us and tell me I’m talking complete rubbish, but the use of handheld camerawork in these opening scenes strikes me as very peculiar. It lends the scene a slight – and I do mean slight – documentary feel that I wasn’t expecting! Bob: Stanley Kubrick learned everything he knew from Jimmy Gilbert. The personalities of our three main characters is established very swiftly; we’ve already seen that Compo lives in a state of shambolic impoverishment, and – as he meets up with Blamire – we get a feeling of the latter’s haughty, detached air; a man whose pretensions to the the officer classes have not been diminished by his return to civilian life.
And then we meet Clegg, chatting on a freezing churchyard bench with a hangdog vicar, and describing how he has recently observed a man carefully carrying a tiny, quivering bird to his hungry cat… “Life’s like that,” he muses. “A complex texture of conflicting moralities.” It’s smalltown, Northern philosophy writ large. There’s a real whiff of Alan Bennett about so many of Clegg’s early musings.
We see him tending the grave of his wife, too… “Edith Clegg, 1900-1971”.* So Clegg is a relatively recent widower, and – if we assume that Clegg and Peter Sallis are the same age here – he was 21 years younger than his late wife. That rings true, actually. I can imagine the wistful, idealistic Clegg being mothered by an older woman who was far more capable than him of dealing with the grim practicalities of everyday life.
The vicar, by the way, is played by Michael Stainton, who went on to be the dad in Metal Mickey. I felt it important to make that a matter of public record.
Andrew: Last of the Summer Wine always had a strong bond with the town and countryside in which it was filmed, and this is established from the very beginning – the pilot opens with a full eight-and-a-half minute location sequence before our trio head into a disused chapel and the production switches to the videotaped confines of Television Centre. That’s a hell of a lot of filmed material for a fledgling sitcom, isn’t it? Bob: I could have been fooled by the disused chapel, to be honest! Even the specially-built sets reek of 1970s British grime.
Andrew: This is all surprisingly topical, isn’t it? Not in a “news of the day” sense, but in how willing Clarke’s script is to grapple with politics and religion. In fact, on the religious front, it’s quite an interesting view of Britain as a Christian country. Bob: Yes, Blamire in particular seems to have a leaning towards staunch Anglican traditions – but it isn’t especially presented as a prominent part of his character; it’s just there, in the background. Which I suspect is how large swathes of the population saw the Church of England in the 1970s; even if they weren’t devout church-goers, it was still part of the tapestry of everyday life. And if we want more vintage bleakness… Canon Jamieson, as commemorated on a plaque on the chapel wall, was – according to Clegg – “more than democratic in his ways with the choirboys”. Again, this is dark stuff. I do love the “talky” nature of all this, though. Despite the frequent use of real-life locations, this would work perfectly as a theatre production. There’s no plot to speak of, it’s simply 27 minutes of perfectly observed character-building, and brilliantly-scripted conversation.
Andrew: “Somebody’s got to think about these things, and who’s got more time than we have?” muses Clegg. I struggle to think of another pilot that lays out its premise as neatly as that. In just one sentence, Roy Clarke has set the template for 37 series of television!
Bob: Into the library, and I guess lots of hardcore fans will be aware of the fact that Last of the Summer Wine’s early working title was The Library Mob, with this location providing the hub for our main trio’s daily loafing… even more so than the legendary café in these early years. And, whereas in later episodes they would face the wrath of Ivy and her buns of iron, in these initial episodes it’s the head librarian, the avowed communist Mr Wainwright, who is their nemesis. And good grief, what an introduction we get to him… his opening appearance sees him emerging from below the library’s main desk, where the clear implication is that he’s been – ahem – thumbing through the lower portions of his married assistant, Mrs Partridge! “I have to touch you… it’s a need…”
Andrew: I love Blake Butler’s performance as Mr. Wainwright. The repressed sexual energy of the character is bursting from the tip of his Trotsky-esque beard. Although for all his bluster about middle-class morality and lefty politics, his choice of D.H. Lawrence as Mrs Partridge’s gateway to erotica is charmingly middle-of-the-road! Bob: It is by modern standards, but Penguin Books were prosecuted and taken to court for publishing Lady Chatterley’s Lover only thirteen years before this episode was broadcast. It had been untouched by a mainstream publisher for 32 years until then, and the 1959 Obscene Publications Act had a field day with a book riddled with language fit only for the confines of the billiard parlour. It’s right mucky, it is. They should put that on the cover. Mrs Partridge is nicely played by Rosemary Martin too, who was a regular face on TV in the 1970s and 1980s. She conveys just the right blend of timidity and sexual frustration. “My husband likes to watch The High Chaparral, then I have to get his Ovaltine.”
And this is the strangest erotic moment I’ve ever seen: Mr Wainwright is below the desk, clearly – ahem – “attending” to Mrs Partridge, but reaches up to grab a little green book from the counter, which he then… does something with. Something that drives her to even further heights of desire. As someone who occasionally collects vintage books, I’m going to guess that one would now be described as having “light foxing.”
Andrew: Clegg isn’t the timid character we’ll grow to love is he? Just look at the swagger he displays as he flagrantly lights up a cigarette beside the library’s “No Smoking” sign, and his defiance as he stubs it out into an inkpot under Mr Wainwright’s nose. It’s only right that he be thrown out of the library! Bob: And when he was nine, he was intimate with Muriel Fairfax in a sandpit. The man has hidden shallows. Compo too is a darker character than in later years; he’s still incredibly bitter about the “scabby Pole” that ran off with his wife – it makes him genuinely angry, although I’m assuming it happened decades ago… possibly even during the war?
