Life after the Summer Wine

Television stalwart Ken Kitson is about to celebrate his 40th anniversary as an actor. But, as he tells Tony Earnshaw, he still has a couple of ambitions to fulfil, not least a big-screen Western set in Yorkshire.

Director Alan JW Bell calls “action!” and actor Ken Kitson descends the steps outside Nora Batty’s terrace abode in Holmfirth to deliver a deliberately cheesy impromptu commercial for Bell’s memoirs, just published.

“If I don’t get this right they’re going to throw the book at me! But not just any book: From the Director’s Chair, by Alan JW Bell. How was that?” “Average,” comes the reply. “Better, then?” quips Kitson.

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For Kitson and producer/director Bell it is the latest collaboration in a relationship that stretches back almost 30 years over 88 episodes of Last of the Summer Wine. Now, three years after the show was ignominiously axed the pair have tentative plans to work together again.

Three weeks later I rendezvous with Kitson at a pleasant little café in Scarborough, the town he moved to four years ago. He’s a familiar figure on its streets, even out of season when the tourists have thinned out. We are a stone’s throw from the towering Victorian pile that is the Grand, the labyrinthine hotel once owned and operated by the Laughton family whose eldest son, Charles, also became an actor.

Born in Bradford, Ken Kitson left a job in printing to become a professional actor after being bitten by the bug in the 1970s. He was a latecomer to performing having joined his younger brother Gary as a driver and sometime stand-in at the Barnstormers theatre group.

But after drama school – he joined East 15 in 1973 – there was a rapid progression through theatre, television and film. Four decades later Kitson lays proud claim to his 40 years as a professional.

It was a mighty leap for a Yorkshire lad with no prior knowledge of acting. Kitson – 6ft 2in tall, Northern, cocky – shared a flat with fellow Bradfordian John Duttine and admits that London represented freedom, adventure and a harsh epiphany.

“When I went down to London I thought I was the Cock of the North,” smiles Kitson, “but I wasn’t. I learned a hell of a lot, not just about acting but about myself.

“There was a white South African guy there and we’d have debates in the lessons. He used to come out with some absolute garbage but when he spoke he was measured and quiet whereas I was shouting and screaming. Nobody listened. As soon as you raise your voice people think ‘I can’t do with that’ and they turn off. I learnt that from an early age.”

Far from Bradford, Kitson grew up. He volunteered for everything, honed his improvisational skills, joined Joan Littlewood’s company at Stratford East and signed up with a travelling troupe performing a children’s show called The Barmy Army. His abiding memory is playing to an arena full of 8,000 kids all chanting “we are the barmy army”.

Life for a fledgling actor in the 1970s was active and fun. There was plenty of work around. Kitson skipped nimbly from one job to the next. Often he was cast as thugs, coppers or soldiers – in Danger UXB with Anthony Andrews he was the faithful NCO who assisted Andrews’ cool-headed officer to defuse Luftwaffe bombs.

But his breakthrough role was in A Wish for Wally’s Mother as Ruth Dunning’s simple-minded son, being dragged around the country by his itinerant 60-something mother.

Looking back at the play today, it is reminiscent of both Colleen McCullough’s Tim and Winston Groom’s Forrest Gump. As the adult with the mind of a nine-year-old, Kitson emerged as a performer of sensitivity and pathos. It was a magnificent entry into character work.

“Wally was such a fantastic part,” recalls Kitson. “They were looking at really big names and I got it. I got fabulous reviews 
in the press the next day – ‘gentle giant’ and all of that. And that was it. After that I went on to Danger UXB and loads of other stuff.”

The work came thick and fast. Kitson’s 1970s resumé boasts a succession of hit shows from The Sweeney and The Professionals via Van Der Valk, Get Some In and Michael Palin’s post-Python series Ripping Yarns. In the Eighties he was in G.B.H, Mapp & Lucia, an all-star remake of Witness for the Prosecution and Oranges are Not the Only Fruit.

Then came Coronation Street (“I’m actually in the history books for Coronation Street because I’ve done four different characters since the 1970s, the only actor who’s ever done that. The last time was in 2005.”), Emmerdale and Last of the Summer Wine. For the latter he gets recognised 30 to 40 times every day in Scarborough.

One job he didn’t get was The New Avengers. “I was down to the last two on The New Avengers and Gareth Hunt got it. He was better looking. I even wrote to the studios for James Bond. I said ‘You’ve had all the good ones. Do you fancy an ugly one?’ They sent me a letter back and said ‘no’.”

