The Scottish Mail on Sunday
The Day Compo saved Clegg y’s life!
Brimful of Summer Wine’s gentle warmth and wit, Peter Sallis’s memoirs revealed the little dramas fans DIDN’T see
Actor Peter Sallis, whose death at 96 was announced last week, was a founding cast member of Last of the Summer Wine, the longest-running comedy in British television history, as well as being the voice of Wallace in Wallace and Gromit. His memoirs provide a delightful insight into the behind-the-scenes friendships, spats and near-disasters that helped make one of the nation’s best-loved shows.
AS SOON as the script landed on my doormat, I thought: ‘Oh yes, Oh yes. This is all right.’ In fact, I’d go so far as to say it was a work of genius – and one that would change my life. Roy Clarke’s gentle comedy about three old codgers reliving their childhood in the Yorkshire countryside was just delightful – unusual and quirky.
For those too young to remember, Michael Bates played bumptious former army corporal Cyril Blamire (the predecessor of Foggy Dewhurst) in those early episodes, Bill Owen was the scruffy Compo Simmonite and I was cautious fusspot Norman Clegg.
And on the first day of filming the pilot episode in Holmfirth in 1972, it immediately became clear we shared an unusual chemistry. We worked as a team, we kept each other going. But there was something else, something that almost brought things to a grinding halt before we’d even begun.
Over the evening meal at our lodgings, a big old pub called the Coach & Horses on the edge of Marsden Moor, it soon became clear that Michael was slightly to the right of Margaret Thatcher (except that, of course, she hadn’t been invented then) while Bill was slightly to the left of Lenin.
We’d barely had time to finish the soup before the two of them were at it hammer and tongs, both raising their voices and getting more than a little hot and bothered.
Then the producer, Jimmy Gilbert stood up and barked: ‘You two, come with me.’ He took them out of the dining room and they were away for quite a while. Eventually, they came back and sat down, all three of them. Bill and Michael were fairly subdued. In fact, they were very subdued.
What had happened out there? Later, Jimmy explained: ‘I took them outside and I said, there’s every likelihood that this is going to be turned into a series, and if you two are going to take this attitude towards each other and you are going to behave like that, then I’m taking the whole lot back to London and I’m going to recast it.’
In all the five years that Michael was with us, they never mentioned politics again. THE strange thing is, if it wasn’t for a stroke of luck I might never have become an actor at al, let alone Norman Clegg. After leaving school, I joined Barclays Bank in Southampton Row, Bloomsbury, as a junior clerk. Then the War intervened.
In 1943, we were in the thick of it: the Blitz, the Battle of the Atlantic. Picture the scene. A young corporal, Frank Webb, was playing gramophone records to the music society in
‘It’s all right,’ said Michael. Then the canoe overturned
Hut 300 at the huge Royal Air Force station at Cranwell, Lincolnshire.
The audience were possibly asleep when, outside the hut, came the most horrendous clattering and banging. Corporal Webb lithely turned up the volume. It was only later discovered that a German bomber, on its way back to the Fatherland, had spotted the base and let loose however many rounds of ammunition it still had.
Why am I telling you this? Because I was there. I was a corporal instructor at the number one radio school. And not only did I cheat death that night but it was there that I was first persuaded to try my hand as a performer. After one of my lessons, a young man, Peter Bridge, asked me if I’d ever done any acting and if I’d like to be the leading man in Noël Coward’s Hay Fever .
I thought for a second and said, ‘Yes’. When I went on stage and spoke the lines, people laughed. That night, in my bunk, I couldn’t sleep. I determined that after the War, if I survived it, I would become an actor. A COUPLE of months before we shot the pilot for Last Of The Summer Wine, I was summoned to a meeting at BBC Television Centre in London
to discuss Roy Clarke’s script. While we were talking, I could see that Jimmy Gilbert was eyeing me a bit oddly, and so was Bill Owen. He was not quite sure about me, I thought, but I couldn’t fathom why.
