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Clarke, Roy (1930-)


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A lifelong native of South Yorkshire, Roy Clarke will forever be associated with the gentle whimsy of Last of the Summer Wine (BBC, 1973-present), a show whose success spans more than three decades and for which he has penned every episode. Along with his two other best-known creations, Open All Hours (BBC, 1976-1985) and Keeping Up Appearances (BBC, 1990-95), the programme displayed a propensity for homespun philosophising and the gentle pricking of middle-class pretension which proved remarkably popular in an era when the political satire of the 1960s was giving way to the biting humour of alternative comedy.

Born in Austerfield in 1930, he fell in love with writing at an early age, but opted to join the army rather than turn professional. Subsequent jobs included policeman, teacher, salesman and taxi driver, but he continued to write in his spare time, and eventually had several plays accepted by BBC radio. By the late 1960s he was writing for television, specialising in dramas such as The Troubleshooters (BBC, 1965-72), The Power Game (ITV, 1963-69) and Detective (BBC, 1964-69). His first sitcom, The Misfit (ITV, 1970-71) starred Ronald Fraser as a rubber plantation owner who returns to England after decades abroad, and ran to just two series. In 1973, however, he forged several enduring associations when he wrote a script for Comedy Playhouse (BBC, 1961-75) based around the exploits of three elderly Yorkshiremen, and provided material for two Ronnie Barker projects: sketch show The Two Ronnies (BBC, 1971-87) and Seven of One (BBC, 1973), a compendium of one-off comedies. The latter included what would become the pilot episodes for two of Barker's greatest successes: Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais' Porridge (BBC, 1974-77) and Open All Hours - though Clarke's show, starring Barker as stammering, miserly shopkeeper Arkwright, would not enter production till 1976.

In the meantime the BBC had offered him the chance to develop his Playhouse script into an ongoing series. Initially daunted by the challenge of finding humour in the activities of a trio of pensioners on a weekly basis, Clarke later claimed to have hit upon the winning formula when he realised that "three old men could have the same thoughts as three young men". The original line-up comprised: Compo (Bill Owen) - scruffy, childish and obsessed with his wrinkle-stockinged landlady, Nora Batty (Kathy Staff); the ruminative and diffident Norman Clegg (Peter Sallis, one of only two cast members to remain with the show throughout its run); and the authoritarian Blamire (Michael Bates). Other regulars included café owners Ivy and Sid, and Nora's pigeon-fancying husband, Wally. Last of the Summer Wine mined a rich vein of the absurd, its peculiar charm summed up perfectly in Ronnie Hazlehurst's bittersweet, lackadaisical theme tune, but it was not an instant hit with viewers. Undaunted, the BBC allowed the programme time to mature, and when Bates left after the second series his replacement provided the show with its classic line-up; retired Lance-Corporal Sign-writer Walter 'Foggy' Dewhurst (Brian Wilde) proved the perfect foil to Compo and Clegg, forever trying (and failing) to impose his own conception of military efficiency on his reluctant cohorts. As time passed the cast gradually changed and expanded, becoming a much larger ensemble following Owen's death in 1999. In the intervening years Clarke had penned a prequel, First of the Summer Wine (BBC, 1988-89), which focused on teenage versions of the main characters in the days leading up to WWII.

Other works in the 1970s included a second Comedy Playhouse entry, 'Pygmalion Smith' (BBC, tx. 25/6/1974), starring Leonard Rossiter, and Potter (BBC, 1979-1983), in which Arthur Lowe played a confectioner forced into retirement; the series proved popular enough to continue with Robin Bailey following Lowe's death. Ex-policeman Clarke also drew upon personal experience to create The Growing Pains of PC Penrose (BBC, 1975), later re-titled Rosie (BBC, 1977-81), in which Paul Greenwood played a naïve young constable on the beat in a Yorkshire seaside town.

Clarke's third popular success came with Keeping Up Appearances, starring Patricia Routledge as upwardly mobile snob Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced 'Bouquet'), desperately ashamed of her working class siblings and obsessed with hosting what she perceived as sophisticated candlelit suppers. Subsequent shows such as Ain't Misbehaving (BBC, 1994-95) and Spark (BBC, 1997) failed to capture the public's imagination, though Clarke won much acclaim for his return to drama with the feature A Foreign Field (d. Charles Sturridge, 1993), in which a group of D-Day veterans returns to the beaches of Normandy fifty years on.

Richard Hewett

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Thumbnail image of Keeping Up Appearances (1990-95)Keeping Up Appearances (1990-95)

Immensely popular sitcom satirising suburban social snobbery

Thumbnail image of Last of the Summer Wine (1973-2010)Last of the Summer Wine (1973-2010)

Elderly pranks and misadventures in the BBC's longest-running sitcom

Thumbnail image of Open All Hours (1973-85)Open All Hours (1973-85)

Ronnie Barker stars as stuttering skinflint shopkeeper Arkwright

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