Kitson has also propped up the cast lists of a string of movies. His proficiency with a blade led to his earliest credit as a fight arranger on Barry McKenzie Holds His Own. He made his debut as a coalminer in Disney’s Escape from the Dark, a drama about Yorkshire kids who rescue pit ponies destined for the knacker’s yard. The film is notable for its northern locations and for being the final film of Alastair Sim, playing Lord Harrogate.

“When I got that I thought ‘Disney – Hollywood at last!’ It was Sheffield, Durham and Pinewood!” laughs Kitson. “It was a lovely film to work on and a really good cast. It was lovely to work with Alastair Sim. I’ve never been star-struck or in awe of anybody but to see him standing there…

“Over the years I’ve worked with some fabulous people. One of the biggest stars I ever worked with was Deborah Kerr on Witness for the Prosecution, a remake of the Charles Laughton movie. She was an icon. But what a lovely, beautiful lady.”

The cast also included Donald Pleasence, Diana Rigg, Beau Bridges and Sir Ralph Richardson.

“It was a closed set and mostly when people aren’t involved in a scene they go out and have a cigarette or a cup of tea or whatever. But for Donald Pleasence, Deborah Kerr and Ralph Richardson’s scenes people went onto the set to watch. And that’s the thing with this business – you never stop learning.”

Kitson joined Last of the Summer Wine in 1983, eventually becoming part of the ever-changing ensemble along with ex-Brookside actor Louis Emerick. Their finely honed double act as ineffectual constables Cooper and Walsh existed as a bubble within the main show.

The duo have since presented An Arresting Night – a live version of their on-screen partnership that is part improvisation (the storyline is suggested by the audience), part live theatre and part stand-up for fans of the show who are still in denial that it is no more. And increasingly Kitson is convinced that pressure from fans could restore at least part of the Summer Wine experience to our screens.

“I’m trying to get a spin-off series up and running with the two policemen,” he reveals. “Roy Clark wants to write it, Alan Bell wants to direct it. Roy loves the idea. He wants to call it HoboCops. He’s sent a treatment to Yorkshire Television. When [Summer Wine] finished it had five million viewers. In this day and age, that’s good. But television has stopped catering for a certain age range, from 50 upwards. These are the people that watch TV more than anybody.”

He describes Summer Wine as “harmless fun”, adding: “It’s escapism. I’ve watched a lot of the comedies [on TV now] and some of them are funny, I must admit. But a lot are full of effing and blinding and people don’t think they’re funny. It’s all swearing. And it’s not just swearing. It’s the F word, the C word, whatever word they think they can use. When you had those old comedians like Tommy Cooper and Morecambe and Wise, they didn’t have to swear to be funny.”

And there is another project on the horizon. For 15 years Kitson has yearned to make his own movie. Drawing on childhood memories of going to watch westerns with his father he came up with Fistful of Dreams, a romantic comedy Western set in Yorkshire. Kitson wrote the main character – a 50-something divorcee named Will who lives, eats, dresses and behaves as a cowboy – for himself. Will lives at home with his elderly parents and a couple of brothers.

Unapologetically Western in style and outlook, he’s become virtually unemployable due to his devotion to his cowboy creed.

Kitson is passionate about the movie. Now, after several false starts, it is finally edging closer to reality. “I’m in my 60s now and they want me to play younger, which they say is possible. I don’t just want to put a dark wig on. I’d be the first to say ‘Get somebody else for the part’. At the moment I still think I’m capable of playing early 50s with darker hair. And make-up is a wonderful thing!” He throws back his head and laughs.

I’m reminded of a story that has become urban legend. Kitson confirms it. Twenty years ago he was cast as a security guard in Patriot Games, starring Harrison Ford. It was, recalls Kitson “a gorgeous sunny day” for his first scene involving Ford, Patrick Bergin, Sean Bean and David Threlfall.

He never made the movie. Mocked by an unpopular skinflint producer when he inquired about his expenses, Kitson strode across to a bemused Harrison Ford and shook his hand before marching back to his caravan, stripping off en-route as the delighted crew applauded. He gave up £4,000 for the sake of a £45 train fare on principle.

“Years later I was doing Cops in Bolton with a young actor who starts telling me this story. I recognised it but it had got a bit exaggerated. I introduced myself and halfway through he said ‘It was you, wasn’t it?’ And I would do the same thing again. I’m not here to be laughed at. Anyway, you can’t let them have it all their own way, can you?”