Elegy For A Flat Cap: Peter Sallis Remembered

One of my favourite scenes in any episode of Doctor Who occurs near the end of The Ice Warriors. Peter Barkworth plays Clent, the obstinate leader of the base under siege (I use those words quite deliberately), a man with an agenda, a performance target and a serious problem. Clent’s journey encompasses the usual suspicion and paranoia but, like most surviving supporting characters, he’s sensible enough to listen to those who know what they’re doing before it’s too late. In the story’s conclusion, Clent is finally reconciled with excommunicated scientist Penley. “You are,” he says to Penley, “the most insufferably irritating and infuriating person I’ve ever been privileged to work with. Can’t write a report though, can you?”

It’s a marvellous moment. There’s something joyously reassuring about it. You instinctively like these men and you are glad that they have come through unscathed. It’s a scene in which supporting characters cease to be people who bounce off the Doctor and become people in their own right. It’s understated and beautifully performed. It seems, in a way, an odd scene to rank among one’s personal highlight reel, given that it does not consist of bombastic speeches, dazzling plot twists or epic moments of self-sacrifice. But there it is nonetheless, squarely placed in mine.

Still. One remembers the strangest things. It was funny watching The Ice Warriors for the first time, many years after it was originally broadcast (and then lost, and then found in a cupboard in the Ealing offices) and seeing a familiar face underneath Penley’s grimy beard. Because you’re sitting there, watching Jamie run away from a not exactly intimidating grizzly bear, and there’s Victoria screaming behind a plastic glacier, and HOLY MACKEREL, IT’S NORMAN CLEGG!

If you grew up in the 1980s, as I did, then Sunday evenings were usually the same: it was crumpets by the fire, accompanied by the evening news, then Songs of Praise, and then Last of the Summer Wine (or You’ve Been Framed, back in the days when they had a studio audience). Perhaps that was just our house. But I doubt it. Summer Wine may have been past its best in the 1980s (although it enjoyed a brief resurgence when Brian Wilde returned and Thora Hird showed up) but it hadn’t turned to vinegar just yet, and was still essential viewing, whether you were seven or seventy-seven. The words ‘quintessentially British’ are thrown about too much in the wrong contexts, but I don’t know how much more British you can get than three retired Yorkshiremen cavorting around a small market town like unshackled teenagers, rolling down the embankments, getting thrown out of the pub and chasing after an unattractive widow. Love or hate it, you couldn’t ignore it: Summer Wine was as fundamental to the landscape as dry stone walls, electric pylons, and sheep.

In our house, if there was an opportunity to watch Compo, Clegg and The Third Man, we took it – even if, at a comparatively young age, I could see the repetitious nature of Roy Clarke’s writing (“You’re doing X,” a character will say. “You’re always doing X”). It wasn’t the sort of thing you talked about in school on a Monday morning, but that didn’t stop it being fun, with a whimsical soundtrack, glorious location filming and a cast that was popular on the panto and chat show circuit. So established was Sallis as a household name that when I met my new trombone teacher, in the autumn of 1993, he saw fit to introduce himself as “Mike Sallis, no relation to the other one”, as if there were no need to clarify what he was talking about.

Norman Clegg was an everyman, the befuddled, slightly timid chap caught between the rock of Blaimire’s / Truly’s / Seymour’s / Foggy’s harebrained schemes and Compo’s incredulous reactions to them. At least he was by the time the show wrapped in 2010. It’s curious to see how Clegg evolved over the years if you go back and watch the first couple of series again: he is, in those early stories, very much the ringleader, assertive, cynical and sometimes prone to unpleasant behaviour – referring to his late wife as “silly bitch”, and then booting a small child off a rudimentary arcade machine with the words “Have you ever heard the expression ‘suffer little children’? Well, get off before it starts.”

Top left – Original line-up of Compo, Clegg and Cyril Blaimire; Top right – Brian Wilde joins the team as Foggy Dewhurst; Bottom left – Compo and Clegg with Seymour Utterthwaite; Bottom right – the show’s later years.

In the decades that passed, Clegg would gradually mellow into the mild-mannered, slightly jumpy philosopher I knew from my childhood, although without ever losing the dry wit that was central to his character – usually after a quiet life of hill walking and the occasional pint, which is difficult when you’re forced to take up dry slope skiing (on a tray) or evade the pursuits of Howard’s love interest, the leggy Marina. (It’s hard to envisage exactly what Marina saw in Clegg, but then it’s equally difficult to envisage what she saw in Howard, and all but impossible to work out what anyone saw in Pearl.) Irrespective of the situation into which he’d been flung, Clegg approached everything he did with the same level of detached bemusement. “The female form was always a mystery”, he says in one episode; “Anything else you acquire with moving parts, you get an owner’s manual”. When Roy Clarke published a pictorial guide to the hills of Holmfirth and the surrounding area that makes up Summer Wine country, it was with Clegg’s voice, through a series of letters to his pen friend, that he chose to annotate it.

And whatever tropes Clarke relied on, he knew how to write Clegg and his assorted compatriots with flair and reliability – the show was seldom less than funny, and at its best, it was brilliant. It’s the sort of thing that’s easy to knock in a more sophisticated age, but to criticise Summer Wine in this way seems almost disrespectful: in otherwise uncertain times, it was as gentle and reliable as a loving grandparent. The world moved on, but Holmfirth didn’t. When I was in a bad place, emotionally and geographically (Leeds), the hapless trio’s antics provided a steadfast reassurance, in whatever incarnation they manifested on the BBC’s Sunday evening repeats wagon. Cast members came and went, but Clegg was the lynchpin, the only character to appear in all 295 episodes, even if advancing age relegated him to the sidelines in the show’s twilight years. He was there for Edie’s driving lessons, Foggy’s cataclysmic railway walk (Sallis’ own personal favourite), and the time the hapless Eli – blind as a bat, or at least incredibly short-sighted – walked into the pub and headed straight for the dartboard, causing all the other inhabitants to scatter.

