Form many people ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ was one of those shows that was never worth watching. In fact it became a bit of a joke, a shorthand for lazy comedians, about what was wrong with British TV in the 90s. But for those of us in the know there is a real joy in ‘Last of the Summer Wine’. At its best the series is some of the finest comedy ever written.

‘Last of the Summer Wine’ was on the screen from 1973-2010 although in the early years they only made one series every two years. Due to the long timeframe the series can be divided into ages much like Comic Books. These ages are not always in order.

The series follows the adventures of a trio of older men all of whom are not working. The consistent member of the trio is Norman Clegg played by Peter Sallis. Clegg is a widower who apart from the war spent his entire working life as a lino salesman for the Co-op he was made redundant before the start of the series at the age of 55. Yes, at the start of the series the ‘old men’ were all in their mid fifties. The other longstanding member of the trio was Bill Owen as William ‘Compo’ Simmonite. Compo has never done a days work in his life due to a bad back although he kept ferrets and would poach rabbits however at the start of the series mixamatosis had put a stop to that.

The Golden Age starts with the first series in 1973 and ends with the Made for TV film at Christmas 1982. What casual fans don’t always know is that the first two series feature Michael Bates as Cyril Blamire. Blamire is a pompous social climbing Tory who fancies that he is the superior of Clegg and Compo. In fact he was born in the same alley as Compo and is only slightly better dressed than the scruffy Compo. Blamire was more of a foil for the other two. Bates’ ill health meant that be bowed out and was replaced by Brian Wilde as Walter ‘Foggy’ Dewhirst. Foggy is a former Corporal Signwriter and keen leader of men. Foggy liked to bore people with his war stories and boast about his fighting prowess although he was meek when faced with violence. Really it is the episodes with Foggy that are better remembered. At this time the writing was sharp and the support characters had more depth to them. One thing that is forgotten in the early years Nora Batty played by Kathy Staff and Ivy from the Cafe played by Jane Freeman loathed each other. Over the course of the series they gradually warmed to each other before becoming the best of friends. Ivy who apart from Norman Clegg was the only character to appear in all series (unlike Clegg she was not in every episode) was in the early years married to Sid played by John Comer. It was Comer’s death in 1983 that saw the deterioration of the series. 

The years 1983-1990 could be the Bronze age. The final series to feature Foggy was not all bad, but not all good. Ivy’s nephew Milburn aka Crusher played by Jonathan Linsley was not great. Brian Wilde left the series in 1985 and was replaced by Michael Aldridge as the character of Seymour Utterthwate a former headmaster and inventor. Seymour bought with him a sister Edie who was married to the existing recurring character Wesley Pegdon as well Barry and Glenda. At this time episodes began to get a little formulaic. Seymour would have a silly idea, Barry and Wesley would help the trio while the ladies ran down men and Howard and Marina would be caught. The Howard and Marina story started off as a summer season end of the pier adaptation. But by the mid 80’s Howard played by Robert Fyfe his wife Pearl played by Juliette Kaplan were living next door to Clegg who would get caught up in Howards schemes to get  time with Marina played by Jean Ferguson. Later on Howards Aunty Wainwright was added as a mean old woman running a junk shop. Somehow though not really explained Aunty Wainwright was also related to Wesley. Compo introduces Clegg and Seymour to her by saying “Clegg lives next door to your Howard and this long dollop (gesturing to Seymour) is your Wesley’s brother in law.”

Michael Aldridge left the series in 1990 to care for his sick wife which opened the way for the return of Foggy Dewhirst. These episodes in the early 90’s do somehow get back a bit of the magic. A Silver age. This is held over even after Wilde had to bow out due to ill health in 1997 and was replaced by Frank Thornton as Herbert Truely. Truely was a former policeman with the met. As a character he was more open to mischief later on he was famed for it.

In 2000 Bill Owen died and the series had a three part story to send off his character Compo culminating with his funeral. Owen became so fond of Holm where the series was filmed that he was buried in the churchyard, a shot at the end of the funeral episode shows his real grave in the background.

After Owen’s death the series lost its was a little. A lot of new characters were introduced and some elements were interesting. One plot device was even edgy. Burt Kwouk played the character of Entwhistle from the far east of Hull. Entwhistle played up to every stereotype you would expect of someone from Hull. It was an interesting treatment of race in a sit com. Something few would try and or be able to pull off.

The last couple of years the program went downhill. But it is the classic episodes from the Gold and Silver ages that make ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ the most watched program on British TV.