Do Over: Last Of The Summer Wine
Certain things in life are just ever-present. This is true for television shows as well as all that other stuff – family and shit. Some are shared experiences like Only Fools And Horses, Neighbours, Countdown, The Angelus – the big guns. Others are rarely discussed but loom large nonetheless, quietly entertaining – a silent programme running in the background, unobtrusive yet essential. Mention the phrase ‘old man in a bathtub hurtling down a hill’ to most and they may at best offer humouring smiles, at worst tell you to fuck off. Really, try it. There are though those who will nod knowingly, as their eyes glaze over and they get a sudden urge to stick the kettle on. I’ve never discussed Last Of The Summer Wine with anyone. Not for any particular reason and not out of embarrassment. I’ve simply never felt the need to.
The show has been a benign presence since memory allows. Not one that was ever followed religiously, or one prompting an attempt to pencil it in when scanning the TV page in the paper, but one whose seniority forbade flicking past it when channel-hopping. Was this because it was genuinely great, or that it had attained certain tenure because it was apparently around since the dawn of time? It matters not, this show is older than you and you will respect it.
The premise is simple and familiar… BECAUSE THEY FUCKING INVENTED IT. Three oul men with little better to do than talk shite about the minutiae of their lives, philosophise on the more existential aspects, and engage in juvenile capers between botched attempts with the opposite sex. This is Seinfeld transplanted to Yorkshire,The Inbetweeners all grown up. Compo, Clegg and Cyril – later to be replaced by Foggy – had each other’s backs long before those other whippersnappers became masters of their own domain, bus pass wankers shrink-wrapped in a reverse Tír na nÓg.
Compo was the scruffiest man on television, a human crease and ferret fancier who tried relentlessly to crack the hard heart of Nora Batty. A formidable suitorette, Nora was the archetypal battle-axe; stockings, apron, curlers and lips puckered from the gossip. Nora and her coven in the tea room foreshadowed the well-worn Sex & The City template for discussion of matters sexy, and it is a widely unacknowledged fallacy that the producers of that show borrowed heavily from Last Of The Summer Wine. Nora showed the occasional glimpse of warmth, but not to the casual viewer – these were hard won affections.
Clegg you will know as the voice of Gromit, Rat from The Wind In The Willows, and the voice of reason in the show. His gravitas was the foil to Compo’s idiocy. Then there was Foggy. Replacing Cyril, Foggy was my generation and much like Uncle Albert, Roger Moore as Bond, and the first Becky in Roseanne, he’s the one I invested in. Fine-tuning pompous gasbaggery before Kelsey Grammer perfected it, he was the de facto leader and self proclaimed brains of the operation – a man who could GET SHIT DONE. Ex-army you know.
The idyllic setting betrayed a seedy underbelly… no, a tweedy underbelly – a thinly veiled thread of eroticism bubbling under the lino. First there was Colonel Sanders-esque librarian Mr Wainwright’s not-so-secret affair with his colleague Mrs Partridge. She was a classy bird though, not like local tart Marina (phwoar!). Hers and hen-pecked Howard’s Carry On-style affair led to many ill-judged cycles into the countryside, often to be inadvertently rumbled cavorting behind a bush or country wall by the three lads. Howard never actually did get his hole. Father Ted’s Tom and Mary had nowt on warring café owners Sid and Ivy. And why was Compo so annoyed when Smiler started lodging with Nora Batty? They were clearly knockin’ slippers. Her lovin’ was too much – I shudder to speculate on what went on in that scullery – so Smiler had to elicit help to engineer his ejection from her erotic reign of terror.
Despite these Dionysian undercurrents, observed by chief satyr Compo – The League of Gentlemen surely based Royston Vasey on the programme – Last Of The Summer Wine is notable for being the most inoffensive thing to have ever graced a television screen thanks to the Apollonian smokescreen of Clegg, Foggy, and the show’s idyllic setting. But the darkness is there, you just have to look for it. Really look for it. This could be an Aldous Huxley imagined alternate reality, a place where children don’t factor and pensioners are free to indulge their inner adolescent free from the prying eyes of the NHS and meddlesome do-gooders.
The show has a strange time-freezing effect where the boyos remain as you remember them no matter what series is playing. Just like Matthew McConaughey’s observations on high school girls in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, I get older, they stay the same age. I’ve now cobbled together a satisfactory foresight of what retirement is really like from The Golden Girls, One Foot In The Grave, Murder, She Wrote and this. I shall roam the countryside by day and keep ferrets by night, and if there is a bathtub to be ridden down a hill… well. Anyway, after Compo died it was game over, the magic went with him – but that’s why ‘repeats’ is the greatest word in the English language. Long may he reside behind the pearly gates of syndication heaven.