Last of the Summer Wine: Series 5 And 6 Review
Simon Armitage is best known as a poet. He used to appear in between the indie rock of The Mark Radcliffe Show in an effort to bring poetry to the Ride and Echobelly-loving masses. Lately, he's a writer of prose but it's for an insight into one of the BBC's longest running comedies that I'll remember him for. In his All Points North, a marvellous book on the geography, people and culture of the north - be it Huddersfield or Iceland - he describes Last Of The Summer Wine as having a formula that's as simple as a television show could get without being moved to a children's slot on a Saturday morning. To quote, "...formula of REPETITION (X: 'He's bought a bike.' Y: 'What does he want a bike for?' Z: 'I had a bike once. A red one.' Y: 'I can't see what he wants one of them for. Not a bike.'), WARDROBE (the bike came in a job lot with a diving suit) and CONTRAPTION (the bike is gas-powered) means that even the most lobotomised and comatose of viewers can follow the plot without referring to subtitles on Ceefax."
Lobotomised and comatose (and often thoroughly disinterested) is a perfectly apt way of describing my good self in the dying hours of the weekends of my teenage years. Last Of The Summer Wine was then the soundtrack to my homework, specifically that which was to be completed prior to returning to school on a Monday. German, English, Physics or, worst of all, Religious Education occupied a little of my thinking over thirty minutes while the rest went on Foggy and Clegg and Compo falling into a river off a ladder. I can barely remember a word of German in spite of studying it for five years but can still bring to mind the sight of Compo gazing up at the sight of Nora Batty's wrinkled stockings or Foggy careering downhill on top of a bike. Had Roy Wilde thought to include some O-Level Chemistry, English Language or Mathematics in his television comedy, I might well have been more successful. Or had the North Eastern Education And Library thought to include a question on Last Of The Summer Wine in their English Literature O-Level of 1987.
The two series included in this three-disc set are not the earliest of Last Of The Summer Wine, which featured the three Yorkshiremen of Cyril Blamire (Michael Bates), Norman Clegg (Peter Sallis) and Compo Simonite (Bill Owen) but the classic grouping of Foggy Dewhurst (Brian Wilde), Compo and Clegg. Together, they make for a near-perfect comedy trio, with the three of them making for distinctly different characters that lasted for thirteen series of the longest running sitcom on British television. Compo is the most well-known of the three, a scruffy little beggar dressed in wellies, a greet woollen cap and a pair of trousers tied up with baler twine. Cynical, dirty and with an eye for the ladies, Compo is a fearless and willful teenager at heart, whose thoughts have not advanced a jot since his adolescence, dwelling (in his wellies) with dreams of naked women, jumping on to runaway trains and climbing onto the back of a donkey. Clegg was his opposite, as wary as Compo was reckless and as quick with a thoughtful remark as Compo was of a filthy one. Somehow, possibly in the same sitcom world that saw the Goods and the Ledbetters living next to one another, Clegg and Compo became firm friends and are often seen whispering conspiratorially behind Foggy's back, doing anything to get away from an involvement in his latest and most crazed plan. Undeterred by their grumbling, Foggy carries on hatching grand plans - visions as he describes them - and yet to recapture the glorious foolishness of their youth, they aid and assist his days out, his moments of utter folly and his long walks up the Pennines.
Last Of The Summer Wine began as a pilot in Comedy Playhouse but with a BBC keen on having a gentle comedy fill a half hour so soon after Songs Of Praise, Last Of The Summer Wine was drawn out to six episodes of comedy full of nostalgia for yesteryear played out by actors capable of remembering long summers spent footling about on the Pennines. Bachelors all, though Clegg was married when he was much younger, they had no one but each other, while they looked at the married men and women with a mixture of pity and jealousy. With Foggy joining the cast, Last Of The Summer Wine became a comedy about older men who behaved as children, even to Compo snatching kisses from Nora Batty, the wry Clegg stumbling along behind and the bossy Foggy urging them all on to some daft fool plan. Along the way, there are childish musings on what a nose is for, the occasional playful punch and a wondering why a grown man might choose to wear wellies day in and day out. And with this comes that same sense of innocence present in children. There is kissing and talk of sex but it's all from men frustrated at the lack of contact they have with women. Sid mentions that it's been so long since touching Ivy's naked skin that he's taken to wondering if she might be made of corset material. Nora Batty wonders about the attention, or lack of it, that Wally pays her and all the while Foggy, Compo and Clegg go marching up hills, mess about with metal detectors and show off the old finger-in-a-matchbox trick to get a laugh. There's a charm to all of this that, being very well understood by the BBC, was seen fit to gently prepare the population for work and for school the next morning.
Oddly, though, for a comedy about men of pensionable age, there's precious little mention of the past. Like many sitcoms, Last Of The Summer Wine exists only in the here and now with there being little explanation as to why Foggy, Compo and Clegg have arrived in the same village. The later First Of The Summer Wine would later invent a backstory for them but excepting the frequent mentions of Foggy's time in the army and the very occasional talk of Clegg having once been married, the characters exist only to do what they do in every episode. And that is, as Simon Armitage so ably described it, repetition, wardrobe and contraption. So if you want to see them go diving in a bog while wearing a wetsuit, assist a man fix a Capri while wearing a full body cast, take to the skies in a hang-glider while dressed as a sparrow or ride over the hills and dales on three bicycles welded together, Last Of The Summer Wine is fine fare. Just don't concern yourself with the repetition in the adventures of Foggy, Compo and Clegg and you'll get along with it just fine.
