The Re-Evaluation Game: Last Of The Summer Wine Episode 1

last of the summer wine s01e01 indexFor many decades Roy Clarke’s Last Of The Summer Wine was something of a British institution, a long running sitcom that started in 1973 and didn’t come to an end until 2010, managing a total of 31 series and 295 episodes over those 37 years. However it was heavily mocked for much of its time on the air, with jokes told by lazy stand up’s about it always being about three old men going down a hill in a bath tub (which only actually happened the once, in series 15’s Stop That Bath), but despite this it was a popular show and a ratings hit for a very long time.

Whether or not the show as a whole it deserves mockery is open to question, and it certainly became very predictable in its final years when the series was rather formulaic, but this opening episode is a fairly fascinating slice of comedy, it’s not packed with hysterically funny moments but the subject matter is surprising. And if you don’t believe me, well, Peter Sallis’s Norman Clegg jokes about rape and Compo (Bill Owen) is clearly reading a porn magazine in the opening five minutes, which took me aback and then some.

It starts off quietly enough with the trio Cyril Blamire (Michael Bates), Clegg and Compo arguing about what to do, with Compo refusing to go down Market Street as he’s had a falling out with the bloke he rents his television from, and the characters are quickly and efficiently defined, with Cyril the surly serious one, Compo’s a sort of cheeky school boy in the body of a fifty nine year old, and Norman Clegg is the mischievous yet also slightly cynical mediator. But once they decide to go for a haircut the subject matter suddenly turns rather adult, with Clegg commenting that their town has always been quiet “Apart from the Dane’s who came up the rivers to rape our forefathers” and a discussion ensues about whether their foremothers were raped as well.

Compo then starts perving over the porn magazine, the three bicker about each other (with Compo describing Cyril’s moustache as “like a hedgehog’s bum”), and there’s more talk about the porn Compo’s reading with Clegg bizarrely saying about one woman “That’s almost exactly the way that we used to carry two rolls of lino when I was in fixtures and fittings”, with the barber Judd (Frank Middlemass) claiming “In 1945…her sort was going for five woodbines”. All of which is both sexist and bleak, and also not what I was expecting from the show at all.

A quick trip to the library follows, where we see Mrs Partridge (Rosemary Martin) and Mr Wainwright (Blake Butler) emerging from behind a desk, the suggestion being that they’ve just been fucking, because lordy was this a very different show when it first started out. When we re-join Cyril and Clegg the latter is joking about hanging being the way people used to entertain themselves and moans about the area being packed with “Unpleasant women of strong character”, as minor misogyny was the order of the day apparently, before he mocks his own marriage, though fortunately this is pretty much the last bit of sexist nonsense in the episode.

After all of the above Clegg starts reading all about witches for some unknown reason, and Cyril and Clegg joke that Compo’s an evil spirit, to the extent that to find out if he is they pick him up and turn him upside down, and hey, it’s fairly amusing even if it is a little weird. Then they’re off to the cafe, and it’s here we get to meet Ivy (Jane Freeman) and Compo perves over her, with Clegg describing it as the “Courtship dance of the lesser spotter herbert”. More arguing follows, and they’re off to the library again to find Compo’s lost keys, which becomes the main plot of the episode, it isn’t laugh out loud material exactly but the dialogue is largely strong and amusing enough.

Alas when they get to the library it’s closed so they try and track down Mrs Partridge (or “Wainwright’s fancy bit”, as Compo calls her) who runs away when she sees them, with Clegg explaining “It’s nothing personal, it’s just that you’re ugly and repulsive” in a gentle and quite funny manner. Mrs Partridge thinks they’re going to reveal her affair to her husband and won’t speak to them, and so they head off to the police station to see if they can help retrieve Compo’s keys.

The scene in the police station follows the pattern already established as the main threesome tease each other, and the police man is more than happy to join in, when Compo complains that Clegg and Cyril dropped him on his head he just responds “Ah, the simple pleasures of the poor”. Their attempts at finding library head Mr Wainwright leads them to visiting the town hall, and silliness ensues as they’re not allowed in even though Compo’s wearing tie, albeit around his trousers as a makeshift belt rather than around his neck.

Eventually they make it in, play cards, drink beer and talk about a cat that pisses everywhere and it comes to an end with them rambling away, it’s an anti-climax and the plot isn’t really resolved, other than a comment about Compo being able to climb in through his back window. But that’s not really the point, this episode’s storyline is a deliberately slight one designed only to give the three leads a number of different locations to babble away in a largely amusing if never hilariously funny way, and the episode establishes the various character’s natures very effectively, with it almost feeling like The Inbetweeners but with old people at times.

You can count me as genuinely surprised as to how good this first episode was, and how ribald some of the jokes were too. Yes, it’s largely a very gentle farce with a smidgeon of physical comedy, but the dialogue’s sharp most of the time, the performances are excellent, even from the supporting cast, and while a few parts haven’t aged well it’s surprising how many of the jokes do hit home. That said it’s not good enough to make me want to start watching the show from start to finish, even in these strange times when there’s little to do, but whenever an episode is repeated on tv I’ll definitely give it a go to see if it’s akin to this opening episode.

★★★1/2

Alex Finch.
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