Last of the Summer Wine is a British sitcom created and written by Roy Clarke and originally broadcast by the BBC from 1973 to 2010. It premiered as an episode of Comedy Playhouse on 4 January 1973, and the first series of episodes followed on 12 November 1973. From 1983 to 2010, Alan J. W. Bell produced and directed all episodes of the show. The BBC confirmed on 2 June 2010 that Last of the Summer Wine would no longer be produced and the 31st series would be its last. Subsequently, the final episode was broadcast on 29 August 2010. Since its original release, all 295 episodes, comprising thirty-one series — including the pilot and all films and specials — have been released on DVD. Repeats of the show are broadcast in the UK on Gold, Yesterday, and Drama.
It is also seen in more than twenty-five countries, including various PBS stations in the United States and on VisionTV in Canada. Last of the Summer Wine is the longest-running comedy programme in Britain and the longest-running sitcom in the world.
Last of the Summer Wine was set and filmed in and around Holmfirth, West Yorkshire, England, and centred on a trio of old men and their youthful misadventures; the membership of the trio changed several times over the years. The original trio consisted of Bill Owen as the mischievous and impulsive Compo Simmonite, Peter Sallis as easy-going everyman Norman Clegg, and Michael Bates as uptight and arrogant Cyril Blamire. When Bates dropped out due to illness in 1976 after two series, the role of the third man of the trio was filled in various years up to the 30th series by the quirky war veteran Walter “Foggy” Dewhurst (Brian Wilde), who had two lengthy stints in the series, the eccentric inventor Seymour Utterthwaite (Michael Aldridge), and former police officer Herbert “Truly of The Yard” Truelove (Frank Thornton). The men never seem to grow up, and they develop a unique perspective on their equally eccentric fellow townspeople through their stunts. Although in its early years the series generally revolved around the exploits of the main trio, with occasional interaction with a few recurring characters, over time the cast grew to include a variety of supporting characters and by later years the series was very much an ensemble piece. Each of these recurring characters contributed their own running jokes and subplots to the show and often becoming reluctantly involved in the schemes of the trio, or on occasion having their own, separate storylines.
After the death of Owen in 1999, Compo was replaced at various times by his real-life son, Tom Owen, as equally unhygienic Tom Simmonite, Keith Clifford as Billy Hardcastle, a man who thought of himself as a descendant of Robin Hood, and Brian Murphy as the cheeky-chappy Alvin Smedley. Due to the age of the main cast, a new trio was formed during the 30th series featuring somewhat younger actors, and this format was used for the final two instalments of the show. This group consisted of Russ Abbot as a former milkman who fancied himself a secret agent, Luther “Hobbo” Hobdyke, Burt Kwouk as the electrical repairman, “Electrical” Entwistle, and Murphy as Alvin Smedley. Sallis and Thornton, both past members of the trio, continued in supporting roles alongside the new actors.
Although many feel the show’s quality declined over the years, Last of the Summer Wine continued to receive large audiences for the BBC and was praised for its positive portrayal of older people and family-friendly humour. Many members of the Royal Family enjoyed the show. The programme was nominated for numerous awards and won the National Television Award for Most Popular Comedy Programme in 1999. There were twenty-one Christmas specials, three television films and a documentary film about the series. Last of the Summer Wine inspired other adaptations, including a television prequel, several novelisations, and stage adaptations.
In 1972, Duncan Wood, the BBC’s Head of Comedy, watched a comedy on television called The Misfit. Impressed by writer Roy Clarke‘s ability to inject both comedy and drama into the sitcom, Wood offered Clarke the opportunity to write a sitcom. Clarke nearly turned the job down as he felt that the BBC’s idea for a programme about three old men was a dull concept for a half-hour sitcom. Instead, Clarke proposed that the men should all be unmarried, widowed, or divorced and either unemployed or retired, leaving them free to roam around like adolescents in the prime of their lives, unfettered and uninhibited.
