TONY POGSON on the enduring appeal of Last Of The Summer Wine - and why a producer of the TV classic, about to start a new series, finds the show as addictive as ever ...
NO-ONE deliberately set out to make Last Of The Summer Wine the world's longest running comedy series.
Back in the very different world of January 1973 it was billed as a one-off episode of BBC Comedy Playhouse.
This was the ground-breaking year when the UK and Ireland, with Denmark, joined the Common Market. At the time, the height of comedy was the Morecambe and Wise Show pulling in TV audiences of 20million-plus and Z Cars was on the brink of notching up its 500th TV episode.
It was in this atmosphere that the story of three ageing delinquents in their second childhood really caught on.
At first it had an extra "the" as The Last Of The Summer Wine. It came back, first as a six-part series, and everything snowballed from there, to the point where this Sunday sees the start of its 33rd year (fans count from 1972 when the first show was produced, not 73 when it was seen) - series 26 with 10 episodes, plus a Christmas special.
Today the gentle humour of writer Roy Clarke makes it cult viewing in the USA (along with another of his offerings, Keeping Up Appearances) and the official website of the Summer Wine Appreciation Society, www.summer-wine.com, is filled with letters from appreciative US fans who have seen it on public broadcasting services and are eager for more via DVDs.
At the moment there are plans posted for meetings in New Jersey at Cape May, on Saturday, April 27 and at Rockaway on Saturday, July 30.
And a Maryland clergyman has confessed that he tapes it for bedtime viewing.
Meanwhile, back home it's no secret that some of the BBC top brass have been trying for years to kill it off and replace it with a sitcom devised "to appeal to a younger audience".
Yet even the repeats still attract about five million viewers and a clinching argument to keep it going was a recent survey which found that children enjoy its zany humour.
Another good test of a long-running show is how the stars queue up to get on board. That was first apparent in this country with Morecambe and Wise who never had any difficulty in persuading top names to join them.
Over the years the household names who have appeared on the show have been legion, from Ron Moody and Norman Wisdom, to Yorkshire lads like Brian Glover and Gorden Kaye, John Cleese, Dora Bryan, Anita Dobson, Bernard Cribbins, Hywel Bennett, Jean Boht, Jim Bowen, Kenneth Cope, Lionel Bart, Matthew Kelly, Norman Rossington, Roy Hudd and many more.
Appearing in this series are comedian Bobby Ball (with a cameo appearance by his mate Tommy Cannon), Sixties pop star Jess Conrad and Roy Barraclough (ex-Coronation Street).
As Compo Simmonite, the late Bill Owen made it his show but always it has turned round the mix of three central characters, however much the three changed. Peter Sallis as the quiet one, Norman Clegg , has stayed, joined now by Bill's son Tom, as Tom Simmonite.
The ring leader has been Michael Bates (Cyril Blamire), Brian Wilde (Foggy Dewhurst) and Michael Aldridge (Seymour Utterthwaite) and now it's Frank Thornton (Truly Truelove).
Giving the show continuity is the steady hand of writer Roy Clarke, who has written all the stories and Alan J W Bell, the producer and director, who has now clocked up 25 years with Summer Wine.
When I caught up with Alan on his mobile phone he was on holiday in Florida, taking a well-earned rest between Summer Wine series.
He told me that work on filming series 27 starts this June and the rush for preview seats at the Teddington Studios for series 26 was "worse then ever".
The studio normally seats 320, they issued 350 tickets and brought in 80 extra chairs and still found themselves with an audience of 420 or thereabouts.
Yes, the Summer Wine phenomenon goes on. Alan is a passionate advocate of its "clean, British humour".
He is also a regular contributor to the official Summer Wine Appreciation Society website, keeping in touch with the fans.
And, while in Florida, he checked into the local video shop and was disappointed that they didn't have any Summer Wine material. It really is that addictive.
* The hits of the year were: Eye Level, Tie A Yellow Ribbon and Welcome Home.
* The Sting with Robert Redford and Paul Newman was the year's best film.
* David Bowie had five different albums in the charts at the same time and collapsed from exhaustion at a New York show