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"It's nothing personal, It's just that you're ugly and repulsive"

As Compo comes back to our screens for the 22nd and final series Ayup asks - How the blummin' ummer did the son of a cockney cabbie get to become Britain's best loved Yorkshireman?

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It was the winter of 1973, just before Christmas that he burst onto the telly. It was post watershed - broadcast just after Richard Baker had finished telling the nation about the miners and the power workers strike, and the political ramifications of Princess Anne's wedding. Ted Heath's Three Day Week was just around the corner. And this scruffy herbert with dodgy teeth and NCB wellies waddled into view.

It was pretty amazing stuff for its day. On the face of it the show, Last of the Summer Wine, was a grown up Goodies. Clegg was Tim Brook Taylor flakey one;, Blamire the Graeme Garden bossy boots, and Compo the tatty Bill Oddie oddity. But it had a bit of an edge to it. In a funny sort of way it was writer Roy Clarke's answer to the Parisian deep and meaningless brigade. Jean Paul Sartre, Jean Cocteau and Pablo Picasso getting serious over tea and scones round at Sid and Ivy's Cafe on the left bank of the Holmfirth beck.

Now it's become a Sunday evening annoyance packed with familiar TV wrinklies like Jean 'Hilda Ogden' Alexander and Thora Hurd. A drop-in sitcom that featured cameos from everyone from Kriss Akabusi to Norman Wisdom. A veritable explosion in a props factory with Compo reduced to disappearing down country lanes inside a motorised tin bath every bloody week. Those of us brought up on the existential early shows were off down the pub faster than you could say Seymour Utterthwaite.

Somewhere along the line he quit chain-smoking Woodbines (as did the retired lino salesman Clegg), got his teeth fixed and quit getting drunk with the lads. He cleaned up his language too - post watershed broadcasting times meant the cast could pepper a few 'bloody's around and Compo could pour over porno round the barbers. Meanwhile round at the cafe, the bickering between Sid and his harridan wife Ivy were genuinely nasty and threatened real violence amongst the tea and rock cakes...

"Who are you calling a TV wrinkly, you loony pillock!"
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The thing was, when Compo wandered down the Holmfirth hills and into the living room he looked mighty familiar. My brother Sime recognised him first - "It's Thelma's Dad!". And it was too. That spring we'd been glued to the set every Tuesday night at half past eight to watch a Clement and La Frenais comedy series "Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads". Thelma Chambers had finally gotten hitched to drippy old Bob Ferris. And who had given away the bride? Compo! And just to confuse matters there he was again, the next spring, reprising his Likely Lads role in the fishing episode - caught red handed on a dirty weekend with his secretary.

Then Dad pipes up with the observation that "Compo Int no Yorkshireman! He's a cockney!!" And he was right. He always is. He seemed to appear in every black and white movie we saw on the telly from then on. Always this cheeky cockney sparrer apples'n'pears knees-up-mother-brown bloke in war films, romantic drams and even Disney movies. And he wasn't even called Bill Owen. It was William John Owen Rowbotham. And he was born in Acton Green, West London. Son of a bloke that drove big red dubble deckers and shiny black cabs.

In four different Carry On films he continued with the cockney geezer routine.In the first one of the long running film series, he played opposite William Hartnell in Carry On Sergeant fending off the onslaught from Kenneth Williams, Charles Hawtrey and Kenneth Connor. He was in four of them - including Carry on Nurse, Carry on Cabbie and Carry On Regardless. By this time he was ending his long movie career and heading into television, starring alongside Sid James in the legendary (and long lost) comedy series Taxi. He was in Coronation Street too, says my gran. As a Union Man.

Amazingly, given his long stint as Compo Seminite in Last of the Summer Wine, he did squeeze in Brideshead Re-visited as Jeremy Irons manservant, and more parts in movies. Lindsay Anderson's Oh Lucky Man was one. Harold Pinter's spin on Margaret Atwood's The Handmade's Tale another. Best of all was the preposterous suggestion (true!) that he wrote lyrics for Sacha Distel, Matt Munroe, Pat Boone, and Englebert Humperdink. Ken Dodd's Broken Hearted was his. So was Cliff Richard's "Marianne". "Did he eckers like.." shouts a scruffy bloke in wellies from the telly.