Clarke chose the original title, The Last of the Summer Wine, to convey the idea that the characters are not in the autumn of their lives but the summer, even though it may be “the last of the summer”. BBC producers hated this at first and insisted that it remain a temporary working title, while the cast worried that viewers would forget the name of the show. The working title was changed later to The Library Mob, a reference to one of the trio’s regular haunts early in the show. Clarke switched back to his original preference shortly before production began, a title that was shortened to Last of the Summer Wine after the pilot show.
The Last of the Summer Wine premiered as an episode of BBC’s Comedy Playhouse on 4 January 1973. The pilot, “Of Funerals and Fish”, received enough positive response that a full series was commissioned to be broadcast before the end of the year. Although the initial series did not do well in the ratings, the BBC ordered a second series in 1975.
The site for the exterior shots of Last of the Summer Wine was, in part, suggested by television producer Barry Took, who was familiar with the area. Took had, in the 1950s, toured as a stand-up comic, often appearing at working men’s clubs. One such appearance was at Burnlee Working Men’s Club, a club in the small West Yorkshire town of Holmfirth, and Took saw Holmfirth’s potential as the backdrop of a television show. Twenty years later, he returned to Holmfirth, where he filmed an episode of the BBC documentary series Having a Lovely Time, which turned out to be the highest rated episode of the show. When Took heard that James Gilbert and Roy Clarke were looking for a place with a centre surrounded by hills for their new television programme, he suggested the idea to Duncan Wood, who was at that time filming Comedy Playhouse. Gilbert and Clarke then travelled to Holmfirth and decided to use it as the setting for the pilot episode.
Though the exterior shots were always filmed on location in Holmfirth and the surrounding countryside, the interior shots were, until the early 1990s, filmed in front of a live studio audience at BBC Television Centre in London. The amount of location work increased, however, as studio work became a drain on time and money. Under Alan J. W. Bell, Last of the Summer Wine became the first comedy series to do away with the live studio audience, moving all of the filming to Holmfirth. The episodes were filmed and then shown to preview audiences, whose laughter was recorded and then mixed into each episode’s soundtrack to provide a laugh track and avoid the use of canned laughter.
The show used actual businesses and homes in and around Holmfirth, and Nora Batty’s house, which is actually a Summer Wine themed holiday cottage where members of the public can stay in a replica of Nora Batty’s home. Although this has helped the Holmfirth economy and made it a tourist destination, tensions have occasionally surfaced between Holmfirth residents and the crew. One such incident, regarding compensation to local residents, prompted producer Alan J. W. Bell to consider not filming in Holmfirth any more. The situation escalated to the point that Bell filmed a scene in which Nora Batty put her house up for sale.
Every episode of Last of the Summer Wine was written by Roy Clarke. The Comedy Playhouse pilot and all episodes of the first series were produced and directed by James Gilbert. Bernard Thompson produced and directed the second series of episodes in 1975. In 1976, Sydney Lotterby took over as producer and director. He directed all but two episodes of the third series – Ray Butt directed “The Great Boarding House Bathroom Caper” and “Cheering up Gordon”. Lotterby directed two further series before departing the show in 1979. In 1981, Alan J. W. Bell took over as producer and director. Bell, in an effort to get each scene exactly right, was known for his use of more film and more takes than his predecessors and for using wider angles that feature more of the local Holmfirth landscape.
In 1983, Lotterby returned to the show at the insistence of Brian Wilde, who preferred Lotterby’s use of tight shots focused on the trio as they talked rather than Bell’s wide-angle scenes. Lotterby produced and directed one additional series before departing again the same year. Bell then returned to the show beginning with the 1983 Christmas special and produced and directed all episodes of the show to the end of the 31st series.
In 2008, Bell announced that he had quit as producer of Last of the Summer Wine. Citing differences with the BBC and his dislike of their indifference towards the series, Bell said, “I have now decided I will not do it again. I have had enough of the BBC’s attitude.” The announcement came following rumours initiated by Bell that the network would not commission another series of episodes following the 30th series and their indecision regarding a possible one-off special. However, on 26 June 2009, the BBC announced that it had recommissioned the show for a 31st series with Bell continuing as producer and director.
