The Last of the Summer Wine is a Great Vintage
Most Americans know about The Simpsons as the longest running comedy on American television. The Simpsons have been entertaining Americans and the world since their debut on The Tracy Ulman Show in 1987. They spun off to their own series in 1989. They continue to be a hit and probably will be on the air for years to come. However, there is a comedy that was on the airwaves longer than Homer and Bart were even an idea in creator Matt Groening’s mind. The Last Of The Summer Wine first aired on the BBC in 1973 and concluded its run in September of 2010. The program chronicled three adolescent acting elderly gentlemen and the eccentric town folk in the village they lived in. The cast of characters changed through the years but it remained a staple on the BBC for over 35 years.
Last Of The Summer Wine first aired on the BBC on 4 January 1973 as an episode of Comedy Playhouse on BBC One. It was written and created by Roy Clarke (Keeping Up Appearances) and a series (season in American terms) followed 12 November 1973. The original trio consisted of child-like Compo (Bill Owen), deep thinking Norman Clegg (Peter Sallis), and snobbish Blamire (Michael Bates) who were friends often set on adventure. Bates was in the cast for two series but had to drop out due to illness in 1976. Brian Wilde replace Bates in the cast as the quirky war veteran Foggy. The change of cast members throughout the run of the program was a common occurrence due to many reasons such as illness, in Bates case, and death, Bill Owen passed away in 1999. Keeping true to show business cliche, “The show must go on”, The Last Of The Summer Wine went on. In British television, sometimes there can be a span of a few years between series (a couple of good examples would be four years between the first and second series of Fawlty Towers and a four year gap for Absolutely Fabulous) and with the aging cast members this meant some would have to cut back on their work or drop out completely due to health and other issues. Other third member replacements included Michael Aldridge as Seymour the eccentric inventor and Frank Thornton (known to many who watch Are You Being Served as Captain Peacock) who portrayed former police office Truly. The third member was often seen as the leader who would concoct the schemes and adventures the men would go on. Last Of The Summer Wine was well received by the British viewers due to its family and homespun humor. When Bill Owen passed away in 1999 at the age of 85, he was replaced on many occasions by his real life son Tom Owen who played Tom. Not unlike the American legal drama franchise Law And Order, the program evolved and often changed cast members as time progressed.
The main characters through the years consisted of Compo, Clegg, Blamire, Foggy, Seymour, and Truly. To help Americans relate to the characters, I will compare them to the Three Stooges. Compo was a scruffy man who often sported an unkempt appearance. Compo was often the Guinea Pig of the group and could be the Curly of the trio. He was always trying to woo the affections of his upstairs neighbor Mrs. Batty. It is a common theme in each episode where Compo performing some sort of stunt to woo her. Clegg could be considered the Larry of the group. He is a deep thinker who is often caught in the middle of the schemes and antics of others, including his neighbor Howard. Clegg also will add a bit of wisdom. He is often the one people rely on for help. The third member of the group tended to be the “Moe” of the group in trying to be the leader. Foggy and Truly were with the group longer the other two. After Owen passed away, the producers realized that the main characters are getting older and the program would need to be adjusted to accommodate the actors as they age. As Peter Sallis and Frank Thornton reached 80, insurance costs meant that they could no longer afford to film outside scenes so they started a new trio of younger men to take over the roles of the elder men. Another element they added to the program as it progressed were side stories which involved the locals.
The series was filmed and set in Northern England. Exterior shots were filmed in the village of Holmfirth and the surrounding country side. The interior shots were filmed at BBC Television Centre in London. The popularity of the program helped Holmfirth become a tourist destination. Many of the places in the town were frequent stops among Summer Wine fans. This could continue for many years as episodes are now in reruns and being shown to other audiences. the scenery often created a nice backdrop to the antics of the characters.
The series had spawned a nice franchise which included Christmas Specials (In Britain many programs will produce one off Christmas specials while in between production to help keep fans abreast on what the characters are up to. Black Adder and Only Fools And Horses are great examples), films, touring live stage shows, and a spin off prequel First of The Summer Wine which all of which were written by Roy Clarke. There are also books based on the series and some of the cast members wrote books and used the program in the title or discussion in books that they wrote. The program is also available on DVD but there are no known downloads available as of this writing. Many Americans can experience Last of The Summer Wine for themselves thanks to PBS. If you would like to watch episodes please contact your local PBS station to request they air Last of The Summer Wine.
The world’s longest running sitcom ended its run with the final episode airing on 29 August 2010. The cancellation was made official and confirmed by the BBC on 2 June 2010. The show ran for 37 years and produced 295 episodes through 31 series. It was a favorite among many Brits as well as many members of the Royal Family, including Queen Elisabeth II herself, and many well known people throughout the world. Though there are no new episodes to be produced, the program will live on through reruns that are aired around the world. Last of The Summer Wine averaged 5 million viewers per episode and was still going strong when it was canceled. There will probably never be another comedy series in the world that will last as long as Last of The Summer Wine, though the Simpsons could possibly come close to running as long. This program began in a much different world from where it began but it adapted to the changes in time and technology and adjusted to changes to the cast and characters. Roy Clarke still is active as a writer for British television programs and Peter Sallis and Frank Thornton are still active actors, though they may not be working as frequently since both men are going into their 90s. As an American fan of British comedies, I recommend Last of The Summer Wine to other Yanks who like the comedies from across the Pond.