I was sad to hear today’s news of the death of Peter Sallis OBE, at the age of 96.
Peter appeared in every episode of both First and Last of the Summer Wine, as well as voicing Wallace in Aardman Animations’ Wallace and Gromit films.
When I have been speaking to the First of the Summer Wine cast over the last couple of years they have shared their memories of working with Peter and I include them below as a tribute.
David Fenwick, who played the young Norman Clegg, whilst Peter played his father, recounted:
“I didn’t know Peter was going to be in it at the point of my audition, I don’t think it was talked about at that stage. Obviously later on when I did the pilot, I then met him for the first time in Yorkshire and I was a bit worried he would think I was taking the mickey of his voice. In fact he was wonderful, brilliant, bit scary but he was brilliant.
Peter helped a bit especially in the studios, he didn’t come on location, because he was doing the Last Of series and he was on location quite a long time doing that, he didn’t want to be on the location of ours as well. So he kind of tended to do more of the studio stuff which was back in London, so he didn’t have to travel up to Huddersfield.
Having Peter there was a bit of both, a help and an added pressure. I was very daunted at first but I felt that he was quite happy with what I was doing and kind of left me to my own devices, and kind of expected me to. So we kind of had fun, but we weren’t like bezzie mates.
I already knew him from Last Of, by that time it had been going, I remember talking to him in a hallway of a house in Holmfirth saying I think he’d already done it for like 14 years by then, or even 17 years something like that. It was a long time to have done that and be doing ours as well.”
He went on to recall:
“But I loved, I remember the pilot was my favourite, because there’s a scene which is in the pilot film, which is done in this film studio as I said, and it’s just the two of them [Peter and Maggie Ollerenshaw] and the boy, me, and the sound of this clock ticking and the voiceover goes how boring Sunday afternoons were, and I certainly remember as a kid myself I hated Sunday afternoons because all you had to look forward to was having to go to school on a Monday morning, and Sundays were absolutely boring because nothing was open, all the shops were closed, even in my days, in the 70’s when I grew up, that’s what happened on a Sunday, they were boring. So I remember doing that scene and I had these two amazingly experience actors and by that time I felt quite relaxed about the whole thing and the camera would be really close and I’m in the middle and they’re at the sides and I just burst into laughter because it was like, you know when you get that feeling when you’re in a church or you’re in a school in assembly and you’re not supposed to laugh, but it was the feeling of this absolute boredom, of being married for years and years and years, my character eating tinned peaches or whatever and I loved that and it just made me giggle. I loved working with them both. I liked the breakfast scenes which were done in the studio, they were my favourites. The food was really good, it was proper good sausage and egg and bacon, and I’d get well into that… I loved those breakfast scenes; I think they were my favourite scenes, working with them both, just the timing of them. “
Maggie Ollerenshaw, who played Mrs Clegg, remembered:
“I don’t think I’d worked with Peter before. Obviously I knew who he was and I thought it was a great privilege to work with him because he was an extremely talented and rather eccentric actor and very private person. It was a privilege to work with him.
I can remember the scenes with Peter and David well, in the Clegg’s kitchen. Mainly they used to fill me with dread as well because usually I would have to be doing stuff. I can remember having to cook a breakfast and there was one in the pilot I think where we were almost obscured by the washing, the steam from washing going on at the same time. But I usually had a lot to do in those scenes as well, activity wise. I think I had to do a bit of the cooking of the breakfast at a few points; that was why the food was really good, because it was done for real.”
Linda Davidson, who played Anita Pilsworth, told me:
“Peter Sallis was always a really fabulous character. We stayed in touch until very recently. He came to my wedding and things like that, so we stayed in touch. He’s a laugh, a real laugh, a very dry sense of humour and a total gentleman.
I think going in front a studio audience is terrifying. And filming in front of that, the cast really came together for that. Peter went out at the front at the start of the filming every time. They had a warm up person but Peter then would go out because he’s much loved, he’s a British treasure isn’t he? And the audience really warmed to him so it was really easy to go on and film the scenes and for us to have a nice warm appreciative audience.”