Andrew: There’s a stock question that actors in long-running series always get asked on chat shows – “When you first started working on Insert Long-Running Show Here, did you have any idea you’d still be talking about it so many years later?” Almost all of them answer that they had no idea what kind of success the series would enjoy, but this must be especially true for Jane Freeman. Her role as Ivy in this pilot is incredibly small, but she ended up playing the part for almost four decades! Bob: I know… it’s literally seconds, but she sets her stall out. She’s in a foul temper from the very start. Nice to get an early glimpse of John Comer too, as her dry-witted husband Sid. He’d been a hugely prolific TV and film actor from the late 1950s onwards – he starred alongside Peter Sellers in I’m Alright Jack and Heavens Above!, and he’d made regular appearances in Coronation Street and Z-Cars, amongst many others. But, as with so many actors, it was Last of the Summer Wine that really cemented him as a household favourite, at a comparatively late age. He was nearly fifty when the series started, but to our generation he’ll always be “Sid from the café”.
Andrew: Cast away from the library and then the café, our trio very much feel like schoolkids turfed out of the house, bored during the last days of the summer holidays – just wandering aimlessly in search of something interesting. The honesty with which Holmfirth is depicted continues too, as Cyril treads in dog muck (probably white), and the trio make their way to a stream that’s absolutely infested with midges. This isn’t a plot point at all, the location is genuinely swarming with them. Bob: Midges were everywhere in the 1970s! Gardens were always full of them, for no discernable reason, and my arms and legs were permanently covered in bites from the vicious little buggers! They were the hoodlums of the insect world, just hanging around on street corners looking to cause bother. Where did they all go? Is there now a Midge Retirement Home where they all recline in tiny bath chairs, swapping stories of the famous people they’ve bitten? “Did I ever tell you, Ethel, I once took a lump out of Alvin Stardust’s ankle…” Despite the infestation, our trio catch a tiny, tiddler fish and keep it in a jar. I’d be outraged if modern kids inflicted such an indignity on a poor creature like this, but in 1973 this was an integral part of any kids’ summertime jolly. Again, it’s that school holiday feeling, isn’t it? They’re absolutely regressing to activities they would have previously enjoyed five decades years earlier.
And feel free to put Compo’s pub conversation about the heavenly genitalia of angels on our “That Would Never Have Happened In The Later Series” list, too. This really feels like late-night comedy, and yet it was broadcast on BBC1 at 8pm on a Thursday evening. We’d come a long way since the Obscene Publications Act of 1959.
Andrew: Outside the pub, who should our trip spot emerging from Lover’s Lane but the Mr Wainwright and Mrs Partridge? Clegg reckons that’ll provide enough leverage to allow our trio back into the library the following day. Bob: I laughed out loud at Compo’s musings once they return to their spiritual home amongst the bookshelves. “Do you think I’m in love with Nora Batty? Or is it just sex?” The thought of the pair of them actually doing it… good grief, I think even Mr Wainwright’s ardour would be dampened. And then a line that took us both by surprise! “Cyril,” says Clegg to an aghast Blamire, “Your idea of orgasm is a quick flick through Burke’s Peerage!”
Andrew: The use of the word “orgasm” really shook me, as it seems completely out-of-step with the Summer Wine that I grew up with as a kid in the 1990s. The sort of people who now praise the series for its “family values” and gentle comedy must surely have forgotten all the political, religious and sexual debate going on in these early years! Thinking about it, I quite like the fact that the BBC celebrated the end of the series with a Songs of Praise special – when it actually began with two of the principle characters questioning the nature of faith! Bob: Can I just point out that I’m glad the episode ends with that poor captured fish being returned to its native stream?
Andrew: Clegg departs in search of sausage for his tea, and we end exactly as we began, with the credits rolling over the same view of the Holme Valley. It’s only just dawned on me that there’s been a beautifully subtle theme running through the entirety of this episode. When we’re introduced to Compo, his neighbours know the day of the week because his television is being taken away. When we meet Clegg, he enters proceedings just as a coffin in a hearse makes its exit. The trio are thrown out of the library, and then regain access to it. They catch a tiddler and let it go again. They part at the end, knowing that they’re going to go through the same routine the very next day. This isn’t presented a something tragic – it’s just a fact of life (and death), and in a way it comes across as a reassuring comfort for three characters who’ve been left behind by society.
The episode has achieved what some of my very favourite sitcom episodes manage – it’s a perfectly self-sufficient piece of television. If this pilot was as far as Last of the Summer Wine ever got, it would still hold up as a beautiful piece of work, and we’d feel like we really got to know these characters well. Bob: Absolutely. It’s a superb-written and performed piece of TV. And the premise is absolutely explicit and perfectly encapsulated… it’s about three fifty-something men whose working and family lives are effectively over, reverting to childhood because they have no other way of passing the time. It’s both funny and dark, and it positively drips with melancholy. And it’s obvious from the start that the three main protagonists are perfectly cast… Bates, Sallis and Owen make their characters utterly believable and three-dimensional from their very first lines. The lengthy, rambling, perfectly-performed dialogue takes us completely into their world – their whimsical, filth-filled childhoods, their frustrating, slightly shop-soiled adult lives. It owes more to Alan Bennett and Ken Loach than anything we ever saw over the ensuing 37 years.
Andrew: Oh, and the waste ground on which the trio bid their farewells is now the site of a Co-op car park. How’s that for progress? Bob: Get off your high horse, Smith. We always park there.
Andrew: One down, two-hundred-and-ninety-four to go…
* Yes, it was only after writing and publishing a book that we looked at the screenshots again and realised that it quite clearly said 1909, not 1900.