Bill Owen died in London on the 12th July 1999. He'd played Compo for twenty seven years and over 200 episodes. The first major comedy series to leave the studio and film entirely on location. Holmfirth, the little town in the Pennines that provided the picturesque settings for the show is now a centre of "Summer Wine Country" tours. Bill kept working as he struggled with the cancer of the pancreas that would eventually kill him. He made a Millennium special and an emotional trip to the war graves of northern France. His last wish was a burial in his beloved Holmfirth, his second home.

Co-star Brian Wilde (Foggy) observed: "I treasure the memory of us sitting in the churchyard where Bill is now buried. It was a nice sunny day and Compo was looking around at the tombstones and their inscriptions. He asked 'I wonder what they'll put on my grave when I'm dead?' and Foggy replied 'Something very heavy I Hope!"

An old Yorkshireman, sitting alone at a table next to mine, suddenly looked at me and said "Are you all rit?" and I said "Aye!" I had never actually spoken the Yorkshire dialect before in my life, and that was when I felt something for this town that I've never felt for any other city I've been in. I knew I wanted to belong to it. BILL OWEN

Bristlehound

 

FUNNY OR WHAT!

 

The Glory of the Smelly Old Codger

For all the talk about giving Yorkshire a new image, there something endearing about the old 'un.

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Television has never really had much time for the suave sophisticated northerner. We're not supposed to be educated and urbane. In our Sunday best we're blunt moody young aristoes who only go out to shoot a few peasants. At worst we are pigeon fancying, smelly old gits who seem permanently rooted to some glass of Old Cows Bladder Bitter.

I blame the Bronte Sisters. When Mr Lockwood was foolish enough to visit Wuthering Heights he received a gobful of Yorkshire invective from a grumpy bugger called Heathcliffe. Lockwood observed that.." His reserve springs from an aversion to showy displays of feeling" just moments before Heathcliffe gets bored and sets the dogs on the poor sod.

Ever since then Yorkshiremen have never really gotten a fair deal on the telly, so we've had to suffer all manner of clowns and currs in the search for an honest character. We've even taken pride from this one-eyed approach to the typical northerner. We've adopted Dick Turpin, Robin Hood and Guy Fawkes for their attitude to the southern jessies. We've revelled in the two fingered Harvey Smith gesture and the two-fisted Geoff Boycott wicket stance. We've even glorified Arthur Scargill and Paul Sykes for their ability to bore the pants off everyone and their apparent inability to laugh at themselves alone!

When Bill Owen stomped all over our Sunday evenings we loved him for it, in spite of the character being a smelly scruffy a'porth with the attention span of a nine year old. He was our own version of Wilfred Brambell's Albert Steptoe let loose in the countryside to frighten the horses. Love it! And then there was another one - "Oh No, it's Selwyn Froggitt", a big grinning idiot with a catchphrase - "Magic" and an all-thumbed approach to life. Love it!!

Then there was Nora Batty with her humourless invective, clobbering all and sundry with a rolling pin. "Gerarrtovit!!". Ivy in the Cafe was just as scary and we loved her anyway. Both of 'em were like Hylda Baker without the wit and well-armed with kitchen implements. In Emmerdale Lisa Riley's Mandy Dingle was your worst blind-date nightmare and she was a sex symbol for the millennium! And Biff and Zack the rest of the family egged her on. Love it!!!

Now were all revelling in the Royle Family - a portrait of northern family life that makes Roseanne Barr seem like Jackie O. Slobbery of the highest order and the kind of witless homespun homilies you can find on any Yorkshire council estate any night of the week. And we love that too!!!!

I know it's all great fun, and we can stand half-naked in blizzards, baring our guts for the Match of the Day telly cameras and revelling in the stereotype. I know it's great to see ourselves sent up by southern comedians like Paul Whitehouse, Harry Enfield and Steve "Bag o'shite" Coogan and we laugh like drains.

But the laugh will be on us if we keep hiding behind the grinning thicko and happy slapper all the time. We have more wit and intelligence in our comedy and in our drama and we've got to show the world another side.

Here we have to learn from the Irish, who eventually had to fight to break out of their 'thick paddy' stereotypes. As a nation whose children were leaving the old country in their thousands to widen their horizons, Ireland had to change itself and grow. Now these children have grown up and now the image of the Irish is more complex, more mature.

Yorkshire needs to find newer, brighter, sharper humour. Newer brighter, sharper stars for the world to see. Then we will shine even more brightly.

The slobbery stops here.

Northerner

northerner@ayup.co.uk

AYUP MAGAZINE - THE BEST OF YORKSHIRE

 

 

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