Paul McLain, who played the young Seymour Utterthwaite, explained:
“Peter in particular we all knew from Last of the Summer Wine and he was just fantastic. Maggie and Derek were just such brilliant character actors and we all knew them and had seen them in so many different shows. The benevolent, not just ability, but professionalism that they brought, because bear in mind that the rest of us were so young, most of us had probably only been working for six months, twelve months, eighteen, except for Paul Oldham who’d been working in the business as a child star for a while. So hugely different for us and it took us a while to get into the swing of how professionals worked. We’d done stage school stuff and odds and sods here, there and everywhere, but actually that professionalism, turn up, know your lines, do your work, try different things. We learnt so much from watching them plus we were in awe of them. Great to be around. David Fenwick of course did most of the work with Peter and Maggie and that must have been fantastic for him.”
Paul Wyett, the young Compo, also commented on Peter’s professionalism and skill:
“Well Peter and Maggie and Derek were great professionals. Very supportive and fun to work with. I didn’t have many scenes with Peter and Maggie of course. Peter was very quiet really with sparks of humour now and then. I had a few conversations with him not many. Great to observe as a young actor. He did very little in front of camera but it was very effective. And of course he had a very distinctive voice wonderful to listen to him speaking.”
Richard Lumsden, the young Foggy, added:
“They [Peter, Maggie Ollerenshaw and Derek Benfield] could not have been more helpful. Peter & Maggie were always inspiring to work with.”
Sarah Dangerfield, who played Ivy, recalled:
“Well Peter was quite a quiet soul and kept himself to himself, it’s amazing that he’s 95, but lovely to watch obviously. As I say he did keep himself to himself, but had a wonderful, very dry sense of humour and used to come out with some marvelous tips and advice and sort of odd one liners and he did used to have all of the youngsters really laughing but he was quite quiet and he would keep himself to himself.”
Gary Whitaker, the young Wally Batty, shared a lesson in acting he learnt from Peter:
“Peter Sallis, I actually only did one scene, I think, with him. I think apart from David and Maggie, all of us only did one scene with Peter. It was one of the very final scenes, in the studio, of the very final episode. It was the wedding party. I remember we were all sat round the table in the North Acton Rehearsal Room and it was Peter’s turn to read out the wedding cards. It felt like wow, we’re finally working with Peter. After a pilot and two series we’re suddenly getting to work with the great man. It’s one of the memories that really sticks out for me actually. I remember him seeming quite nervous suddenly, in the rehearsal room, when he was reading out these cards. We were eagerly watching him, with anticipation. He started reading out the wedding cards and he suddenly stopped and said, “Look I’m sorry everyone but I’ve been doing this series for two years now and I’m suddenly being required to act!” Everyone burst out laughing. He had to do this very emotional stuff, reading the cards out. We rehearsed the scene and he read the cards out and then we came to the bit where he had to read out the bad news. I just remember the hairs on the back of my neck going up. He did it so beautifully and completely the opposite of what I’d been expecting. I’d read it to be this great big acted tragic, emotional moment but he did the complete opposite and underplayed it. So effortless. He threw it away for almost nothing and for a young actor like me, that was huge lesson in how to act. Less is more. I took that away with me and remember telling a director friend of mine what had happened and I said, “I wish I’d told him how powerful it was”, but I never got the chance. That kind of subtle acting really affected me and I think Peter, and David as well, were very subtle in their performances. That’s something I’ve tried to do as an actor, to continue to keep learning to do less, I don’t think you can ever stop learning to do less really.”
He went on to say:
“I met Peter again a year or two later when I was filming for the first series of The Brittas Empire, which Mike Stephens also directed. All of the Last of the Summer Wine boys were in the canteen, so I went over to his table and they were eating. I said a quick hello and Peter stood up and he was really friendly, asking if I’d enjoyed working on the series and enquiring how it was all going. Then Michael Aldridge stood up and started chatting, he was so chatty, going on about the series, “We haven’t seen it yet, we haven’t seen it, I’m really looking forward to seeing it.” It was a nice way to end it all, to finally meet the old Summer Wine boys. I was really glad to have had chance to meet the old lot before it was too late. Bill Owen was there as well, but I remember he kept himself to himself but he was very polite too.”
So Peter Sallis remembered as a quiet and humourous gentleman, a supportive co-star, a professional and skilled actor, liked and respected by the First of the Summer Wine cast.
Peter Sallis OBE
1921 – 2017
“RIP to my TV Dad” – David Fenwick