last of the summer wine
Date of Birth: 17 December 1926, Poplar, London, UK
Birth Name: Stephen Lewis
Nicknames: Stephen Lewis, Stephen Cato
In 1960, he wrote Sparrers Can’t Sing, a play about life in the East End that relied heavily on actors’ improvisations. It was a success and was released as a film (Sparrows Can’t Sing) in 1963, with a cast that included Barbara Windsor and Roy Kinnear – although even their talents could not sell the social realist dialogue to a global audience.
The New York Times sniffed: “This isn’t a picture for anyone with a logical mind or an ear for language. The gabble of Cockney spoken here is as incomprehensible as the reasoning of those who speak it.” It was the first English-language film to be released in the US with subtitles.
As Lewis’s career illustrates, a great number of the comedy stars of the 1960s and 1970s came from serious theatre with proudly socialist roots, while television and film started to tap into a growing appetite for working-class drama and comedy. Throughout the 1960s, Lewis took a series of small roles culminating in a large part in the 1969 television play, Mrs Wilson’s Diary, alongside another Theatre Workshop regular called Bob Grant.
That same year, he landed a role in a new series called On the Buses, which also featured Grant as a lascivious bus ticket-collector teamed up with Reg Varney, his equally Dionysian mate.
Although the show was undoubtedly rude, crude and occasionally prejudiced, it offered genuinely witty reflections on the nature of 1970s class conflict. In the world of On the Buses, workers were constantly on strike and after more money; managerial characters such as Lewis’s Blakey were exploitative snobs who thought they had authority just because they wore a badge.
It was plain where the audience's sympathies were supposed to lie: many was the time that a bus “hilariously” ran over poor Blakey’s foot or a bucket of water was tipped over his head. The cry: “I ’ate you Butler” was born of impotent rage. Although Varney the actor was Lewis’s senior, it was still Varney’s character, Reg, that got all the “crumpet”. Lewis was only in his early forties when he took the role of Blakey, but playing ageing authority figures became his stock in trade. In the 1970s, he appeared in the television sequel to On The Buses, Don’t Drink the Water, three big-screen outings of On The Buses and two cinematic sex comedies (Adventures of a Taxi Driver, Adventures of a Plumber’s Mate). He later had parts in the films Personal Services (1987) and The Krays (1990).
In 1988, he played a new character in the long-running BBC series Last of the Summer Wine as the character Clem “Smiler” Hemmingway which he thoroughly enjoyed. “It’s got so much charm,” he said of the show. “I don’t think any other country in the world has comedy like that.” From 1995 to 1997, he appeared in the equally gentle sitcom Oh, Doctor Beeching! In 2007, he stepped down from Last of the Summer Wine because of ill health.
Stephen Lewis remained a committed socialist. In a stroke of irony, however, in 1981 he was hired to promote CH coaches, in the character of Blakey; it was the first private bus company to break the public transport monopoly of Cardiff city council. This was exactly the kind of Thatcherite revolution of which Blakey would probably have approved.
In his diaries, Tony Benn recalled campaigning with Lewis in 1984, describing him as “very direct” and “extremely amusing”.
Date of Birth: 25 June 1935, East London, UK
Birth Name: Raymond William Butt
Nicknames: Ray Butt
Ray Butt, was the original producer of Only Fools And Horses, BBC Television’s award-winning comedy series which was regularly voted the nation’s favourite sitcom.
Its motley cast of eccentric, droll and low-life oddballs was headed by Del and Rodney Trotter, two south London brothers, played by David Jason and Nicholas Lyndhurst, who sold “dodgy gear” from a clapped-out yellow three-wheeler van (“Trotter’s Independent Trading Company, New York, Paris, Peckham”), in a perpetual quest for illusory fortune (“This time next year, Rodders, we’ll be millionaires!”).
The show had its origins in a conversation in a BBC bar between Butt, then directing the sitcom Citizen Smith (1977-1980), and John Sullivan, a former BBC scene-shifter turned scriptwriter whose latest idea for a new sitcom called Readies, set in modern multicultural London, was already causing jitters within the BBC hierarchy.
