Sunday, June 6, 2010

We thought they'd never end

As part of its continuing efforts to piss people off for no good reason other than in the hope that it will make it look all edgy and cool, the BBC has announced that it will finally kill off Last of the Summer Wine, the world's longest-running sitcom, at the end of the next series.
A BBC spokesman has justified the decision by explaining: "Research has shown the programme is very popular with the elderly, and therefore runs the risk of being perceived as elitist and alienating by the crucial 16 to 16-and-a-half age group the BBC is committed to catering for to the exclusion of all others. Everyone at the BBC is very proud of the show and this is not a decision we have taken lightly. It will be replaced by a new reality game show in which former members of the cast of Hollyoaks shove live rats up their arses."
Which to be fair does sound like a winner.
And besides, I can’t say I’ve ever really been a big fan, to be honest. When I was about ten (the early-eighties, lest my sprightly style deceived you into thinking me a much younger man) I had a brief flirtation with it but it didn’t really stick: I just didn’t know who these people were and what was going on, plus I associated its sedateness and mournful theme tune with the concept of time passing, which has always given me the willies, and was then inextricably linked with the horror of Sunday evenings, bath, bed and school the next day.
I do remember that back in the days when there was a Swap Shop Awards show (they gave out an award called an Eric you’ll remember, hence the line “even Eric would serve me well” in I Just Wanna Be a Winner, the minor hit single released by Edmonds, Chegwin and Philbin under the collective ‘Brown Sauce’) Summer Wine took the gong for best comedy, so it must have had a sizeable contingent of youthful adherents around the same time it was intriguing me.
Owen, Sallis and Wilde came on to collect it in character doing a short rehearsed sketch as themselves; “You’ve not brought your ferrets have you?” I remember Wilde asking Owen, in response to the latter’s claim that said animals were wriggling in his trousers. I think they somehow managed to take hold of the award, but without acknowledging Edmonds or the audience and remaining strictly in character, before shuffling off, Owen still twitching. Imagine trying to get kids to sit still for that today.
For most of my teenage and adulthood the programme was watched by nobody I knew, and it is, for those whose love of contemporary comedy is insatiable and undiscriminating, still the most commonly-evoked totem of the kind of naff, old-fashioned and obsolete comedy that Russell Brand was sent to save us from.
So its major milestones passed me by somewhat. I remember when Brian Wilde was replaced by Michael Aldridge, then when he came back, and then when he was replaced again, this time by Captain Peacock. I remember Bill Owen dying, and being surprised to hear that even this would not be the end of the road for the series. Then didn't his real-life son join the cast or something? I have a vague memory of something like that. But I never actually saw any of it happening.
Since then, I thought it had gone on its merry way with Sallis and Thornton as a double-act, bolstered by the various supporting characters. What I actually saw when I dipped into it on the BBC’s I-player a short while back took my breath away. I don’t know. You just take your eye off a programme for twenty-five years or so and when you look back, it’s changed beyond all recognition.
Sallis and Thornton are still there, but they, too, are now supporting characters – along with June Whitfield and Trevor Bannister – to a whole new central trio played by Russ Abbot, Brian Murphy and Burt Kwouk! I know, I know. It sounds like a silly dream I had. But it’s true. I swear.
And it gets even trippier - Valerie Leon's been in it too.
I couldn’t stop watching it. Never in my wildest fantasies had I thought peak-time BBC-1 would ever again put a roof over the heads of Abbot, Murphy and Bannister – let alone the same roof. I’ll watch anything that does that. Anything.
Did I find it hilarious? No, I can’t say I did. Though actually, it would be no easy thing to make it much, much more enjoyable in this respect. All you have to do is take off the laugh track. Yes, I know it’s real people really laughing while really watching the programme. But it’s too loud, and when a joke that you might have smiled at, or chuckled at, or at any rate enjoyed, is greeted with an ear-splitting scream from you know not where, it feels intrusive and bullying and the smile freezes on your face. Without it you could relax into the programme’s mood and pace, perhaps get drunk, fall asleep for a minute or two, and – I strongly suspect – thoroughly enjoy it. With it, it’s like you’re on trial; you have to be alert and on your best behaviour, and you feel like you’d rather not be there.
To me fell the disagreeable duty of informing my American blogging pal Ivan G Shreve Jr of the programme's cancellation. Ivan is one of those intriguing Americans with an insatiable thing for British sitcoms and I knew he'd be sad about it.
A while back, I wrote a piece for Kettering about the programme (from which this post has been largely cribbed) and to give it a bit of colour I wrote to Ivan to ask him if he'd explain his infatuation further.
“People often point out that American sitcoms are the best because of their high laugh quotient,” he replied, “but a high percentage of them don't bother with character development; they'd rather just stick a one-liner in a character's mouth regardless of whether it fits the individual or not.” (Quite right: is Joey in Friends a doofus or is he witty? They never could decide.)
He continued: “As I have mentioned on the blog, I had difficulty warming up to it at first but after seeing two or three episodes I began to connect with the show's quirkiness and rhythms; the show's eccentricity started working its magical spell on me and I was hooked.
“Some of my fellow sitcom fans prefer the type of show that makes you laugh from the gut; I myself favour a more genteel, quieter comedy where the point of an episode is not to count how many laughs there were but whether or not you enjoyed it and if the show’s characters seemed genuine (if slightly exaggerated for comedy’s sake). To me, Last of the Summer Wine is the yardstick by which such shows should be measured.”
Or was, now.