Peter Sallis: From Shakespeare to Wallace and Cleggy

THERE NEVER was a more convincing Yorkshireman on screen, either in face or voice, but the actor who created two indelible regional characters was actually from no further north than the upper reaches of the Thames.

Peter Sallis.

In his flat cap and ill-fitting tweed jacket borrowed from the BBC wardrobe department, Peter Sallis was a fixture on the moors and cobbles of the West Riding for all 295 episodes of Last of the Summer Wine.

And as the grinning, tank-topped inventor Wallace, fashioned out of Plasticine by the brilliant Nick Park in the Wallace and Gromit animated adventures, he weaned a whole generation on Wensleydale cheese.

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But Sallis, who died today, four years short of his century, had seemed destined for an altogether more conventional stage career.

His first TV role, as early as 1947, was as Quince in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And before decamping to comedy, he had been cast opposite Roger Moore and Tony Curtis in ATV’s international adventure yarn, The Persuaders.

Last night, Mr Park was among those joining the BBC in tribute to one of the corporation’s most enduring stars.

“He encapsulated the very British art of the droll and understated,” Mr Park said.

Shane Allen, controller of comedy commissioning for the BBC, said the actor would be “forever fondly remembered” both as the voice of Wallace and as Norman ‘Cleggy’ Clegg in the UK’s longest running sitcom.

It had been in 1973 that Sallis had been cast in a one-off Comedy Playhouse called Of Funerals and Fish, by the Yorkshire writer, Roy Clarke. They hoped it would go to a series. No-one expected that, given a new title, it would run to 31.

Other actors came and went but the classic line-up - Sallis, Bill Owen as Compo and Brian Wilde as Foggy Dewhurst - endured longest. Sallis was the last of them to survive.

However, it was as the voice of the cheese-loving Wallace that he became an international name.

Wallace And Gromit won two Oscars and the actor said he was delighted to have enjoyed such success late in life.

“It is pleasing knowing millions are going to see your work and enjoy it,” he said. “To still be involved in a project like this at my age is heart-warming.”

He had more than 25 years of acting experience under his belt when the BBC comedy department came calling. Born in Twickenham, his father was a bank manager and his mother was a housewife.

He showed no interest in acting at school and his only link to the stage was his grandmother, who ran a theatrical boarding house in Northampton.

On leaving school he followed his father into a banking career with Barclays and might have stayed there for life were it not for the Second World War. He signed up for the RAF but failed his aircrew medical and instead became a radio instructor based at Cranwell in Lincolnshire - where he was asked to appear in a performance of Hay Fever.

He caught the acting bug and when he was demobbed in 1946 he won a scholarship to Rada.

In his early career he concentrated on theatre work and appeared opposite Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud and Orson Welles. During the 1950s and 1960s he worked steadily in a succession of TV shows, with minor parts in episodes of Z Cars, The Avengers and Doctor Who.

In 1983, Nick Park, then a student, wrote to Sallis asking him to be the voice of a clay character called Wallace. The actor agreed to do it in exchange for a £50 fee to a charity.

But it was not until 1989 that the first Wallace and Gromit film, A Grand Day Out, finally reached the screen. Its follow-ups, The Wrong Trousers (1993) and A Close Shave (1995) were Oscar winners.

Wallace and Gromit’s feature-length movie, The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit, and became a box office hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

Sallis married an actress, Elaine Usher, in the 1950s and they had a son, Crispian, before divorcing in 1965.