Gary Whitaker has kindly shared his memories of playing Wally:
1. How did you come to be cast in the series?
It’s funny because I read through your questions today and I was thinking that it was 30 years ago this year that we’d started filming. It really does feel like a lifetime ago! I was just 18 when I heard about it. There was an advert in The Stage, as I recall, saying BBC TV were looking for young, 18 year old actors from the North of England or Yorkshire. This was back in the mid-80’s when you could still get decent auditions from The Stage. Nowadays there is nothing in there, the professions completely changed since the 80’s, when we still had Equity cards and things like that. I responded to the advert and a few months later I got a call from my agent at the time saying they’d like to see me for First of the Summer Wine. I’ll never be fully sure whether it was my letter that got me the casting or my agent, my guess is it may have been a bit of both. I certainly think writing for jobs is a really good idea because I’ve landed quite a few good things from taking the initiative and writing myself. I had to go in and meet Gareth Gwenlan and Dorothy Andrew, who was the casting director. She was responsible for Brookside as well which was quite exciting as I was a big Brookie fan back in the mid-80’s. I remember them saying to me they were interested in me for the part of Wally Batty because I was the right height! They said to me unfortunately we really need someone who can do the voice and we haven’t met anyone who can. It’s vital we get the voice right. What’s quite coincidental is that this was in the summer of 1987 and in the spring of ’87 I’d been filming for BBC Schools a series in Gillingham, where there’s a place called Gold Hill. Gold Hill is where they made the Hovis commercials, it’s a really steep hill. Joe Gladwin, who played old Wally did the voiceovers for Hovis. “He were a great baker, were our Dad. He would get up every morning and bake fresh brown bread.” I could already do the Hovis impression anyway. It was weird that 3 months after having filmed by the hill where they did the Hovis adverts, doing Joe Gladwin impersonations, I’m suddenly going up for the part of Wally. Anyway, I read a couple of lines, I think it was, “I’ve got a steady job on the railway” from the pilot. I remember both Gareth and Dorothy laughing their heads off and they said straightaway, “Great! We’d like you to come back and meet the writer” and I was like ‘oh brilliant’! I went back a few weeks later to meet Roy and Gareth and it was a very, very quick recall. They just asked me to read the same lines again, which I did and then Gareth said to Roy, “Do you want to hear any more?” and Roy just said, “No, that’s alright, you can bugger off now!” That was the only time that I met Roy Clarke, the first and only time. I’ve read on your website that there’s quite a lot, the guys particularly, who only met Roy the once. It’s a shame, I would have loved to have met him more. So my one and only moment meeting Roy Clarke was him saying, “That’s alright, you can bugger off now!” It was the easiest casting I’ve had in my life! I wish they were all like that!
2. How did you go about emulating Joe Gladwin’s performance as Wally? I presume you did not meet him as he had died before FOTSW was filmed?
He died in March of ’87 and we started filming in the summer of ’87, which was a real shame. I think he was about 81. I would have loved to have met him. As I’ve said, I was already able to do his voice but I had to be very careful not to send up the voice in anyway and make it completely natural. It would have been very easy to go into caricature but this was a person with a speech impediment, so you can’t send it up, it wouldn’t have worked. I had to try to tone it down as much as I could. I hope I succeeded. Some sentences were really difficult to say. There was one when I had the bike and I had to say, “You can wrestle it easier in your overalls,” There were lots of r’s in that sentence, so that took quite a bit of mouth training to do. I never met Joe but I heard so many lovely things about him from people who’d known him. He was apparently a real pillar of strength in the Catholic Church community in the North of England. Jane Hazlegrove, a very talented actress who I’ve worked with before, knew Joe from the church. She told me what a lovely man he was and how pleased she was that I wasn’t in anyway sending up his character. It felt really good to hear that from someone who knew him. Also Kathy Staff, the lovely Kathy Staff who played the old Nora, I used to meet her in the canteen at the North Acton Rehearsal Rooms, where we rehearsed First of the Summer Wine. I’d go over and chat with her. She was just so lovely. She kept talking about Joe with such fond affection and she’d say, “Oh, I would have loved you to have met Joe.” She was obviously very, very fond of him. She was filming a series of her own called No Frills, which I think only went out for one series, even less than ours. I remember talking to her about it and how gobsmacked she was that she’d been given this leading role. I said, “Have you got a nice part Kathy?” and she said, “I’m the lead!” She said it with such incredulity, she was obviously such a lovely humble lady. That was one of the lovely things about the rehearsal room; you would meet all these fantastic people. I ended up going to see a live performance of her show; she gave me a couple of free tickets, which was nice.
