Is it real or is it Memorex? We can’t tell the real Holmfirth from Summer Wine

Compo and Nora Batty (Bill Owen and Kathy Staff) on the steps in Holmfirth
Compo and Nora Batty (Bill Owen and Kathy Staff) on the steps in Holmfirth
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IT WAS in the early Seventies that the disc jockey Tony Blackburn rolled into Holmfirth to cut the ribbon on its new supermarket, an ugly, riverside construction put up by the local firm, Lodge’s.

At that point, a personal appearance by the breakfast show host on Radio 1, and maybe a mention from John Burns on Look North, was about as close to the BBC as anyone in the town could hope to get.

Dr Lynn Hibberd

Dr Lynn Hibberd

But then, something remarkable happened. Duncan Wood, a television executive who had produced Hancock’s Half Hour and Steptoe and Son, commissioned a writer from outside Doncaster to conjure up a comedy about three old men, unattached and either unemployed or retired, roaming the landscape like geriatric teddy boys.

Another executive, Barry Took, suggested Holmfirth as an ideal location. At that moment, two Yorkshire academics said today, was forged the town’s image for generations to come.

The longevity of Last of the Summer Wine, and its inextricable links with Compo’s house, Nora Batty’s steps and Sid’s cafe, has now permanently changed people’s memories of Holmfirth, said cultural studies lecturers Dr Lynne Hibberd and Dr Zoë Tew-Thompson.

The gift of what would become the world’s longest-running sitcom was ironically one of Wood’s last acts for the BBC before he took on the role of head of comedy at Yorkshire TV.

Dr Zoe Tew-Thompson

Dr Zoe Tew-Thompson

Yet the show’s start could hardly have been less auspicious: an episode of Comedy Playhouse subtitled Of Funerals and Fish.

The interiors, until much later, weren’t even filmed in Holmfirth, but in the less craggy surroundings of BBC TV Centre in Shepherd’s Bush. Even so, after a few more episodes, Roy Clarke’s creations, Compo, Foggy and Clegg, had become ingrained on the local landscape, and viewers started travelling north to see where they had come from.

Last of the Summer Wine was filmed there for over 37 years. This has meant the town has literally changed to accommodate it,” said Dr Hibberd, who believes many of the local visitor spots originally inspired by the show have taken on lives of their own.

“Because it was around for so long, people have a cultural awareness of it even if they’ve never watched it,” she said.

Even though Summer Wine has been off the air for six years, its aura “creates cultural memories which are shared and experienced almost as though they’re the real thing”, added Dr Hibberd, of Leeds Beckett University.

“We found that the show connected to people’s memories of specific times. By acting as a form of cultural memory, TV can evoke a sense of community, nostalgia and belonging.”

Meanwhile, the town and surrounding countryside, collectively known simply as Summer Wine Country, have come to form a composite memory of “timeless, rural Yorkshire” itself, say the authors.

The entire tourism industry that Holmfirth now supports, shows no signs of abating. Compo’s house accommodates the Last of the Summer Wine Exhibition and gift shop, and there are walking tours through the Co-op car park, past the memorial garden and public toilets, across to the church and down to Sid’s cafe.

Even the derelict branch of Lodge’s, in a final act of dramatic irony, would became the setting for the supermarket where the series’ sexpot, Marina, laboured, never even knowing that a celeb­rity had once declared it open.