Composer and conductor Ronnie Hazlehurst, who also produced themes for such series as Are You Being Served?, Yes Minister, and Only Fools and Horses, created the theme for the show. The BBC initially disliked Hazlehurst’s theme, feeling it was not proper for a comedy programme to have such mellow music. He was asked to play the music faster for more comedic effect but eventually his original slower version was accepted.
The theme, an instrumental work, featured lyrics three times. The 1981 Christmas special, “Whoops”, had two verses of lyrics written by Roy Clarke that were performed over the closing credits. The 1983 film, Getting Sam Home, used those two verses, with an additional two and played them over the opening credits. Another altered version was sung during Compo’s funeral in the 2000 episode “Just a Small Funeral”. Bill Owen also wrote a different version of the lyrics but this version was never used during an episode of the show.
Composing the score for each episode until his death in 2007, Hazlehurst spent an average of ten hours per episode watching scenes and making notes for music synchronisation. Hazlehurst then recorded the music using an orchestra consisting of a guitar, harmonica, two violins, a viola, cello, accordion, horn, bass, flute, and percussion. The distinctive harmonica was played by Harry Pitch, who had featured in the 1970 one-hit-wonder “Groovin With Mr Bloe“.
Initially, the only certain cast member for the show was Peter Sallis. Clarke had already collaborated on a few scripts with him and knew he wanted Sallis on the show. The character of Norman Clegg was created especially for Sallis, who liked the character and agreed to play him. He was soon joined by an actor he had previously worked with, Michael Bates as Cyril Blamire. James Gilbert wanted Bates as Blamire because of his reputation as a comedy actor, and Bates loved the role.
“The joy of Bill Owen’s Compo is not what he does with the words but where he takes the character beyond what’s in the script. He did this in a physical manner. It was only when I saw Bill on screen that I realized what a wonderful physical clown he was.”
Roy Clarke on Bill Owen and Compo
Compo Simmonite was the last role to be cast in the original trio. Gilbert had seen film actor Bill Owen playing northern characters in the Royal Court Theatre and proposed to cast him as Compo. Clarke, who initially saw Owen as an archetypal cockney who could not play as solid a northern character as Compo was meant to be, recognised Owen’s potential only after going to London for a read-through with him.
On-screen chemistry with existing players determined the later changes to the cast. Brian Wilde, Michael Aldridge and Frank Thornton each brought a sense of completion to the trio after the departure of the preceding third man. Tom Owen provided a direct link between his father and himself after the death of Bill Owen. Keith Clifford was added following three popular guest appearances on the show. Brian Murphy was chosen as Nora Batty’s neighbour because of his work on George and Mildred, where he played the hen-pecked husband to a strong-willed woman.
In 2008, the BBC announced that Russ Abbot would join the cast in series 30 as a relatively youthful actor. Abbot was cast to allow Sallis and Thornton to reduce their role on the show to indoor scenes only. Abbot portrayed Luther “Hobbo” Hobdyke, who formed a new trio with Entwistle and Alvin. Entwistle, played by Burt Kwouk, had been a supporting character brought in to replace Wesley Pegden after the death of actor Gordon Wharmby, but his role on the show steadily increased in the previous two series.
The original cast of Last of the Summer Wine also included a handful of characters with whom the trio regularly interacted. Kathy Staff was chosen to play Compo’s neighbour, Nora Batty. Gilbert was initially sceptical about casting Staff but changed his mind after she padded herself to look bigger and read from a scene between her character and Owen’s. This group was rounded out by characters at two locations frequented by the trio: John Comer and Jane Freeman as Sid and Ivy, the quarrelling husband-and-wife owners of the local café; and Blake Butler and Rosemary Martin as Mr Wainwright and Mrs Partridge, the librarians having a not-so-secret affair. Butler and Martin, however, were dropped as major characters after the first series. According to Peter Sallis, Roy Clarke felt there was little more he could do with them.
