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Today in history… the comedy magic of Roy Clarke

12:00am | & Lifestyle

SEVERAL of our ‘Today in history’ blogs have featured much-loved figures from the world of entertainment, but today we focus on someone whose work behind the scenes has entertained millions for half-a-century.

Roy Clarke is the writer behind some of Britain’s best-loved TV comedies, including the world’s longest-running sitcom “Last of the Summer Wine”. Born on January 28th, 1930, in a village near Doncaster, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, he celebrates his 89th birthday today.

Growing up, he had two loves – writing and the countryside of his native Yorkshire. Experiences as a young man would influence much of the comedy and inspire many of the characters he would later create. After completing his national service in the Royal Corps of Signals, he joined the police force in 1952 serving as a constable in the Rotherham Division.

Finding he wasn’t really cut out to be a copper, he left in 1954 to train as a teacher, also spending time working as a salesman and part-time taxi driver along the way. His real ambition though, was to be a writer, spending his spare time penning thrillers and short plays, some of which he sent to the BBC. Eventually, two of his thrillers were accepted to be adapted as radio plays, encouraging him to write more for radio and for television.

His early work was mostly serious drama, but the BBC’s Head of Comedy Duncan Wood spotted his talent for keenly observed comedy and dialogue in an early ITV sitcom, “The Misfit”, starring Ronald Fraser. In 1973 Wood asked Clarke to script a pilot for a new sitcom about the relationship between three men entering their autumn years. Still in his 40s, he found it a daunting task and several early drafts were consigned to the bin before he had a ‘eureka moment’.

It was the realisation that no matter how old we become, we all still carry our inner child. What would happen, Clarke wondered, if these three old men were freed from work, family life and all other responsibilities and finally able to let their inner children out to play? He had struck the rich comedy seam which ran throughout “Last of the Summer Wine”.

Although Clarke wasn’t involved in casting, he wrote the part of ‘Clegg’ with actor Peter Sallis in mind, having worked with him before, and approved of the director’s choice of accomplished character actor Michael Bates as ‘Blamire’. However, he had serious misgivings over the casting for the third of the trio, his arch ‘man-child’ Compo Simmonite, when the director suggested dapper and well-spoken southerner Bill Owen.

His concerns deepened when Owen made no attempt to ‘perform’ the role at early script read-throughs, but they evaporated instantly on the first day of filming when Owen appeared from his dressing room transformed into the scruffy, unshaven and ever-mischievous Compo, speaking every line like a local. The fourth star of the series was the trio’s ‘playground’ of the stunning countryside around Holmfirth in West Yorkshire, now dubbed ‘Last of the Summer Wine country’.

The comedy would run to 31 series over 37 years from 1973 to 2010, comprising 295 episodes including specials and feature-length films, all written by Roy Clarke. It introduced us to an ever-growing ensemble of eccentric and downright barmy characters who became part of British comedy folklore.

It was doubtless Clarke’s biggest hit, but by no means his only one. Throughout the record-breaking run of ‘Summer Wine’, he penned several other successful shows. He drew on his own experience in the police force to write “The Growing Pains of PC Penrose”, a seven-part series which evolved into four series of “Rosie” between 1977 and 1981.

Another major hit was “Open All Hours”, starring the inimitable Ronnie Barker and an up-and-coming David Jason, with four series between 1976 and 1985. “Potter” starred Arthur Lowe as a busybody sweet manufacturer while in 1984 Clarke reunited with Ronnie Barker for “The Magnificent Evans”.

“First of the Summer Wine” was a popular two-series prequel to Clarke’s biggest hit, reimagining his characters as young men in the months running up to the Second World War. He had another hit on his hands when “Keeping Up Appearances” introduced the indomitable social climber Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced Bouquet!), with five series between 1990 and 1995.

Not every project hit the bullseye, but most did and all the time Clarke was still writing “Last of the Summer Wine”, which peaked at 18.8 million viewers in the mid-1980s. It reportedly counted several members of the royal family among its ardent fans, with Clarke awarded an OBE in 2002.

When the Summer Wine finally ran out in 2010, Clarke, who was then 80, announced his retirement, but he was coaxed back by one irresistible opportunity – to reopen Arkwright’s corner shop in “Still Open All Hours”, with David Jason now playing the main part. After a 2013 ‘one-off special’ proved a huge hit, Clarke was persuaded to sharpen his pencil again and has so far written five full series, with another in the pipeline. Today, on his 89th birthday, we thank him for a lifetime of laughter.

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