Beginning as a one-off episode of the BBC's Comedy Playhouse entitled 'Of Funerals And Fish', in January 1973, written by Roy Clarke, Last Of The Summer Wine went on to mature into a much loved national television institution which also carried the distinction of being Britain's longest running situation comedy series.
Dealing initially with the misadventures of three ageing delinquents who live in the small Yorkshire town Holmfirth, the series' humour during its early days was gently philosophical as the original core trio of scruffy layabout Compo Simmonite (Bill Owen), timid widower, Norman Clegg (Peter Sallis - the voice of Wallace in Wallace and Gromit) and Cyril Blamire (Michael Bates who had previously appeared in It Ain't Half Hot, Mum), steadfastly refused to grow old gracefully and instead embraced an almost child-like retirement devoted to acting on their slightest whims and indulging in wryly humorous discourse on the nature of the universe, set against the breath-taking backdrop of Yorkshire's legendary scenic beauty.
Following Michael Bates' untimely death, another veteran of British television, Brian Wilde (Porridge's Mr. Barrowclough), was drafted aboard as the pompous, yarn spinning ex-school friend, Foggy Dewhurst. With Wilde's arrival, the immediate chemistry between the principal characters quickly established a dynamic that the viewing audience picked up on and the series' modest popularity began to gain the momentum, which would ultimately sustain it to the present day.
Another aspect which aided this process was Clarke's canny decision to broaden the humour, and this expansion subtly moved the series away from its introspective roots and instead steered it into the area of visual slapstick, while at the same time the introduction of a large and well delineated supporting cast comprising some of the industry's most accomplished character actors, including such luminaries as Dame Thora Hird, Stephen Lewis (Inspector Blake in On The Buses), Jean Alexander (Hilda Ogden in Coronation Street), and guest appearances by performers such as the legendary Norman Wisdom, ensured a consistent excellence in performance, which imbued even the writer's weaker scripts with a level of sheer quality which ensured a high amusement factor.
When Brian Wilde himself left the series for the first time he was replaced by the character of ex-headmaster and oddball inventor, Seymour Utterthwaite (Michael Aldridge), and following a triumphant return he was again forced to leave due to ill health, this time to be replaced by Are You Being Served? star Frank Thornton as yet another inept authority figure, ex police inspector, "Truly of the Yard", Truelove.
But it was with the sad death of the excellent and vastly experienced Bill Owen in 1999, that the series faced its greatest trial. By the time of his death Owen's energetic and appealing portrayal of the Compo character had earned him an affectionate place within the nation's collective heart, and initially the idea of the series continuing without the presence of Owen's masterfully realised man-child creation was unthinkable. But following three sensitively written, brilliantly played episodes dealing with the emotive aftermath of Compo's death on his friends, (which quite possibly served as the finest tribute to the loss of a lead actor of a series ever seen on television anywhere in the world), in a daring and ultimately successful move, Roy Clarke suggested that Owen be replaced by his own son, actor/producer, Tom Owen, as Compo's long lost son, Tom.
Due to the age of the main cast, a new trio was formed during the 30th series featuring younger actors. The new group consisted of Russ Abbot as a former milkman who fancied himself a secret agent, Hobbo Hobdyke, Burt Kwouk as the electrical repairman, "Electrical" Entwistle, and Murphy as Alvin Smedley. Sallis and Thornton continued in supporting roles alongside the new actors. Repeats of the show are broadcast in the UK on cable channels Gold and Yesterday. It is also seen in more than twenty-five countries. The final episode of the show, was broadcast on 29 August 2010.
Published on December 29th, 2018. Written by SRH (2000) for Television Heaven.