Although the show initially focused on the trio and four to five supporting characters, the cast expanded over the years to include an ensemble of eccentric characters who rounded out the show. The biggest expansion came in 1985 when four characters from the stage adaptation of the show were brought over to the series proper: Howard (Robert Fyfe), Pearl (Juliette Kaplan), Marina (Jean Ferguson), and Ivy’s nephew, “Crusher” Milburn (Jonathan Linsley). Further additions came the following year when the film Uncle of the Bride introduced Seymour’s sister, Edie, played by veteran actress Thora Hird, and her family, who were brought over to the programme the following series. The only addition with no professional acting experience was the Holmfirth resident Gordon Wharmby, who performed so well during his audition as mechanic Wesley Pegden, that Alan J. W. Bell cast him in one episode. Pegden would make two more appearances before being retconned as Edie’s husband and Seymour’s brother-in-law after positive audience reception, becoming a regular character starting in Uncle of the Bride. The increasingly large cast ensured a sense of continuity with the changing configuration of the trio, especially following the death of Bill Owen.
When Alan J. W. Bell took over as producer, the plots of Last of the Summer Wine moved away from the original dialogue-packed scenes in the pub and the library; guest actors were brought in to interact with the trio in new situations. Although many of these guest appearances lasted for only one episode, some led to a permanent role on the show, as in the cases of Gordon Wharmby, Thora Hird, Jean Alexander, Stephen Lewis, Dora Bryan, Keith Clifford, Brian Murphy, Josephine Tewson, June Whitfield, Barbara Young, and Trevor Bannister. Other noted guests on the programme included John Cleese, Ron Moody, Sir Norman Wisdom, Eric Sykes, Liz Fraser, Stanley Lebor, and Philip Jackson.
Last of the Summer Wine focused on a trio of older men and their youthful antics. The original trio consisted of Compo Simmonite, Norman Clegg, and Cyril Blamire. Blamire left in 1976, when Michael Bates fell ill shortly before filming of the third series, requiring Clarke to hastily rewrite the series with a new third man. The third member of the trio would be recast four times over the next three decades: Foggy Dewhurst in 1976, Seymour Utterthwaite in 1986, Foggy again in 1990, and Truly Truelove in 1997.
After Compo died in 1999, his son, Tom Simmonite, filled the gap for the rest of that series, and Billy Hardcastle joined the cast as the third lead character in 2001. The trio became a quartet between 2003 and 2006 when Alvin Smedley moved in next door to Nora Batty, but returned to the usual threesome in 2006 when Billy Hardcastle left the show. The role of supporting character Entwistle steadily grew until the beginning of the 30th series, when he and Alvin were recruited by Hobbo Hobdyke, a former milkman with ties to MI5, to form a new trio of volunteers who respond to any emergency.
The trio explored the world around them, experiencing a second childhood with no wives, jobs, or responsibilities. They passed the time by speculating about their fellow townspeople and testing inventions. Regular subplots in the first decade of the show included: Sid and Ivy bickering over the management of the café, Mr Wainwright and Mrs Partridge having a secret love affair that everyone knows about, Wally trying to get away from Nora’s watchful eye, Foggy’s exaggerated war stories, and Compo’s schemes to win the affections of Nora Batty.
The number of subplots on the show grew as more cast members were added. Regular subplots since the 1980s included: Howard and Marina trying to have an affair without Howard’s wife finding out (a variation of the Wainwright-Partridge subplot of the 1970s), the older women meeting for tea and discussing their theories about men and life, Auntie Wainwright trying to sell unwanted merchandise to unsuspecting customers, Smiler trying to find a woman, Barry trying to better himself (at the insistence of Glenda), and Tom trying to stay one step ahead of the repo man.