Most notably, he was there for the death of Bill Owen, who passed away midway through the filming of series 21 – meaning certain sequences in which Compo was supposed to feature had to be reshuffled or filmed with doubles. Sallis’ turbulent emotional state is palpable throughout these scenes – you can see the tears glistening – and it obviously comes as something of a relief when he’s allowed to grieve publicly, his eyes shining as two hundred pairs of overalls spell out a farewell message on the hillside. When asked if he thinks Compo went to heaven, Clegg’s voice cracks a little even as he replies. “Certainly,” he says. “‘To be as little children’. That was him.” Sallis always was a good actor, but in the episodes detailing Compo’s death and its aftermath, he really isn’t acting at all.

Sallis never went away. But he became a household name all over again in the 1990s, when he took on the role for which he’ll probably be chiefly remembered: wide-cheeked, Wensleydale-loving Wallace of West Wallaby Street, Wigan. (You’re humming the theme music now, aren’t you? It’s OK; I’ve had it as an earworm the whole time I’ve been writing this paragraph.) Holed up with only an anthropomorphic dog for company, Wallace’s knack for inventing (not to mention his fondness for crackers) brought a smile to millions, from 1990’s A Grand Day Out to the final full-length Wallace and Gromit story, A Matter of Loaf and Death – as well as establishing Nick Park as a force to be reckoned with in the animation world.

And yet Park himself acknowledges Sallis – his ‘first and only choice’ for the role – as instrumental in the success of Wallace, and indeed in his very design. Sallis had agreed to record the role in 1983, on the condition that the £50 fee Park offered should go to a charity of his choosing – and swore in surprise when Park telephoned him years later to inform him that he had finished his film. Famously, it was Sallis’ pronunciation of ‘Cheeeese’ that inspired Park to give Wallace a ‘coat-hanger mouth’, and the actor would go on to infuse his animated counterpart with bags of personality through the years that followed – it’s impossible to picture Wallace without hearing him say “Cracking toast, Gromit”, just as it’s impossible to picture Gromit without the raised eyebrow that is his trademark expression (itself ironic, given that Park had originally intended to give the dog a voice). An increasingly frail Sallis officially retired from the role in 2010 – although Ben Whitehead, who voiced the character in the Grand Adventure Telltale video game series, does a first-rate impersonation.

But it was the other parts of Sallis’ career that surprised you – despite his two major roles he refused to be typecast, and maintained a prolific stage career and reputation as a brilliant storyteller. The list of things you’d forgotten he was in is long and varied, whether it was his appearance in Catweazle or his brief turn in Wuthering Heights in 1970. Memorably, he voiced Rat in the TV adaptation of The Wind In The Willows – opposite Richard Pearson, Michael Hordern, and David Jason – as well as playing Norman Clegg’s father David in the short-lived First of the Summer Wine in the late 1980s. You never knew where he’d show up next, but you always knew you’d enjoy it.

When he showed up in Doctor Who, it was playing a grimy scientist who tussles with Ice Warriors and lives to tell the tale. It was his first role, but wasn’t supposed to be his last – Sallis was also due to be cast in Enlightenment, although changes to filming schedules meant he was no longer available, and thus the role of Striker went to Keith Barron, who does marvellously (although it’s tempting to imagine Sallis in that captain’s uniform and wonder what he would have made with Striker’s alienating sense of detachment). Nonetheless, it is for The Ice Warriors that the Whoniverse will remember him – although, as Sallis mentions in his 2006 autobiography Fading Into The Limelight, BBC budgets once more hampered the production’s sense of realism:

“When Patrick Troughton was playing Doctor Who I was cast in an episode called Doctor Who and the Ice Warriors. I played an Ice Warrior which, to put it simply, was casting me rather dangerously, especially as Peter Barkworth was appearing with me. So you had two professional gigglers who would lay down their lives to get a giggle if they could manage it. We tried to take it as seriously as we possibly could, but it was very difficult. At one point we were confronted by a grizzly bear, which emerged from behind a huge rock of polystyrene and bore down on us. There were no stunt doubles, so instead of having the huge grizzly called for in the script, the BBC chose a small baby grizzly. It was a charmer. It was about three or four feet long, with a sweet nose and temperament, but the director thought that if they shot it in close-up it would fill the screen and therefore produce a moment of high tension. I’m sure the BBC meant well, and I hesitate to draw their attention to it, but if you can imagine this baby bear, that everybody in the studio wanted to give a squeeze to, even filling the screen with it wasn’t going to turn it into a monster. It stayed just a cuddly baby bear.”

For a talented actor to enjoy a long and distinguished career and then die at 96 is not a tragedy; it is simply the next stage of a journey we must all undertake. But it’s hard not to feel a part of your childhood is gone, whether that childhood was spent watching Hartnell battle Mondasian Cybermen, a plasticine inventor battle a disguised penguin, or Bill Owen falling in a river. Whatever generation you belong to, there’s a chance that Peter Sallis was a part of it in one form or another, and perhaps if he were to look back at his life’s work, he might sum it up with something like “Well, that went as well as could be expected.”

Or perhaps we might consider this opening from Last of the Summer Wine, where the trio are sitting – as they routinely did – on the side of a hill, overlooking the town.

Foggy: Clegg’s quiet. What are you thinking about, Clegg?

Clegg: I was wondering why oranges are round and bananas are cucumber shaped.

Compo: Serves thee right for asking.

I told you. Brilliant.