This being a British television sitcom with two series included, there are a total of twelve episodes on these three discs. The first is Full Steam Behind and sets the tone of what is to follow. Foggy asks his friends to join him on a day trip to see a steam train only recently restored by the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway Company. Unfortunately, as the day straddles the excitement of seeing the train with feeling miserable as it leaves them dirty, wet and chasing it as it runs away on them down the track. Foggy attempts to have the Union Flag fly high over Yorkshire in The Flag And Its Snags and The Flag And Further Snags while Ivy and Nora wonder what it is that Sid and Wally are up to when they're seen disappearing into the woods. The truth is stranger and wilder than they could have believed. While Clegg fears the wrath of Earnshaw in Earnshaw Strikes Back, hang-gliding temporarily attracts Compo's attentions away from Nora Batty in the final episodes of the series, Here We Go Into The Wild Blue Yonder and its sequel.
Series six begins with In The Service Of Humanity, which sees Foggy try to join the emergency services after a brush with death. Humanity somehow forgets to thank him for his efforts. Danger of a slightly different kind is on the cards when, in Car And Garter, Compo enters a motor race to impress Nora in a car supplied by Wesley. But will the car start? Will Compo survive? Or will he need the sight of Nora Batty's garter to bring him round from the drama of it all? Foggy is in search of money in The Odd Dog Men when he hears there's riches in the walking of other people's pets while in A Bicycle Made For Three, Foggy, Compo and Clegg take to the hills in a contraption that might only be less safe if they doused it in petrol and set it alight. Chaos ensues at the first turning. One Of The Last Few Places Unexplored By Man refers to Nora Batty's bedroom, a place where Compo would like a photograph taken of himself while in Serenade For Tight Jeans And Metal Detector, Foggy gets a metal detector and goes off in search of treasure. Finally, in From Wellies To Wetsuit, Compo is sold a wetsuit by Sid and with the aid of a motorbike, takes up water-skiing.
As a final note, these episodes are spread over the three discs. All but one episode from series five is on the first disc while that year's final episode and five from series six are on disc two. Serenade For Tight Jeans And Metal Detector and From Wellies To Wetsuit as well as the three Christmas specials are included on the set's third disc.
Series five dates from 1979 while series six was broadcast three years later in 1982 and there's a clear difference between the two shows in their presentation on these discs. Series six is the sharper of the two with a much richer use of colour but what's equally clear is the difference between the external scenes and those shot in the studios that double up as Ivy's cafe, the homes of Foggy, Compo and Clegg and the various rundown sheds in which the cast occasionally find themselves. However, much of this will be familiar to those who have some archive television shows in their collection and to this extent Last Of The Summer Wine doesn't look any worse (or any better) than the BFI releases of the BBC's Dickens and MR James ghost stories but a little better than It Ain't Half Hot Mum, Terry And June or any of the other Britcoms of the late-seventies that have been released on DVD. There are very few problems with the actual source material and certainly very few obvious signs of wear but it's still not a particularly good DVD, though better when released by Universal Playback than by some of the many companies handling archive British television.
And nowhere is this more plainly seen than in Last Of The Summer Wine coming with subtitles. It never seems like a great deal to ask of a publisher but very few of them seem to include English subtitles. Last Of The Summer Wine is, however, one of the few that does and while there's nothing wrong with the English DD2.0 Mono audio track such as to make the use of subtitles a necessity, it's nice to have them nonetheless. Like the picture, the internal scenes sound cleaner than those shot on location but there's little in it with only the canned laughter, which is doubtless still there in more recent days of Summer Wine, causing Roy Clarke's lines to be get lost.
Given that they were shown outside of the two series included in this set, it's fair to say that the two Christmas Specials on the third disc are bonus features. The first of these is Small Tune On A Penny Wassail (30m19s), which actually dates from 1978, the year before series five was broadcast. It sees Foggy and Clegg in an oddly contemplative mood as they prepare their Christmas dinner before visiting their friend Edgar in the hospital while Compo, perhaps lacking the Christmas spirit, tries skateboarding.
In the second special from Boxing Day in 1979, And A Dewhurst Up A Fir Tree (30m42s), Foggy gets into the Christmas spirit early in the year when he buys up one hundred Christmas trees from the Forestry Commission for the sum of £10. Of course, Foggy has to chop them down first but that's not the problem with them. Rather, it's that they're fully-grown fir trees - no chance of getting these to fit inside your front room at Christmas - and that they're crawling with insects.
Finally, from Christmas Day in 1981, Whoops (31m39s) sees Foggy, Compo and Clegg try to have a Christmas to remember when they look for old school friends to spend their Christmas with. Talk of school days, of popping frogs down girls' blouses and of visiting their old primary school, they plan a memorable Christmas. And it is, what with Wally, Gordon and Chuffer spending the last hours of Christmas up a lamp post.