Last of the Summer Wine is the longest-running comedy programme in Britain, and the longest running situation comedy in the world. Each series has between six and twelve episodes; most were thirty minutes in length, with some specials running longer. There were 295 episodes and 31 series between 1973 and 2010, counting the pilot, all episodes of the series, specials, and two films.
In 1978, the BBC commissioned a Last of the Summer Wine Christmas special instead of a new series. Titled “Small Tune on a Penny Wassail”, it was broadcast on 26 December 1978. Other Christmas programmes followed in 1979 and 1981. The 1981 special, “Whoops”, gained 17 million viewers and was beaten only by Coronation Street for the number one spot. Christmas shows were produced infrequently thereafter and sometimes were the only new episodes in years without an order for a new series. This happened often during the 1980s when Roy Clarke’s commitment to Open All Hours prevented the production of a full series every year. The specials often included well-known guest stars such as John Cleese and June Whitfield.
The first New Year special, “The Man who Nearly Knew Pavarotti”, was commissioned in 1994. The hour-long show was broadcast on 1 January 1995 and featured Norman Wisdom as a piano player who had lost the confidence to play. A second New Year programme was produced and broadcast in 2000 to celebrate the new millennium. It featured the second guest appearance by Keith Clifford and a guest appearance by Dora Bryan. Titled “Last Post and Pigeon”, the show ran for sixty minutes and dealt with the trio’s pilgrimage to visit World War II graves in France. Part of this special was shot on location in France. A third New Year show, titled “I Was a Hitman for Primrose Dairies”, was broadcast on 31 December 2008 and introduced Hobbo and the new trio he formed with Entwistle and Alvin.
In 1983, Bill Owen suggested to a newly returned producer Alan J. W. Bell that Roy Clarke’s novelisation of the show should be made into a feature-length special. Other British sitcoms such as Steptoe and Son and Dad’s Army had previously produced films made for the cinema, but the BBC were initially sceptical as they had never before commissioned a film based on a comedy programme for original broadcast on television. They nevertheless commissioned a ninety-minute film named Getting Sam Home, which was broadcast on 27 December 1983, and started a trend which would continue with other British sitcoms, including Only Fools and Horses.
Following the success of Getting Sam Home, a second film was made during 1985, Broadcast on 1 January 1986. Titled Uncle of the Bride, the film featured the introduction of Michael Aldridge as Seymour Utterthwaite, the new third man of the trio. The plot centred on the marriage of Seymour’s niece, Glenda (Sarah Thomas), to Barry (Mike Grady). Also making her first appearance in the film was Thora Hird as Seymour’s sister and Glenda’s mother, Edie, as well as re-introducing Gordon Wharmby as Edie’s husband Wesley, previously seen in three popular one-off appearances. The second film proved a success and all four new characters were carried over to the show beginning with the ninth series in 1986.
During its first series, Last of the Summer Wine did not receive a high ratings share. The second series proved to be a success, however, and two episodes made it to the top ten programmes of the week. The programme has since consistently been a favourite in the ratings, peaking at 18.8 million viewers for an episode shown on 10 February 1985. The premiere of the 28th series in 2007 brought in an 18.6 percent share of viewers in the 6:20 time slot with an average of 3.2 million viewers. Last of the Summer Wine’s audience grew from 2.7 million to 3.4 million over the 30 minutes. The show was beaten for the night only by Channel 4‘s Big Brother with 3.6 million viewers at 9:00 p.m., although the reality show had a smaller share of viewers for its time slot. The 29th series finale, which was broadcast on 31 August 2008, was watched by 4.2 million people, giving the network a 22.5% share for the night. The 31st series continued to bring in over four million viewers, with the series opener pulling in 4.77 million viewers for an overall 21.6% share of the ratings for the night.
Several members of the royal family were viewers of Last of the Summer Wine. While presenting an OBE to Roy Clarke in 2002, Prince Charles said that his grandmother, the Queen Mother, had introduced him to the show. The Queen told Dame Thora Hird during a 2001 meeting that Last of the Summer Wine was her favourite television programme.