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Last of the Summer Wine (1973-2010)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Last of the Summer Wine (1973-2010)
BBC1, tx. 12/11/1973-29/8/2010
266 x 30 min eps plus 28 specials, colour
CreatorRoy Clarke
Production CompanyBBC Television
ScriptsRoy Clarke
ProducersAlan J.W. Bell, Sydney Lotterby, James Gilbert, Bernard Thompson
Theme musicRonnie Hazlehurst

Regular cast: Bill Owen (Compo); Peter Sallis (Clegg); Brian Wilde (Foggy); Kathy Staff (Nora Batty); Jane Freeman (Ivy); Michael Bates (Blamire); Michael Aldridge (Seymour); Frank Thornton (Truly); Keith Clifford (Billy); Burt Kwouk (Entwistle); Brian Murphy (Alvin); Russ Abbot (Hobbo)

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The ramblings of three young-at-heart pensioners in rural Yorkshire.

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Although initially slow to find its audience, Last of the Summer Wine was destined to become television's longest-running sitcom. Over more than a quarter of a century and some 30 series, the show has undergone numerous personnel changes, but one constant has been the gentle, benevolent humour of Roy Clarke, who has written every episode.

The programme started life as a one-off Comedy Playhouse entry, 'Of Funerals and Fish' (BBC, tx. 1/1/1973). Clarke was doubtful of its suitability as a series, until he realised that "three old men could have the same thoughts as three young men". The childlike behaviour and genial eccentricity of Clarke's senior citizens proved a surprise hit with audiences, as did the idyllic Yorkshire landscape and unhurried pace, both perfectly captured in Ronnie Hazlehurst's lackadaisical theme tune.

The original central trio comprised authoritarian Cyril Blamire, timid, thoughtful Norman Clegg, and Compo Simmonite, a scruffy imp with a penchant for ferrets and the wrinkled stockings of his terrifying neighbour, Nora Batty. Also featuring were Nora's pigeon-fancying husband, Wally, and café owners Sid and Ivy. Although early viewing figures were unimpressive, the BBC remained loyal, and by the late 1970s it was established as a family favourite. One crucial cast addition was retired sign-writer Lance-Corporal 'Foggy' Dewhurst, whose unsuccessful attempts to impose military discipline on the reluctant Compo and Clegg carried the programme into new dimensions of absurdity.

In the 1980s it underwent several changes; the cast gradually expanded, and Foggy was replaced by retired headmaster Seymour Utterthwaite, who immediately set Compo and Clegg to work testing his various inventions. Peter Sallis noted that the programme had by now shifted "from the philosophical to the physical", with Compo risking life and limb every week.

By the early 1990s many felt that the series had become repetitive, with the Independent suggesting that the key to its longevity also explained its stagnation: "Nobody dies... they just drop out between series. It's about an old age that never ages." However, Bill Owen's death in 1999 gave the show its first on-screen funeral for a major character, and some of its most poignant moments. Despite many cast changes since (from 2009, Sallis and his co-star Frank Thornton took more supporting roles after they were deemed uninsurable for location filming) and Clarke's repeated hints of impending retirement, the series survives as a reassuringly stable institution in a much-transformed television landscape.

Richard Hewett

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Video Clips
1. Train time (1:57)
2. Who missed his train? (1:17)
3. Foggy takes charge (3:23)
Complete episode (28:41)
Clarke, Roy (1930-)
Hird, Thora (1911-2003)
Kwouk, Burt (1930- )
Whitfield, June (1925-)