What did Last of the Summer Wine teach us?

Last of the Summer Wine Foggy, Nora, Compo and Cleggy became household names

After 37 years of capers from Compo and his pals, Last of the Summer Wine says goodbye this week. One thing it has taught us, says Yasmeen Khan, is that elderly people can still have fun.

Narrow cobbled streets in picturesque villages would ordinarily seem an unnatural place to be cluttered with a film crew, several cameras and mounds of cables.

But growing up in West Yorkshire's Holme Valley, seeing the cast and crew of Last of the Summer Wine filming against the backdrop of the Pennines became a regular fixture of my youth.

Even as a child, however, I realised that one thing differentiated this cast from what I was otherwise used to seeing on the TV - there were no women trussed up in huge dresses for a costume drama, neither was there a young cast dressed in tight jeans and shoulder pads screeching fast cars around the streets.

This cast was older and clad in woolly hats, wellies and tweed. This was picture-postcard England featuring picture-postcard oldies.

Having amassed 31 series over 37 years and put the village of Holmfirth firmly on the tourist trail, Last of the Summer Wine has become the world's longest running sitcom.

The comedy has endured over decades in which tastes in television, programme styles and audience numbers have changed.

Focusing on the misadventures of three elderly men in a Yorkshire village, the classic line up of Compo, Clegg and Foggy - played by Bill Owen, Peter Sallis and Brian Wilde respectively - saw the show through its most successful years.

What was Summer Wine about?

Last of the Summer Wine
  • Three elderly friends in Yorkshire, originally Cyril, Cleggy and Compo
  • They each came from a different class in society
  • The women are formidable figures, including Nora Batty, whom Compo lusts after
  • Created for the BBC Comedy Playhouse in 1973
  • Peaked in the late 70s, when up to 20m tuned in
  • Thought to be the world's longest-running sitcom
  • And it's all been written by one man, Roy Clarke

The show also made an icon of Kathy Staff who played Nora Batty, the wrinkled, stocking-clad object of Compo's affections.

Andrew Vine, journalist and author of a new book about the series, called Last of the Summer Wine, feels that its success is largely down to how youthfully the characters were portrayed by writer Roy Clarke.

"Roy was in his 40s when he was commissioned to write the first episode and he was lukewarm about its premise. But for him the breakthrough came when he stopped thinking about them as old men and started thinking of them as kids; they were all single and free of responsibilities.

"Suddenly it presented a positive image about older people; the characters refuse to accept that their age should be a limitation and that's why the storylines can focus, for example, on the men attempting to use some ridiculous new invention with inevitable comedic consequences.

"Bill Owen maintained that the programme had helped to change attitudes towards older people, while director Alan JW Bell said they had many letters from older people saying how much the show had inspired them to get out and enjoy themselves."

'Natural end'

At its peak in the late 1970s, the programme was hitting between 18 and 20 million viewers, around a third of the available audience at the time.

Last of the Summer Wine Youthful antics by older men

In a multi-channel environment where television now competes against entertainment activities including social networking and gaming, it is perhaps surprising that a whimsical show about the elderly has remained on screen for nearly four decades.

Jane Lush, ex-BBC controller of entertainment, feels the show came to a natural end.

"When I was at the BBC, Last of the Summer Wine was barely discussed when it came to recommissioning; it seemed like a staple, a programme that would always be there, like The Sky at Night. But it's inevitable that a show that has run for so long and had so much success, would end at some point."

Last of the Summer Wine's humour is often caper comedy - mention the show and inevitably there will be someone who says it's about bumbling old men accidentally rolling down hills in tin baths.

Taking a sample of other older characters from British comedy of the last four decades, from Steptoe (Steptoe & Son), Captain Mainwaring (Dad's Army), Victor Meldrew (One Foot in the Grave) and Grandad in Only Fools and Horses, they are often depicted as grumpy, eccentric or ineffectual. But Ms Lush believes that old age is not unfairly stereotyped.

"I don't think older people are characterised any differently to other age groups in comedy, after all comedy is about exaggeration. There are many older characters on television that are successful, particularly in comedy.

