"Does it smell of mothballs?" asked Peter Sallis, in the very last episode of Last of the Summer Wine.
Well, I wasn't going to mention it actually, given the occasion – and the sense that any sitcom that has lasted 37 years deserves a bit of valedictory respect. But since you've raised the matter yourself, Peter, yes... it did a bit. It may well have been the longest-running sitcom in the world, and still have been getting audiences that would make the producers of brasher, younger comedies turn cartwheels in exultation, but actually it's been giving off that distinctive odour of naphthalene for several years now. Naturally Sallis, or rather his character, Norman, wasn't taking a self- referential nip at the hand that's fed him for the last 37 years. He was talking about his best suit, pulled out of storage for Gloria's wedding. But the cancellation of the series – without sufficient advance warning to allow for a specially written conclusion – had given his line an unexpectedly harsh edge.
It's no secret that many of those involved in the programme felt it deserved a better retirement party. And, whatever you thought about it as a viewer, there was something a little sad and anti-climactic about this termination, as if a loyal and long-serving employee had been let go with nothing but a swift half in the works canteen. The arrival of an ancient charabanc to collect the wedding party – belching blue smoke and driven by a man who couldn't walk across the room without bumping into the furniture – briefly raised hopes that they might go out with the Holmfirth equivalent of a Viking burial, honouring the programme's long devotion to the comic potential of the runaway vehicle. But in the end it just pootled away across the moorland and the last word was left to Norman – a plaintive senior moment: "Did I lock the door?" he asked, to nobody in particular.
There wasn't a lot in the previous 30 minutes to explain that record-breaking longevity, unless the audience's profound desire not to be startled might account for it. This was, to the end, a world in which women were formidable and men were wary, a world in which the sight gags were as broad as the acting and in which the studio audience clearly knew what was expected of it in the way of genial encouragement. They laughed, on the soundtrack, in utterly mystifying places – at lines that didn't even have the rudiments of a joke about them, but were simply followed by a titter-shaped space. "You'll have to wait until I'm in full war-paint and battle gear," said a female character and the laughter rose up like a congregational "amen", confirming the comforting notion that, in this place at least, the sexes would always be cosily at war. I can't honestly mourn it myself – because I never shared the faith – but it seems only decent to bow the head as the cortege passes.
I doubt that The Middle – a new American import from Sky – is going to go anything like the same distance. This isn't because it isn't funny now and then, but because it is so transparently unoriginal, replicating almost exactly the hapless family dynamics of Malcolm in the Middle. It has the same exasperated, struggling mom and the same mildly skewed youngest child. The title isn't an acknowledgement of this debt (although it may well be designed to exploit it), but refers to the fact that The Middle is set in the "heart of the heartland" – Orson, Indiana, a state that can boast the world's largest polyurethane cow and not much else in the way of cultural capital. I don't think they're going to be boasting about The Middle either.