How Holmfirth became the location for Last of the Summer Wine
Last of the Summer Wine became part of the landscape of Yorkshire. The author of the definitive book about the series, Andrew Vine, explains how he came to tell its story
Remember Nora Batty? How could anyone forget her – the stocking more wrinkled than a Chinese lantern, the face as hard as the stone steps she swept constantly, the foghorn voice that shooed away the scruffy, undersized suitor who lived next door.
Nora was the quintessential comedy battleaxe, one of the most popular characters ever to appear on television thanks to a superb portrayal by actress Kathy Staff, who with her kind soul, customarily smiling and cheerful demeanour and elegant outfits, was about as far from the siren of the pinny and the wrinkled stockings as it was possible to get.
Staff held such a place in the public’s affections that her death at the age of 80 on December 14th, 2008 made headlines, and left a real sense of sadness that we had all seen the last of this funny and expert performer. She had been ill for some time, and a new series of Last of the Summer Wine – the 30th – was about to start production without her.
Her death was the starting point for thinking about this remarkable series that had given millions so much pleasure over so many years – and had also turned a forgotten corner of Yorkshire into a magnet for tourists. It was time for its story to be told – and what a story it turned out to be, full of twists and turns, and often enough sprinkled with tears, not of laughter, but of sadness.
Telling the tale of Last of the Summer Wine would turn out to be a formidable task. No other comedy series, anywhere in the world, had run for so many years. A few American shows had surpassed its tally of episodes, which then stood at about 280, and would, when the last episode aired in August, total 295, but none had come close to spanning 37 years from first to last, starting in 1973.
What fascinated me was how a show could capture and then keep the public’s imagination for so long with tales of three old men getting up to mischief in the countryside. What also intrigued me was the part it had played in transforming a dilapidated mill town down on its luck into one of Yorkshire’s top tourist destinations – and how the show has taken a picture-postcard image of the county around the world.
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And there was one of the big surprises – just how popular Last of the Summer Wine had proved overseas. It remains a huge hit in America, where it is a staple of cable television, its viewers enchanted as much by the loveliness of the Pennine scenery that formed the backdrop to the comedy, and it is also immensely popular in Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
The show and Holmfirth had much to thank each other for. I was intrigued to learn from the show’s original producer that Rotherham was the first location that he and the writer, Roy Clarke, who still lives in the countryside near Doncaster where he was born, had in mind, but the town’s heavily industrialised landscape was not suitable. They were pointed towards Holmfirth by the comedian and writer Barry Took, who never forgot a miserable night performing as a stand-up at its working men’s club in the 1950s.
As soon as Gilbert and Clarke saw the town, they knew they had their location. Holmfirth was having a hard time. Its woollen mills were closing down in the face of overseas competition, but within a decade of the show starting, tourists were flocking in – 60,000 a year, creating an astonishing transformation as the town became prosperous once again thanks to what they spent.
The story of the show is, of course, that of the people who made it, and an intriguing, if not always harmonious, tale began to emerge. It was well-known that the show’s most iconic figure, Bill Owen, who played the unforgettable, loveable scruff, Compo – the bane of Nora’s life as her pursued her – had fallen in love with Holmfirth and had asked to be buried there.
What was not well-known was that he and his co-star Brian Wilde, who played Foggy, had a tempestuous relationship that saw them bicker over politics, money and acting styles that often saw Peter Sallis, who played Clegg, intervening to keep the peace. On screen, the trio had a magical relationship; off it, they kept a wary distance from each other.
There were other surprises too – how Clarke and long-time producer Alan J W Bell constantly had to reinvent the series to cope with the frailties and deaths of a cast of ageing actors – even as they were determined to carry on. One incident saw the beloved actress Thora Hird insisting on being released from hospital to complete her final scenes, when aged over 90. Few comedy series have been embraced by the public with such warmth as Last of the Summer Wine.
It made millions laugh, it defined what a comedy that set out to entertain the entire family without offence should be – and it occupied a place in the life of Yorkshire that no other television series has ever rivalled.
Andrew Vine is assistant editor of the Yorkshire Post. He lives in Leeds. Last of the Summer Wine – The Story of the World’s Longest-Running Comedy Series is published by Aurum Press, priced �18.99.
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