When the summer wine runs out, Appellate Judge James A. Stewart will have to switch to rotgut.
"You always like idiots."
When you retire, you probably won't enjoy those endless hours of nothing, the shortness of cash, or the way society looks at you as a "barmpot." However, it might be better if you could ramble through the green hills of West Yorkshire with some good friends, constantly running into people who are barmier than you are. Add a good measure of cheap pubs where you can joke about it after, and retirement could be enjoyable. That's the premise of Last of the Summer Wine.
Ironically, the cast of veteran British actors is working, but that's a small quibble. The hardest-working figures in this comedy about idleness play the three central characters: Foggy (Brian Wilde, Wuthering Heights), who looks fondly on war days that probably weren't all that exciting when he was there; Compo (Bill Owen, Carry on Sergeant), once a poacher, now the romantic pursuer of the reluctant Nora Batty (Kathy Staff, Open All Hours); and Clegg (Peter Sallis, Wallace and Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit), who would seem too settled to join the rambles, but likes hanging out with the barmpots.
A quick look at IMDb shows that these faux retirees have been working for a long time; Britons have watched Last of the Summer Wine for most of their color television era, from 1973 to 2010. Apparently, only Sallis was around for the entire run.
Facts of the Case
Last of the Summer Wine: Vintage 1995 Reserve features nine episodes, starting with a double-length trip to Holmfirth:
• "The Man Who Nearly Knew Pavarotti"—Foggy, Clegg, and Compo are moving a piano. Also on the move is Billy, who thinks he's headed for glory on the keys.
• "The Glory Hole"—Foggy is fascinated with a hole in the road; it looks just like a slit trench.
• "Adopted by a Stray"—A visitor seeking a chance to get "back to nature" leaves his van—and his wife—with the barmpots, who want to ditch her.
• "The Defeat of the Stoneworm"—Foggy, Clegg, and Compo know there's no such thing, but that doesn't stop them from looking—to help Howard (Robert Fyfe, Coronation Street) put one over on his wife Pearl. There is a mouse, though.
• "Once in a Moonlit Junkyard"—A motorcyclist is looking for Compo. Clegg thinks it's an unwary salesman, but it's actually one of the former poacher's old flames.
• "The Space Ace"—A man who just rolled down a hill in a wheelie bin calls it his "space simulator." Meanwhile, Compo's in the clouds because lady love Nora made him a bacon sandwich.
• "The Most Powerful Eyeballs in West Yorkshire"—Howard tries hypnosis on Pearl. Even though it doesn't go so well, Foggy wants to try his eyeballs at it.
• "The Dewhurst of Ogleby Hall"—Foggy suspects he might have aristocratic blood. Meanwhile, Howard asks Clegg to take a note to his mistress Marina (Jean Fergusson, Coronation Street), and Compo wants to buy Nora a hat.
• "The Sweet Smell of Excess"—Compo's fascination with the trampoline somehow lands him in the sewer. Since it's just not time for his bath yet, the barmpots will have to come up with some other way to get rid of the smell.
Like many a British series, Last of the Summer Wine puts the name of writer Roy Clarke (Keeping Up Appearances) first. If, as I did, you tune into Summer Wine cold, you might wonder why at first. The first episode starts with a couple of quick scenes with a sketch comedy feel: Compo tries to convince Nora that her tinned groceries contain mistletoe, Foggy tells a war story to a younger man who isn't impressed, and Clegg deals with a pesky neighbor.
Obviously, the jokes go better with familiarity with the characters—and Clarke pays attention to the rhythms of a formless retired life, as the retirees deal with the stares (steaming, but not in a romantic way) from a cafe owner who doesn't like customers who linger over a cheap cuppa tea, a junk shop owner with too much persuasive power, or the crowds that flock to any of their latest projects and diversions. However, that reality stays in the background while the show goes in farcical directions, following hapless lovers Howard and Marina around or sending Compo down a sewer hole after a series of unlikely disasters.
At once, Clarke decided he needs relatable characters to draw an audience in, but apparently felt that relatable situations would bore anyone—especially anyone who's been idle—to tears. That would be about right, wouldn't it?
While the characters are idle, the actors, as mentioned, aren't. I don't think they do all their stunts, but they must be doing some, and that pretty scenery offers quite a climb to go with its views. One of the men, Compo, pretty much moves through the scenes like a little kid, even walking on a narrow stone fence like a balance beam in one scene.
The filmed comedy puts the characters mostly outdoors, so that the show can emphasize all the green hills and valleys. Last of the Summer Wine must bring a few American tourists to West Yorkshire.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Nowadays, this sort of gentle British comedy seems to be blended in with formulaic dramatic elements, such as medical crises (Doc Martin) or mysteries (New Tricks). While I appreciate that Last of the Summer Wine is well-done, my own tastes have shifted toward the modern dramedy variants. If you like Last of the Summer Wine, you're also likely to find it on your favorite PBS station, since it is one of the few Britcoms that passed the hundred-episode mark.
In an era where a lot of people are made irrelevant with each economic headline, Last of the Summer Wine strikes a chord. Whether that's your cup of tea is up to you.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
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