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Monday, May 21, 2012

Last of the Summer Wine: Part 1

In a small town in an area of England called Yorkshire, the BBC made a TV show called “Last of the Summer Wine.”  Roy Clarke, who had previous penned another award-winning TV series, was given the brief to “write a comedy about three old men.”  He was in his early forties at the time.  What did he know about old men?  Why would he want to write about them?  And if he did, how could he make them funny?  Although he felt no initial desire to write the series, he wrestled with the concept for a couple weeks.  Eventually it occurred to him that if the old men acted like children, if they were physically mature but mentally and emotionally anything but, then perhaps that would be funny.  He wrote a pilot episode for "Comedy Playhouse," and viewers enjoyed it so much that the BBC picked it up as a series.  At the time, no one had any inkling as to how successful and beloved the show would become.

One of the key differences between “Last of the Summer Wine” and just about any other sitcom ever made was that the vast majority of each episode was shot on location.  The town chosen to film the show in was Holmfirth.  This small town, nestled in the Pennine Mountains, would serve as the heart and soul of the series.  The cast and crew might change as the years went by, and more series of the show were made, but the town and the surrounding countryside did not.  The production, which typically took place in Spring and Summer, would take over whole areas of Holmfirth and neighboring villages.  The fictional town that appears in finished episodes is thus a hodgepodge of various locations, blended seamlessly together.  The actors mostly stayed in hotels in the nearby city of Huddersfield, but the crew took over local hotels and bed and breakfasts. 

In the episodes, one sees lush, green countryside.  This is because it rains regularly in this portion of Yorkshire, all through the year.  Luckily, rain doesn’t show up on film, not unless it’s “bucketing down,” to use the local parlance.  But a studious viewer might note that the sky pictured on their TV screens is rarely bright blue: a white or gray sky is more likely.  Thus working in the rain was a necessary part of filming.

Imagine a film crew carrying heavy, bulky equipment up and down steep, winding cobblestone streets slick with rain, or erecting high-powered arc lamps in grassy fields made muddy by constant foot traffic.  Picture our favorite trio being chased down stone stairs by a broom-wielding Nora Batty, Compo riding a bicycle Wesley has disguised into a miniature hill along a curving stone-wall lined road, or zooming down a grassy hill with breakfast trays strapped to their feet.  

Hear a director shout, “Quiet please.”  Actors deliver their lines on cue.  Cinematographers roll their cameras along specially-built rails.  A sound man dances his choreographed steps, arms raised overhead, extending his long pole to keep the boom mike above the actors heads, and all the while not interrupting the movement of the cameras, or casting a shadow from the artificial lighting, and never letting the dangling microphone fall into shot.  All this, while it was raining. 

Imagine: so much work, planning, expensive location filming, and all for a sitcom.

This blog entry will conclude with Last of the Summer Wine: Part 2.

Thanks for reading,
Dragon Dave

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