'Older people sidelined on TV'

Michelle Mitchell, Charity Director for Age UK, thinks ageism still exits.

"Despite living in an ageing society with more over 60s than under-18s, the media remains obsessed with youth culture and older people and viewers are often sidelined. Television is incredibly powerful and if ageism is to be stamped out in society generally, the media needs to represent positive images of older people. Time and again the public have made it clear they want to see older people treated equally, whether on TV or in the workplace. Broadcasters must take this lesson to heart."

"Nana from the Royle Family was well-loved, One Foot in the Grave's Victor Meldrew and Catherine Tate's Nan are both fantastic older anti-heroes. In Candy Cabs we have some wonderful older characters, including a woman who uses a mobility scooter.

"Older age is a rich vein for humour; the demise of Last of the Summer Wine does not mean we've seen the last of older people on television."

Despite Andrew Vine's assertion that viewers enjoyed Last of the Summer Wine because of its somewhat whimsical portrayal of older life, television reviewer and star of series Grumpy Old Women, Kathryn Flett, thinks the makers of programmes, including Last of the Summer Wine, still have some way to go in accurately portraying older people.

"Television is still obsessed with youth. There is not enough representation of older people and when they are on screen, they're often presented in a slightly bonkers universe that is heavily tinged with nostalgia, as programme makers seem to assume older audiences are obsessed with the past.

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"It's either that or we have them dying in Casualty or as a matriarchal dame in a costume drama. Older people are in a ghetto of ageism on TV and programme makers are missing a trick."

The show is often dismissed as irrelevant, especially among younger people, yet the final series has pulled in an average of more than four million viewers. For some of them, its appeal has more to do with the richness of the characters than the age of them.

Yet as television bosses are accused of pandering to the tastes of young, affluent urbanites, it may be some time before the sight of elderly men rolling down the Yorkshire hills in a tin bath appears on our screens again.

A selection of your comments appears below

It was brilliant comedy, not a psychological sop to have "old people" on the television, it was well scripted, visually appealing and popular. How on earth could we possibly keep such a thing in the BBC's current schedule of less than mediocre programmes produced by those with little or no talent? The days of classic and appealing television have been buried under an avalanche of cheaply produced tripe.

Graham Smith, Haworth, W Yorks

Whilst this show has clearly been popular with some, to me this has always been utterly inexplicable. About as funny as the average trip to the dentist, I loathed it as a child, and my views haven't changed one iota in the intervening years (I am now 38). Complete and utter tripe, chronically unfunny and stultifyingly boring to boot! If this show had a Best Before Date, it would be 1973. And now it's finally, at long, long, looooong last, after 37 interminable years, being removed from our screens? Good (as in good riddance to bad rubbish).

Jeremy, Margate

I have only recently started watching the repeats of Last of The Summer Wine on BBC Entertaiment and it has me in stitches! I can't understand why it hasn't been on Dutch tv - it is a lot funnier and varied in story than eg 'Allo 'Allo or "Are You Being Served'. Such a shame it is stopping!

Barbara, Netherlands

What it taught us is the stupidity of prolonging a tv series for 35 series beyond its shelf life. Mind-numbing tedious formulaic garbage which didn't raise a smile any time after 1975.

Chris Waite, Doncaster

Pity, I will retire in a couple of years time and have referred to LOTSW for years as my training video for when I do retire. Many will miss it.

Noordwijk, Netherlands

I found LOTSW late in life, so to speak, and I am starved or it. Our local PBS station seems to have every excuse in the book for not showing it. I am sure that this show would be as popular here as it was in the UK. If a late-middle aged man only found it recently, I am sure others will be as happy to see the best show ever!

Jonny, Bloomington IN, US

For old people on TV, what about Jack and Victor from Still Game?

Mark Bradley, Northallerton, N Yorks

I can't remember when I first watched LOTSW but that may be because I'm 82 and my memory is not as good as it was or maybe it was because I could empathise with them so easily that I felt I was one of the cast. It is so sad to say good-bye but I am sure the repeats wiil outlast me.

Ian Gow, Boat of Garten

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