Over a drink, Butt and Sullivan compared their working-class backgrounds. Butt’s parents had run a stall on Roman Road market, and Sullivan had worked on street markets as a boy. They agreed that the most interesting market characters were the unlicensed fly-pitchers, always helped by a younger lookout, who sold useless goods like fake perfume or bogus designer clothes out of suitcases.
Butt and Sullivan started meeting regularly at Butt’s local pub, the Three Kings on the corner of North End and Talgarth Roads in Fulham, hatching the scenario that would become Only Fools And Horses. When Butt received Sullivan’s initial script, he fell about laughing. “It was marvellous, simple as that.”
Where Readies had rung alarm bells within the BBC, the new script was so enthusiastically received by comedy bosses that a six-part series was commissioned on the spot, without the usual pilot episode to test audience reaction.
But when it came to casting the main part of Del Boy, Butt only settled on David Jason after catching a repeat of Open All Hours in which Jason played the dozy Yorkshire shop assistant Granville to Ronnie Barker’s miserly Arkwright.
Sullivan, however, was not convinced that Jason could create the brash, fast-talking south Londoner he had in mind. Butt stuck to his guns, and invited Jason in to read for the part with Nicholas Lyndhurst, already cast as Del’s gauche younger brother, Rodney, finally persuading Sullivan that Jason would be ideal. He also convinced BBC bosses that even though Jason and Lyndhurst looked nothing like brothers, “that’s the fun of it!”
For all Butt and Sullivan’s high hopes, the first series in 1981 met with a muted response. They felt that the BBC, embarrassed by some of the more “colourful” aspects of the show, had buried it in the schedules. A second series also failed to make an impact, but when the episodes were repeated, they shot straight into the Top 10 ratings. By the end of series three, Only Fools And Horses was drawing 15 million viewers a week.
Eventually it broke all viewing records. Although it ended in 1991, a final three-parter in 1996, in which Del and Rodney discovered a watch worth £6 million, attracted more than 24 million viewers, the highest-ever audience for a British sitcom episode.
Butt found that working with the famously insecure Sullivan could lead to some narrow squeaks. Sullivan always delivered his scripts at the last minute, and by the time Only Fools And Horses was topping the ratings in 1989 he was so pressured that he was sending Butt a scene at a time. Only Fools And Horses won three Baftas and several other television industry awards.
With Sullivan, Butt had further success with the witty but bittersweet romantic comedy Just Good Friends (1983–86), starring Paul Nicholas and Jan Francis; and Dear John (1986-88), about a man whose wife has left him for his best friend.
Raymond William Butt was born on June 25 1935, the son of an east London street trader who had a stall selling sweets and cigarettes on Roman Road market in Bow, the oldest known trade route in Britain . Ray’s father also ran a sweets and tobacconists wholesalers elsewhere in the East End. The story of how his father and business partner cycled to Ascot to sell sweets at the races loomed large in Butt family lore.
As his parents moved around the East End, Ray moved from school to school, finishing at the William Ellis School in Highgate. As a teenager he worked for Tommy Cooper, the future comedian who long before he made a success in show business practised his patter selling ice cream in the Roman Road market.
Butt did two years of National Service in the RAF as an electrician, some of it stationed in Norfolk. His entree into television was accidental: when a relative spotted an advertisement for electricians at the BBC, he applied and was accepted.
Like John Sullivan, Butt was a protégé of the veteran comedy producer Dennis Main Wilson, who had previously presided over such classics as The Goon Show, Hancock’s Half Hour and Till Death Us Do Part. After working his way up from electrician to cameraman, by 1969 Butt was a full-blown director, his first major series being The Liver Birds.
He went on to direct many other BBC shows including Are You Being Served? (1972); Last Of The Summer Wine (1973); It Ain’t Half Hot Mum (1974); Citizen Smith (1977); and Hilary (1984).
After leaving the BBC in the mid-1980s, he directed two sitcoms for the ITV contractor Central in 1989, Sob Sisters and Young, Gifted and Broke, but they made little impact, and he retired at the age of 54.