Last of the Summer Wine - Tony Cunnane's Afterthoughts

Tony Cunnane's Afterthoughts
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Last of the Summer Wine

Written on 29 August 2010

Today, 29 August 2010, the BBC’s ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ series will finally came to an end after 37 years when the last episode is transmitted. ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ was set in and around Holmfirth, close to the summit of the Pennines so, as a Yorkshire man born and bred in the West Riding, the programmes always had a particular fascination for me, daft though many of the characters and adventures were. I used to bicycle around the Pennine villages of Holmfirth, Holmbridge, Holme, Denby Dale and others as a child in the late 1940s and early 50s, before the huge Holme Moss TV mast was built. These days, as soon as I catch sight of that 200 metre concrete mast on the skyline, and you can do that on a clear day from most of south and west Yorkshire (and parts of Lancashire but we don't talk about that!) and for many miles of the M1 motorway, I always feel that I am nearly home.

Actually, I missed the first series of Last of the Summer Wine back in 1973. I was introduced to it by other members of my family and I have since, I believe, watched every single episode at least once and many of them many times (including repeats of that first series).

I also watched in 1988/89 the two series of prequels, ‘First of the Summer Wine’ (13 episodes in total), set in the weeks before the outbreak of WW2. The actors who played the teenage versions of the main characters, Compo Simmonite, Norman Clegg, Wally Batty, Seymour Utterthwaite and Foggy Dewhirst, were without exception, uncannily like their later incarnations. It was a stroke of genius to get Peter Sallis (who played Norman Clegg) to play his own father. The casting director, whoever that was, did a remarkable job in finding and training those young actors. Those programmes were interesting and an accurate portrayal of Pennine villages as I remember them. Sadly, like so many television prequels and sequels, they were not anything like as entertaining as the original Last of the Summer Wine – which is probably why they are never now repeated.

Astonishingly, Roy Clarke wrote every single episode of both the ‘First of’ and ‘Last of’ and Peter Sallis is the only actor to appear in every single episode – something like 300 episodes in total. I have watched them all – not all of them on their first showing due to years spent overseas during my RAF career before Sky TV had even been dreamed of. Thanks to regular repeats on digital channels as well as BBC1, I’ve seen some of the episodes half a dozen times or more and they still seem fresh.

For me, and countless other Yorkshire folk, the episodes are ageless, as are the characters themselves. In 37 years of story lines the main characters seemed not to age at all, even though the passage of time has affected the actors and actresses. I’m tempted to quote Laurence Binyon out of context, with no disrespect intended: “They grow not old as we that are left grow old”. Regular viewers will know what I mean.

In spite of all the above, I was pleased the series came to an end, but it is a great pity that dithering by the BBC meant that the final ever episode, which will be transmitted later tonight, was not known to be definitely the final episode before it was recorded. That does mean, though, that there should be no yucky farewell scenes, no long-running characters driving off in a taxi to a new life, no explosions, no sudden dramatic deaths.

‘Last of the Summer Wine’ was different. I kept hearing about behind-the-scenes rows involving various members of the regular cast - all of whom are now deceased. I don’t wish to know about that: if true, it certainly never affected their performances and that, surely, is what matters. I miss the programmes; I will continue to the end of my days watching the repeats, but it was the correct decision to bring it to an end. Pity the BBC had to dither about that!

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