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ballad for absent friends and the lost art of leaving early
on 4 June 2014
As a Summer Wine early-adopter I have fond memories of the series and this show-biography is an uncanny mirror of its history. Like Last of the Summer Wine itself, Andrew Vine's book has its best moments early on, the writing is uneven and ultimately it outstays its welcome.
I couldn't find an author biography in the kindle edition, and Andrew Vine's relationship with the series isn't entirely made clear in the book. Multiple credits for "photo from author's collection" suggest he was on set more than once. He's obviously a long-standing and, sadly, pretty undiscriminating fan.
The book never lets you forget that Last of the Summer Wine ran for 37 years, longer than any other TV comedy. Even as a champion for the series I'm a Summer Wine snob. I reserve my strongest affection for Michael Bates's two series, and otherwise fall broadly into "team Foggy". In fact the real dividing line for my own golden era was the sad departure of John Comer as Sid.
I've always felt Summer Wine could have honourably shut up shop after what I think was 8 seasons, and retired to eventually receive an honest rediscovery as a genuine classic. Instead, we were gifted with another 17 years. For me, therefore, the last two thirds of Andrew Vine's book are an enthusiastic attempt to glorify the show's long descent from charming comedy jewel into a pale shadow that danced at the whim of the lowest common denominator, and how it ultimately became the series that TV comedy's new boys could use as short-hand for all the old guard's worst sins and never really be challenged.
There are problems with the writing. There are a lot of long, run-on sentences which are difficult to follow. The flow of the Summer Wine story consistently runs aground on excessively detailed info-dump biographies of most of the actors, especially those who were English showbiz legends. Even in a book that by its nature celebrates its subject there is a relentless and excessive insistence that against all odds and evidence that the series was a work of genius and the quality never flagged.
The earliest series are knitted into the fabric of my childhood, so I wallowed in in the first couple of sections as I revisited the early years. I was honestly shocked at the reminder of what a ratings juggernaut it was at its peak. I learned for the first time about the difficult off-screen relationships between the first two sets of lead characters, and the on-going struggle with Bill Owen's ego.
I skimmed more and more after the first departure of Brian Wilde. The book becomes more and more desperate to blur the gap between rising ratings and falling quality. There are some interesting insights towards the end, like the revolving door through which key cast members left, driven away by low pay and less respect, and were welcomed back when the outside world proved less rewarding than expected. "Summer Wine Land" was clearly a cosier place than the real world in front of the camera as well as in the living room.
In the book's defense, for the one-day-only book deal price of 99p I had great value. I've always argued that the dialogue-focused early series were more subtle and subversive than they are ever given credit for, and between the lines of this book you can see how 20 years before Seinfeld the original Last of the Summer Wine team created a great comedy where "nothing happened". I also challenge anyone with any affection for the series at all not to crumple quietly as the story reaches Bill Owen's departure.