On this day in history : 14th March 1914 – The birth of Bill Owen – known to us as ‘Compo Simmonite’ in one of our all time most favourite BBC sitcoms ‘Last of the Summer Wine’….
Last of the Summer Wine was created by Roy Clarke and was broadcast from 1973 to 2010…. With 31 series comprising of 295 episodes it is the world’s longest-running comedy series….
William John Owen Rowbotham was born in Acton Green, London into a working class family…. He made his first film appearance in 1945 and had several parts in early Carry On films…. He co-starred with Spike Milligan in the West End hit ‘Song Oblomov’ in 1964 and also during the 1960s had a tangent career as a songwriter – including the hit ‘Marianne’ recorded by Cliff Richard…. But it was in 1973 that he became a household name when Last of the Summer Wine came to our screens….
The concept for the show came in 1972 from Duncan Wood, the BBC Head of Comedy…. He offered the sitcom to Roy Clarke, who almost turned it down, thinking the idea of three old men dull…. It was he who proposed the three pensioners had to be unmarried/divorced/widowed and so free to roam the streets, acting like juveniles and getting into mischief…. It was also he who chose the title, reflecting that they were not quite in the autumn of their lives yet…. It was not a name that was popular with the producers straight away….
Bill Owen played the part of ‘Compo’, his name coming from the phrase ‘he’s on the Compo’ – meaning unemployment compensation…. The scruffy pensioner, in his woolly hat, would often be bossed around by his friends Norman Clegg (Peter Sallis) and ‘Foggy’ Dewhurst (Brian Wilde)…. He would be the one who invariably bore the brunt of their many misadventures and escapades…. And then there was his unrequited lust for Nora Batty (Kathy Staff) – with her housewife’s pinafore and wrinkled stockings….
Later we saw the introduction of the eccentric Seymour Utterthwaite (Michael Aldridge) and Herbert ‘Truly of the Yard’ Truelove, a former policeman (Frank Thornton)…. The very first trio had comprised of Compo, Norman Clegg and the pompous Cyril Blamire (played by Michael Bates)…. However, after two series Bates retired from the programme through ill-health and was replaced by Walter ‘Foggy’ Dewhurst….
Last of the Summer Wine was filmed around Holmfirth, in West Yorkshire…. It was producer Barry Took who suggested the location for the exterior filming…. The theme music for the show was created by Ronnie Hazlehurst….
It was whilst filming a millennium special in France that Bill began to feel unwell – but he insisted on continuing to film…. Once back in England he was diagnosed with pancreatic and bowel cancer…. He worked right up to his death on the 12th of July 1999…. He was buried in the churchyard of St. John’s Parish Church, Holmfirth – the place he had come to love so much…. (In June 2017 Peter Sallis was buried next to him)….
Bill left behind his wife, Kathleen O’Donoghue, whom he had married in 1977 (he had previously been married to Edith Stevenson, from 1946-1964)….and he had two children – including the actor Tom Owen, who was also to star in Last of the Summer Wine…. 1977 was also the year that Bill was awarded with an MBE….