The man who is Sunday night

Two sitcoms fill peak viewing time on BBC1 tonight, and Roy Clarke writes both. Tim Minogue reports
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The Independent Online
SUGGEST to most writers that their work is predictable and unchallenging and they will rapidly show you the door. Roy Clarke, writer of two of the most popular sitcoms in the history of British television, seizes upon the idea as if it is both a compliment and a profound critical insight.

"Unchallenging? I think you may have put your finger on it," he says of Last of the Summer Wine, the gentle comedy about the uneventful lives of three old codgers which this month began its 18th series on BBC1. "Nothing terribly exciting happens. I don't frighten the horses."

Safety, sameness and an absence of sex and violence are not qualities to be sneered at, Clarke maintains. The British viewing public seem to agree, for some eight to nine million of them will tune into Last of the Summer Wine tonight at 7.30, to be joined an hour later by another four million more fans of Clarke's other huge hit sitcom, Keeping Up Appearances, now in its fifth series.

The two shows are crucial to the BBC's autumn Sunday night ratings battle, up against ITV's police drama Heartbeat and Jeremy Beadle's You've Been Framed!, which are themselves hugely popular, with viewing figures in the first week of this month running at 14.1 million and 11.4 million respectively.

Last of the Summer Wine, according to the BBC, is the world's longest- running television sitcom, with longer legs even than Lucille Ball's US show I Love Lucy, which ran for a mere 13 years.

Roy Clarke, 65, is unperturbed by the sneers of critics: "Last of the Summer Wine is especially popular with kids and older people. It's heartily despised by the intellectual market, but that doesn't bother me a bit."

The viewers may love Clarke's mild-mannered comedies, but they provoke violent reactions among professional TV watchers. "If there was an Oscar for the unfunniest comedy on TV," wrote William Marshall in the Daily Mirror of Keeping Up Appearances, "then this sway-backed, knock-kneed nag of a show would gallop off with the bauble every time." The Evening Standard said: "It's a quaint, superannuated fantasy where everything is milder than life and everybody is stupid, and nothing ever happens, certainly nothing that will clash with your wallpaper."

Clarke says: "I think an essential part of the appeal of these comedies is that they portray small worlds, which people find reassuring. People's lives, until not so long ago, used to be circumscribed by small boundaries. They didn't travel much and if they went a few miles they would experience a culture change. Today things are becoming more and more evened out from one end of the country to another. I wonder if these little individual comedy worlds provide something in people's lives that has been lost."

Clarke was not fired with enthusiasm when the then head of BBC comedy, Duncan Wood, suggested the concept of Last of the Summer Wine in 1971. "I thought it was a non-starter. It was the first sitcom I'd done. I was still in my early forties and the last thing I felt like writing about was three old men. I wouldn't have put a fiver on it going into a second series."

Last of the Summer Wine centres on the adventures of three oldies, Compo, Foggy and Clegg (Bill Owen, Brian Wilde and Peter Sallis), who get into slapstick scrapes around the streets of a West Riding town. They live in terror of Nora Batty, a battleaxe in wrinkled tights, played by Kathy Staff.

In Keeping Up Appearances, Patricia Routledge plays Hyacinth Bucket, a suburban snob who makes Penelope Keith's Margot in The Good Life seem positively egalitarian.

"I have a great admiration for strong women," says Clarke, who was widowed two years ago. "They have always been a big factor in the North.

"I was raised on a farm near Doncaster and still live not far away. When I was a boy there was some truth in the cliche of feckless husbands who worked down the pit and were only interested in their pints. It was these matriarchal figures who held everything together.

"Nora Batty and Hyacinth Bucket are both horrors in a way. They are way beyond reality, an inch away from surrealism. But there's something about them which inspires affection and carries the situations through."

Clarke's output is considerable. This year he has written 10 episodes each of Wine and Appearances, plus Christmas specials. "Since my wife died the work is my life, really. I hope to be able to totter on until I'm about 70 before retiring from the market place."