Last week we featured Still Open All Hours, the follow up to Open All Hours, which last aired in the UK 30 years ago. Both series were written by Roy Clarke, whose name is synonymous with the best of British comedy series.
Born in Yorkshire on January 28, 1930, Clarke always loved writing, but in 1952, after completing his national service in the army, he joined the police force, where he was a constable in the Rotherham Division near Sheffield. He left that job in 1954 to enter teaching and along the way he also turned his hand at being a salesman and a part-time taxi-driver. All the while, though, his main ambition was to be a novelist. Periodically he'd also submit plays to the BBC and eventually two of the thrillers he wrote were accepted for airing as radio plays.
By the late 1960s Clarke had moved onto writing television scripts for the BBC, specializing surprisingly enough not in comedy shows, but in dramas. Then in 1973 he was asked by the BBC to write a sitcom about three elderly gentlemen. For someone still in his early 40s, it was a daunting task.
"I found I couldn't write about old men", said Clarke reminiscing about the series. "They were driving me mad. They wouldn't come to life they were just - old men."
It was only when Clarke realized that "three old men could have the same thoughts as three young men", that he discovered he'd hit upon a winning formula.
"I'd forgotten the child within who men might hide but still carry around," said Clarke. "So I set them free - from work and personal attachments. And they were back where all of us begin - in a boundless playtime."
The next obstacle Clarke faced was where to find the "playground" in which to set the series. His beloved Yorkshire, where Clarke and his wife still live, provided the perfect backdrop. Holmfirth, set in the windswept moors, was as Clarke put it "a community scarcely touched by the times".
The casting of the series was crucial to its success and Clarke had already written the part of Clegg with Peter Sallis in mind, having worked with him before. For the roles of Compo and Blamire, Clarke left the choice of casting up to the show's director who suggested Michael Bates for Blamire and Bill Owen for the role of Compo. Clarke had no arguments about the casting of Bates - "he was bang right, an actor I admired and came to admire more", recalled Clarke. But the choice of Owen, who was a cockney came as somewhat of a shock.
The first meeting and read through of the script with the trio did nothing to ease Clarke's apprehensions about Owen. Not only, according to Clarke, did the dapper suit Owen was wearing look "like it had a southern accent", unlike Sallis and Bates, who sounded just right for their parts, Owen barely even bothered to "perform" the lines.
The pilot for the series was filmed on a bitterly cold day in the middle of the summer of 1972. Owen emerged transformed from the nattily dressed southerner Clarke had met earlier into the baggy-trousered Compo. He was "raring to go", despite the draught from the moors that was undoubtedly seeping through the holes in his trousers. It was then that Clarke saw for the first time how much Owen loved his part.
"Bill Owen as Compo wasn't a mistake", said Clarke. "It was a marriage and I'm happy for him that it took death to tear them apart".
The success of Last of the Summer Wine is evidenced by the fact that it ran for almost 40 years. Clarke was the sole writer for each episode. During that time though he also found time to pen two more comedic masterpieces; Open All Hours and Keeping Up Appearances. The writer's contribution to British comedy was acknowledged in 2002 when Queen Elizabeth II awarded him an O.B.E. (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) and again a few years later when he was awarded the 2010 Lifetime Achievement award at the British Comedy Awards.
After it was announced that Last of the Summer Wine was to end, Clarke was asked whether he had any bad feelings towards the BBC. The writer's gracious response was to point out that as a freelancer, "who could complain about a company that has given you 40 years of work?"
At the conclusion of Last of the Summer Wine, Clarke, who has been married to Enid Kitching since 1953 with whom he has two children, announced his retirement. It's hard to keep a good writer down though, and as mentioned last week, the BBC have lured Clarke back into the fold. His latest offering, Still Open All Hours, is currently being filmed and we'll be sure to let you know when that series might be made available this side of the "pond".
In the meantime you can see Clarke's other series, Last of the Summer Wine and Keeping Up Appearances, weekday afternoons at 1:30pm and 2pm, with Open All Hours airing Mondays at 1pm.
To contact Heather:
Address: Afternoon Tea
Maryland Public Television
11767 Owings Mills Blvd.
Owings Mills, MD 21117