3. Which locations did you film at and what are your memories of location filming?
Do you know I actually don’t remember that much about location filming. I do remember we were obviously in Holmfirth when we were outside the Epidemic Fisheries, which was the old Café wasn’t it. That was a real nostalgic moment! The opening credits titles where you see those girls running down the stairs that’s right next to there. I used to love filming in Holmfirth. That was very memorable. Also Netherthong, I did a few scenes there and loads of stuff on top of the Yorkshire moors. God’s Own County, as we Yorkshire people say! The weather was very changeable, I remember that. We’d spend some days waiting on the bus all day, waiting to film and then eventually at 6 o’clock they’d say ‘we’re not going to go today’. We’d have been on a bus for 12 hours, waiting to film and eventually they’d say ‘the light’s gone, we’ll come back tomorrow’. One day it was beautiful, the next day you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face for the fog.
Had you grown up watching Last of the Summer Wine? Were you a fan of the show before you got the part?
Yes, I was a fan in the early days, in the very early days. I remember watching it with my Mum and brother. It started in ’73 didn’t it? Peter Sallis, Bill Owen, and Michael Bates were the first characters – so I remember as far back as that! I do remember my Mum really loving it but I kind of lost interest in it as I became a teenager. I enjoyed the Foggy years but lost interest in the Seymour years if I’m honest and I didn’t really watch it after that. I know, from your site, people have told you about how Roy wanted to phase out Last of and bring First of the Summer Wine through. When I was filming a TV series called In Deep, the producer on that also ran a production company with Roy Clarke and he told me how saddened Roy was, that Roy’s big regret as a writer was that he couldn’t pursue First of the Summer Wine. I think if Gareth Gwenlan had stayed as the Head of Light Entertainment it would have gone on for years, as First of the Summer Wine was his baby. Robin Nash, the new Head of Light Entertainment, came in and one of the first things he did was to scrap the series because of the cost. So, there you go. C’est la vie! I remember people in the series Bread saying to me that Bread only took off after series 3 and you should really give it three series to judge it on its merits. It was packing in 6 million viewers by the end so it was starting to really pick up. I think Mike Stephens, who directed both series, wasn’t happy when they ended it and he’d wanted to do a Christmas special, so that it didn’t end on such an abrupt note. It was a good idea, but it never happened.
4. What are your memories of studio filming?
I really loved studio filming, particularly the build up to it. We’d rehearse at North Acton Rehearsal Rooms all week from Monday to Friday and we’d film on the Sunday night at BBC TV Centre Shepherds Bush. I just loved being in the North Acton Rehearsal Rooms. I think it was on 6 floors with all these different rehearsal rooms filled with writers, directors, actors all rehearsing for the programmes that they were making. A huge hub of creativity. You’d go to the canteen and you’d recognise all these faces. I remember the great actor Edward Asner was sat next to me once, Luke Grant from the Mary Tyler Moore Show, an American TV star. This was incredible for an 18 year old actor just starting out, to be in a room with these incredibly talented people. Lenny Henry was always in there, you could always hear him! That was wonderful. I loved it because we didn’t really get chance to rehearse much on location. Not rehearsing is pretty much standard on any film or TV. When you’re on location you get your lines, you quickly run through it with your fellow actors, they might say let’s rehearse it quickly for camera angles and then you film the scene. There’s no in depth rehearsal and I found that incredibly frustrating, because I love the whole rehearsal process that you get in theatre. It felt much more like the theatre than TV when we were in the studio because we’d get to really rehearse and perfect the scenes that we were doing. We’d then get to perform it in front of a live audience. I suppose theatre has always been my big passion, I felt really at home doing all of the studio stuff. Then there was BBC TV Centre in Shepherds Bush. I used to love that building and “The Doughnut” as it was affectionately termed. I used to love everything about that place. I actually went back there 4 years ago for an audition, and the building had completely closed down, but this director who had worked there all his professional life had decided he wanted to have one last day in the building. I don’t know how he got permission but I went into BBC Shepherds Bush and it was completely empty! All these amazing rooms, where they’d made all these incredible programmes had police tape around and were cordoned off with signs ‘Do not enter’. The only thing missing was the tumbleweed! It was spooky and quite eerie. I remember going past the studios where we filmed ‘Summer Wine’ and just feeling, sensing all those memories. It was really bizarre, sad in a way, because it was such a wonderful building and I’ve got so many happy memories, not just of ‘Summer Wine’ but of other things that I’d filmed there. Now of course it’s posh flats for the super-rich. I find it really tragic. I’m not sure why they needed to close down such an iconic building but there you go.
