Philip Hensher: Too soon to call time on a vintage show


Anyone hearing the news that the BBC’s sitcom Last Of The Summer Wine is to come to an end is going to say one of three things. “Christ, is that crap still going on?”, “My gran used to like that crap, after she developed Alzheimers”, or “That crap’s the Queen’s favourite programme, apparently.”

It appears to be the world’s longest-running comedy programme. It began in 1973 as a one-off play, quickly turned into a series – the first of 31. It has been going on for so long that when I undertook to look at it, this week, I was instantly transported back to evenings in the late 1970s. The dread of unfinished homework and school tomorrow can’t be separated, for me, from the moany theme music and the comedy sight of an old man scratching himself. Back then almost any old rubbish on the telly would serve to distract you from maths homework and history revision – Songs Of Praise, even. But one drew the line at Last Of The Summer Wine. Practice in quadratic equations upstairs was, obviously, much more fun than sitting through Compo’s attempts to ride down a hillside in a bathtub.

And now it has come to an end. Rumour has it that the BBC has been trying to put the show out of its misery for 10 years, if not 20. But always in the past they have run up against some kind of preservation order. If you look at it now, it is an incredible employment opportunity for aging comedians – Bert Kwouk, June Whitfield, Captain Peacock and Captain Humphries off Are You Being Served?, Brian Murphy of George And Mildred and half a dozen half-remembered faces. Any night of the week on BBC Choice, you may see them all, mugging away unconscionably, keeping the comedy double-take before a paying audience, rolling their eyes and scratching their balls. Bring such a thing to an end? Not a chance, because against stupidity, as Schiller wrote, the Gods themselves struggle in vain.

Finally the bullet has been bitten. After one last series, Last Of The Summer Wine will join Keeping Up Appearances in undying perpetuity. A decade from now, you will switch on your television in a hotel room in Rangoon or Ouagadougou, and the repeats will still be going on.

But why not keep it going indefinitely? After all, the BBC has a duty to appeal to every part of the nation’s tastes? Personally, I think it’s a load of terrible old rubbish. But the BBC makes programmes for people who like opera, enjoy darts tournaments, believe that Rolf Harris’s views on painting are worth listening to. The BBC caters for the sort of humourless juvenile morons who enjoy Chris Moyles. For the past 37 years they’ve been catering for their equally humourless parents who enjoy Last Of The Summer Wine. Surely that, too, is an important part of the BBC’s remit? Have they considered this question: what terrible crap can they possibly find to take the place of this atrocious institution?

Supermarkets shouldn’t be selling alcohol at all

Everyone agrees that something must be done about the amount of drinking in this country. It has reached completely unsustainable levels, unrestrained by shame, cost or desire for respectability. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence produced a report last week on methods of curbing alcohol abuse. They recommended intrusive questioning by GPs, a ban on alcohol advertising and, most controversially, a minimum price of 50p per alcoholic unit. Alcohol has become much cheaper in the last forty years, and this must be a contributory factor.

There is, however, a mechanism already in place which would allow increased control over alcohol sales without the extreme solution of minimum price mechanisms. If you want to sell alcohol, you have to have a licence. That goes for supermarkets, too. If alcohol were only to be sold through specialist outlets – off-licences, not supermarkets – there would be no more selling of alcohol as loss leaders. Off-licences can be knowledgeable, expert places, understanding both their product and their clientele in ways supermarkets could never match. If alcohol could only be sold through businesses like Oddbins and Majestic Wine, an unstoppable rise would be capped immediately.

Godard’s films will long outlive him

Sometimes a film dates and withers, almost immediately – have you seen The Matrix Revolutions recently? But sometimes they just stay as fresh as paint, for decades. Fifty years ago this month, a film by a young iconoclast called Jean-Luc Godard was released. Godard said that “all you need for a film is a gun and a girl”, and À Bout de Souffle, or Breathless fulfil all the magic of that line. To watch À Bout de Souffle is to fall in love with the chic flippancy of the storytelling, where policemen die without warning and lovers stretch out for long luxurious minutes in hotel rooms; to fall in love, too, with Jean Seberg’s immaculate bohemian style, and Jean-Paul Belmondo’s beautiful face, as odd as a face pressed against a window.

Every generation discovers À Bout de Souffle for themselves – I envy the young cinema-goers who are going to see this marvellous, yearning, hilarious film for the first time when it is re-released into cinemas after 25 June. If I close my eyes now, I can see Belmondo’s mambo-like stagger down the street after he has been shot at the end – almost every one of Godard’s most magical gestures resembles, in some way, a dance. Godard did wonderful things afterwards, as did every one of that gilded French generation of film-makers. But almost all of them, even masterpieces by Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer and Truffaut, have taken on some kind of period quality. À Bout de Souffle, plunging joyously into the ephemeral textures of the everyday, shooting on the hoof, preserving a season that would never come again in quite the same way, somehow ended up a film which seems always new. That’s true however many times you watch it, and however many years pass since the summer of its first release.