With it being Labor Day weekend and all, I’ve been shuttling back and forth between my and sister Kat’s digs for various food-type invites. Last night, Mom and Dad had me over for cheeseburgers, and then tomorrow, we’ll hold our traditional Labor Day cookout…where we’ll shake things up by having hot dogs. (I hear some representatives from the American Meat Industry will be on hand to present us with some special commendations, including the coveted Golden Clogged Artery Trophy.) Tuesday, a certain blogger will make another hash mark in the birthday column, and the menu is supposed to include a little surf and turf.
Anyway, I was trying to show Dad how Kat’s DirecTV system does pick up local channels, because he and Mom were sort of distressed at not being able to watch GPTV’s Saturday night Britcom lineup. In finding the channel, I learned that GPTV didn’t remove Last of the Summer Wine from their schedule—they just moved it to an 11:00pm time slot. The program guide said that the episode would be “Just a Small Funeral,” prompting me to make a mental note to watch it later on…which I did, despite the fact that I had to abandon The African Queen (1951) midway on TCM.
British character great Bill Owen found the role of a lifetime in William “Compo” Simmonite, a scruffy, retired vagabond with no visible means of support other than a reservoir of likeability and endearing charm. Compo comprised 1/3 of an elderly trio that roamed around a Northern England village making of the most of their twilight years…a pilgrimage that continues still today, as Summer Wine is not only the longest-running British situation comedy but the longest-running sitcom period. It took some time to convince Summer Wine creator Roy Clarke to cast Owen, but Clarke finally relented and the Compo character was one of the delights of the series…with Owen playing him from the program’s debut in November 1973 until April 2000 (his last episode was “Magic and the Morris Minor,” though the actor himself had passed on nearly a year earlier). Clarke decided that the character of Compo would expire on Summer Wine as well, and in “Elegy for Fallen Wellies,” we learn that Compo died as a result of seeing the object of his affection, Nora Batty (Kathy Staff), in a chorus girl costume…and keeled over, with a smile on his face.
“Just a Small Funeral” is the episode of Compo’s official send-off, and after watching it last night there wasn’t a dry eye at Rancho Yesteryear (well, there’s only me here, but still). It’s one of the best farewells to a television character I’ve ever seen, and Clarke’s script—while tender and bittersweet—doesn’t skimp on the laughs, either. In one scene, Nora Batty nervously discusses with café owner Ivy (Jane Freeman) the possibility that Compo may still have that smile on his face; Ivy dismisses Nora’s apprehensions, telling her she ought to be proud since it was no doubt the last thing he remembered before shuffling off this mortal coil. So when Ivy and Nora pay their respects to the open coffin, Nora looks over and then wails: “He’s doing it deliberately!”
There are so many memorable bits in this episode—Wesley (Gordon Wharmby), the village’s resident grease monkey, actually puts on a suit to attend the funeral. Auntie Wainwright (Jean Alexander), the penurious owner of the town’s thrift store, agrees to close her establishment in Compo’s honor…but puts a sign on the window that gives out her cell phone number in case of “emergency sales.” The funniest is probably how the hapless lothario Howard (Robert Fyfe), who has enough problems juggling his wife Pearl (Juliette Kaplan) and mistress Marina (Jean Ferguson)—now has to “entertain” a third woman, Reggie Answorth (Liz Fraser), who appeared in the episode before “Funeral” as the person Compo to which he willed his beloved ferrets…and a romantic “conquest” that he saw on the side every Thursday for most of his life. There are two things about this episode that really put a lump in my throat. The first is a wordless scene (the lyrics to the series’ theme song the only accompaniment) in which Ivy, dressed for the funeral, searches for a suitable handbag and, finding one in her wardrobe, pulls it out and discovers a photograph inside: a picture of her late husband Sid, who was featured in Summer Wine’s early years and played by the marvelous John Comer. The other is watching Compo’s coffin being carried out of the church, festooned with flowers…and his prized “wellies” (boots) riding on top.
Now all of his summer’s gone
Those urgent days when he was young
Those girls he loved but soon moved on
To drink his summer wine
Now perfumes of earth and vine
Of meadows when the rain has gone
These friends with their black armbands on
Salute his summer wine
The memories he left to me, here in my cup,
Of sweet short days, bitter days, now all drunk up
The fullness of the life that slipped
The other day all mortal pain
Free now to roam fresh hills and lanes
And taste eternal wine.