5. Can you tell us a bit more about the costumes, sets and vehicles used, in particular Wally’s motorbike?
Yes I could tell you a bit more about the motorbike. In terms of costumes I had my railway gear, my LNER cap. I was really delighted when they gave Wally a bike at the end of the first series. I’d never ridden a motorbike before. I remember practicing in Brixton on my friend’s Kawasaki, which was nothing like a 1930’s Triumph. I loved the Triumph, it was a beautiful bike, obviously a bit too heavy for Wally! What I really loved was getting to do all those stunts. They said to me would you be up for doing some stunts in the first series. I was like, yes please; I didn’t want them to use a stuntman! So I got to do all these stunts which I really enjoyed doing. I was really disappointed when it came to the second series and they brought a stuntman in. It was probably because of insurance, as we were into series two and we were probably worth a bit more money. So they got a stunt guy in to do the stunts and I was like, “why not me, I could do it”? I was also disappointed as you could clearly see, when you watched it, that it wasn’t me, that it was a stuntman. He was ten inches taller than me for a start! I thought the stunts were far too clever, far too professional, not the sort of thing I think Wally would have been able to do, all these balletic poses. But I loved the bike, yes good memories!
6. Wally was at the centre of the physical comedy on a number of occasions, from hanging off a bridge to being dangled from a cinema balcony. Did you enjoy filming these scenes?
They were brilliant, I loved all of the physical comedy stuff. I really enjoyed it because I think in the pilot there wasn’t that much physical comedy. I really enjoyed it when the series came along and we got all this good physical stuff that was reminiscent of Last of the Summer Wine. I was obviously really delighted from having played a small role in the pilot to Wally becoming much more heavily featured; I was really pleased that Roy did that.
The dangling off the bridge, falling into the water, that was a lot of fun. I remember when we did it and I shouted, “I’ll be alright,” and then you see him in the water. When we did the take, I landed on my feet in this deep stream and the director was happy with that. We were going to move on to the next scene but I said, “Do you mind if we try one where I actually fall back into the water because I think it would be funnier if he falls off a bridge and he gets absolutely soaked?” Mike Stephens, a fine director, was always really good at letting actors come up with their own suggestions, he was well up for it, but obviously we could only do it in one take because we didn’t have another costume. So we did it and I fell back into this water but I wasn’t quite prepared for how cold it would be. Absolutely freezing! I was really glad that we did it that way and didn’t just have him land on his feet, I think that would have killed the comedy a bit. It was freezing but it was worth it!
Hanging from the cinema balcony was really good fun as well. They hired a professional stunt wire company to keep me secure for the hanging scene, so I felt very secure and safe coming down with my bag of Pontefract cakes for Nora. Working in that beautiful old cinema was a joy.
7. What are your memories of working with the older cast members? Peter Sallis, Maggie Ollerenshaw, Derek Benfield
Well Maggie, as others have testified, was a lot of fun. She was one of the gang. I remember one time we drove up to Basingstoke to see Richard in a play and I just remember it being a lot of fun and enjoying her company and all her stories, she had incredible stories.
Derek was a lovely gentleman. What some people don’t realise is that he was not only a very successful actor but a very successful playwright as well. He’d written all these great farces and had very successful actors performing in them, like Arthur Lowe and John Inman. I remember having really good chats with him about his writing. He came to see me in a play that I was in, in London in the 90’s and he was just so lovely. He called me the next morning at my home to just thank me and say congratulations on the play. I just thought what a lovely gesture. That was typical Derek really; he was just a great gentleman, a lovely actor.
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.
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.
8. Do you keep in touch with any of the cast?
Not anymore, I did keep in touch with Julie or Judy, as she’s known professionally, for a while. We both lived in south London so we’d meet up. I was friends with Paul Oldham and I used to keep in touch with him. I remember going to one of his famous 24 hour parties near Manchester! I actually worked with a few of the cast on different things over the years, different projects. Also, when I was working at the Royal Shakespeare Company, at The Barbican and in Stratford, I’d see Richard, as he was dating Sophie Thompson, who was also in the play I was in, Emma’s sister. I believe they married. Maggie also came. I played a guy who thought he was an alien in an Ayckbourn play and I remember her coming to the stage door and saying, “I always thought you were an alien!”, we had a good laugh. When I was at the Soho Theatre in London, about 15 years ago, Paul Wyett’s wife at the time, the brilliant Sally Rogers, was also in the play, so I’d see him occasionally. Joanne came to a gig that my girlfriend, now my wife, was in at the Dublin Castle in Camden, way back. Eventually you lose touch though but I’m glad to read how well everyone’s been doing.
9. Do you have a favourite memory and/or favourite episode?
I loved the Gypsy Fortune Teller because it was one of Wally’s storylines, about him trying to get with Nora and using a gypsy fortune teller. It was also very funny and had loads of slapstick, some really good stunt work, a very funny episode. I also loved the final episode, I thought that was really beautifully written and beautifully filmed, a very moving episode. They were my favourite two.