As it happened, I’d already decided what I was going to wear as Clegg and had worn my outfit to the meeting to get on character.
I chose a dark pair of trousers and a waistcoat from an old 1950s suit. I thought a fawn sports jacket over it would give a quirky imbalance. I also knew about the weather – it can pour with rain in the Pennines when everywhere else has bright sunshine – and put on a long-sleeved cardigan underneath the waistcoat.
Granted, it was a curious look. After we’d said everything, I stood there with my hand on the doorknob and said to Jimmy, ‘Oh, by the way, I thought these clothes I’m wearing might be rather good for Clegg.’
A look of what I realised later was relief washed over his face and Bill cheered up too. They’d taken one look at my outfit and feared that not only did I want the part, I must have been pretty near the dole queue.
Last Of The Summer Wine would go on to become one of Britain’s best-loved comedy shows. Not only did it make a household name of dowdy housewife Nora Batty, it provided a whole new lease of life to talents as diverse as Dame Thora Hird, Jean Alexander, June Whitfield, Brian Wilde and Frank Thornton, some of the finest character actors in the country.
The last episode of the 31st series – imagine, 31 series! – was broadcast on August 29, 2010, making it the longest-running comedy in the history of British television. By that time, I was the longest-serving cast member, having appeared in every episode. And I was still wearing the same funny old outfit. I ALWAYS envied Bill’s way with children; they used to flock around him when ‘Compo’ was filming. His pockets were always stuffed with bits of childlike things, like an old pencil stub or a bit of string or a conker, and he would show them to the children and hand them round.
When Bill died in 1999, we lost, in my opinion, the best comedy performance ever seen on television. Remarkably, he had absolutely nothing in common with Compo except that they both weighed the same and were the same height. I have never seen a more complete and utter transformation of someone’s character.
For a start, Bill was a cockney. He had never been anywhere near Yorkshire. Secondly, Bill dressed very well. He liked to put on a bit of a show. He never let his trousers drop or anything like that.
His creation of Compo was something that was alive. Not only that, he saved my life.
We were filming the second series when it happened. We had gathered on the River Wharfe in Wharfedale, where Michael, Bill and I were going to get into a canoe on a glorious August bank holiday and paddle it beneath an arched bridge.
The pub nearby was milling with people who gathered around. They had no idea who we were, but there was a camera crew and they wanted to see what was going to happen.
Michael and Bill wore short trunks, while I decided on a onepiece bathing costume with shoulder straps over a set of longjohns and a cap in case I got a bit chilly. The water was moving quite swiftly. At this point, I approached the director, Bernard Thompson, and explained I couldn’t swim: ‘If I fall in, I want the entire unit to come to my rescue,’ I said. ‘Never mind about those two, just concentrate on me, otherwise I shall drown.’
In the canoe, Michael took charge, saying he knew about these things. He was going to be in the stern, I was to be in the middle and Bill was going to be up the front. The camera rolled, and off we went.
As we passed under the bridge, the canoe started to shudder from front to back. I said, at the top of my voice, ‘We’re going over!’
Michael said, ‘No, no, no, it’s all right, I’ve got it,’ but of course he hadn’t. The canoe turned on its side and we shot into the water.
I went down, bubble, bubble, bubble. I kicked out with everything I’d got, absolutely terrified. Fortunately my left foot hit something hard. I gave a good push, and came out of the water like a cork out of a bottle.
I scrambled up the bank of the river on to dry land. One or two of the audience, not knowing whether we were supposed to do that or not, actually applauded.
How did Bill Owen save my life? Well, that ‘something hard’ I used to propel myself out of the water turned out to be poor Bill Owen’s head! If it wasn’t for him, it really would have been last of my summer wine.
Adapted from Summer Wine And Other Stories: My Autobiography, by Peter Sallis, published by John Blake, priced £7.99. Offer price £5.99 (25 per cent discount) until June 18. Order at mailbookshop. co.uk or call 0844 571 0640; p&p is free on orders over £15.