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

- BY PETER SAL­LIS Margaret Thatcher · London · Barclays · Noel Coward · United Kingdom · June Whitfield · Peter Sallis · Bill Owen · Holmfirth · Vladimir Lenin · Bloomsbury, London · Royal Air Force · Royal Air Force · Cranwell · Cranwell · Jean Alexander · Frank Thornton · Thora Hird

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.

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 ??  ?? From left, Peter Sal­lis as Cleggy, Bill Owen as Compo and Brian Wilde as Foggy flee­ing Kathy Staff as Nora Batty in Last Of The Sum­mer Wine
From left, Peter Sal­lis as Cleggy, Bill Owen as Compo and Brian Wilde as Foggy flee­ing Kathy Staff as Nora Batty in Last Of The Sum­mer Wine
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