In terms of memories, obviously kissing Nora in the cinema was a highlight! Paul Oldham and Judy made me laugh a lot on set; I remember having a lot of fun with those two. One of my big memories was the press call when we were in series one. We were told we had to go to this place in Holmfirth to meet the press. I didn’t know what to expect. We were taken into this room, it was absolutely heaving with press, pretty much every tabloid and all the paparazzi were in there. We were shunted from table to table, to chat with all these different journalists. I was only 19, so it was a bit of an eye opener, a bit terrifying if I’m honest. Then we had to go outside and have loads of photographs taken. I remember Miss Holmfirth was there! Don’t ask me what she was doing there, but they took a photograph of us all with her. The next minute The Sun reporter comes over and whispers in my ear, “So Gary tell me what’s been going on between you and Miss Holmfirth!” I said, “I’ve only just met her this very second!” The paparazzi were taking all these pictures but they weren’t that interested in the boys, they were much more interested in taking pictures of Nora, Helen. I remember them getting her to stand next to this old fashioned car and it was horrible, they were screaming out, “Helen, Nora, lift up your dress, show us your wrinkled stockings, higher, higher”. I really felt for Helen, it was all getting a bit lurid. Funnily enough I also had my camera with me and I very jokingly turned my camera on the paparazzi and said, “Alright guys, lift up your trousers, show us your legs!”, which made everyone smile. A day or two later, in The Huddersfield Hotel, we were all at breakfast and someone had bought all the papers. So there we were, all sat at the breakfast table, opening all these newspapers. We were all featured in the centre pages of all the national newspapers. We were all like ‘what the heck’! There was even the Today paper, the all colour Today newspaper, remember that? It was a really bizarre time.
10. What have you been doing since FOTSW ended?
Blimey, the last 28 years! I’ve been working at some lovely theatres like The Royal Court, RSC, The Royal Exchange, Chichester and West Yorkshire Playhouse. I played young Joe Orton in Loot in the West End. I worked a lot with Sir Alan Ayckbourn and Max Stafford-Clarke, two doyens of British Theatre, they had a huge influence on me. Recent TV and film stuff were; The Arbor, a film by Clio Barnard, about playwright Andrea Dunbar, who wrote the cult film Rita, Sue and Bob too. Andrea and I grew up on the same Bradford Council Estate and I actually played myself in that movie. Melancholia, a Lars von Trier film. I drove a stretched limo in that movie, not very well! The Red Riding trilogy for Channel 4. Also Bloody Sunday by Jimmy McGovern. We filmed in Derry, Northern Ireland, where Bloody Sunday occurred, it was really harrowing to film that. I even, finally, did Coronation Street – just to please my mother. She’d been nagging me for years, “Son, when are you going to do Corrie? I finally succumbed, so she can retire peacefully now! I’ve just finished filming Borg and Brown, an Anglo-Swedish comedy series that pokes fun at all the Nordic Noir police series, such as Borgen,The Bridge, The Killing. That’s coming out later in the year in Sweden and then hopefully in the UK. A huge life change for me though came in 2005. I moved to Sweden, with my wife, who is Swedish. We have three children and we wanted to move there for a better quality of life for our kids. In 2006 we tried putting on our own plays in English. We started out with no money, actor friends came over from the UK to help and it was a huge success. Ten years and nearly thirty productions later and we now have our very own studio theatre. We get three yearly funding and are able to do all these wonderful new plays. Our mission statement is introducing new writing, plays that have just come out of The Bush, The Court, The National etc. It’s fantastic getting to work with all these wonderful writers. Our website is www.gest.se. We’re called the Gothenburg English Studio Theatre and we’re now the largest professional English theatre in Scandinavia. I’ve directed many of the plays but we also work with directors from the UK. All our actors are hired from the UK too. I’ve probably directed more than I’ve acted in the last few years. It just feels like a natural progression. I work as freelance director and have had stuff on at The Young Vic, London and also Manchester, Edinburgh and Italy. Last year I directed a play for one of the Swedish state theatres, in Swedish. It was the first time I’d directed in another language and was quite a learning curve. At Gest we feel it’s really important to look after our actors. We’re really well funded so we’re able to pay our actors better than most English repertory theatres. It’s getting tougher to be an actor, it was much easier back then than it is now, so we try to keep a look out for young actors, especially from poorer backgrounds. We’re witnessing the gentrification of the profession and of housing in London. The acting profession has been pretty kind to me, I think it’s really important to give something back. It would be really lovely if we could get some of the Summer Wine gang over here to Sweden to act in a play, a sort of mini-reunion. Then again we could always wait until they cast us for the Last of the Summer Wine remake!
Many thanks to Gary for providing this contribution and supporting the site.