Paul Wyett has kindly shared his memories of playing Compo:
- How did you come to be cast in the series?
In 1987 I was at drama college – Manchester Polytechnic School of Theatre – and a previous student at the college Julia Gilbert, who is the daughter of James Gilbert – the producer/director of the first ever series of LOTSW – and who was a friend, told me in about March/April that the BBC were doing FOTSW potentially in the summer and that I should put myself up for it. I was in my final year, had no agent and really was concentrating on the final few college productions and hoping to be good enough to be taken on by an agent. Also I didn’t have an Equity card. I thought no more about it. Then I discovered in May/June that Roy Clarke had been to see one of the productions I was in at the college, ‘Love on the Dole’ – and again I thought no more of it.
I managed to get an agent in London and one of the first auditions that came through was for FOTSW. It was for the part of Compo but I just couldn’t see myself in it. I hadn’t a clue about how to play him. I told my agent as much and she said: “Well the audition will be good experience so just do the best you can”. I’ll be honest I was really frightened of making a dick of myself because I just didn’t know what to do with it. Bill Owen was such a fantastic actor and I knew I couldn’t just do an imitation of him but how else do you play him?
I auditioned at BBC Manchester in my final week at drama college in July and met Gareth Gwenlan and Roy Clarke and they were very friendly and I think I was asked to stand up to read, not sure why. I did a broad Yorkshire accent and pulled a few funny faces, which they seemed to like. A week later I had a recall and then I was in London auditioning for a play a few days after and as I came out of the audition I was handed a telephone by the stage door keeper and my agent had literally just called and she told me I had got the part. I was delighted of course but I didn’t have an Equity card and you couldn’t work without one. So until I got one there was no guarantee I would be able to play the part.
I had a phone call later that week from a very stuck up, snotty nosed gentleman from Equity who wasn’t impressed with my being a graduate from Manchester Poly School of Theatre and proceeded to give me a lecture about how Equity’s job was to protect its current members and not to just give out Equity cards to just anybody etc, etc… It was an odd call, I have no idea what the purpose of it was. But I believe that Gareth Gwenlan had set the ball rolling with Equity and that he had to put forward a case to them to justify giving me an Equity card. It seems weird now but things were very different then and Equity was a bit like an exclusive private members’ club. It took a couple of weeks to sort out but finally I was given a card. All down to Gareth Gwenlan. Rather wonderful of him. So anyway that’s how I got the part.
- How did you go about emulating Bill Owen’s performance as Compo? Did you meet him?
No I didn’t meet him. I wanted to. I would have done had I been a bit more experienced. I wish I had been a bit braver. Shame really. I could have learnt so much from him.
I met him later in December 1989 when we did the BBC’s Children in Need. We talked a little that night and he was lovely to chat to. But we had finished the second series by then and we didn’t talk about Compo… There was no need.
The walk was the one thing I practiced a lot. I never got it right I don’t think. But I did practice it a lot before the shoot. A sort of lazy pigeontoed scuffle. The accent had to be broad, broad Yorkshire. The 1930’s of course meant period costume and that meant there was something completely different to the LOTSW. Something to hide behind in inventing new stuff for the character. Cigarettes featured a lot and chips! And eating is always a good for defining character. So physical things to begin with.
Mainly though there was a boy at junior school called Paul Ripley and he was very impish and mischievous. Good natured but always in trouble. It’s where I got Compo’s grin from. Whenever he was caught up to no good he would screw up his face and grin like a monkey to try and get out of it. A child’s trick really I suppose. But it seemed to work for him!
The rest of course was the character description in the script. His mother was a rag and bone woman I think wasn’t she? And he was described as scruffy and dirty and cheeky.
The costume did the rest. Old and tattered. The boots a couple of sizes too big. Blackened teeth and a pudding basin haircut. Loved that haircut! I’ve had it since quite a few times!
As I mentioned previously I was trying not to do an imitation of Bill Owen. But I think that’s probably what I ended up with. In truth it wasn’t till the second series I think that I found my own version of Compo.
- Which locations did you film at and what are your memories of location filming?
Well I filmed on most of the locations. All over Holmfirth and the surrounding area. What I remember is the beauty of it. Lots of stuff we shot was always on a hillside somewhere so the views were stunning. Yorkshire is beautiful. Green everywhere. Great to be working in that all day. The weather unpredictable as you would expect. So very chilly at times. The air was wonderfully clean! Whenever I got back to London after filming the difference in the air quality was amazing.
The Hyde Park cinema was good. We filmed in there quite a bit. It was a massive undertaking really production wise for a sitcom. All the extras and costumes, catering. I liked filming there. Love cinemas.
Location filming meant staying in Huddersfield for five weeks during the series. The Huddersfield Hotel. The guy who owned it was a real character. Really cool. I liked him.
We partied a lot. There was a night club in the basement of the hotel. We were all in our early twenties so there were many, many late nights. The girls were just as bad as the boys.
Great fun. A few escapades as you would expect… And of course we all had to get up and film the next day. There was always a good breakfast to get you started and then make-up of course.
However I do have one memory from the first series in 1988. All of us having had very little sleep, worse for wear, and first thing in the morning being taken to location and being ferried into make-up and the head of make-up complaining to the 2nd or 3rd assistant director about our condition and I believe she said…”Jesus Christ… Do they always have to be in this state!” She was quite right, because we all still stank of booze. Terrible really. It was the BBC after all.
- What are your memories of studio filming?
In London after location there were six weeks of studio filming per series. A week’s rehearsal and then filming in front of a live audience. One series I think it was a Saturday evening, the other series it was a Sunday evening. The rehearsals during the week I didn’t particularly enjoy it. Spontaneity is lost in performance I think with too much rehearsing for camera. But the technical side obviously was so important that it needed to be rehearsed.
They were all filmed obviously at the BBC White City. I liked the build up to the evening. The rehearsal in the studio with the crew and cameras. The dressing rooms and canteens. It was such a weird building and there were other shows being filmed there at the same time. Lots of coach parties queuing to be seated at various studios. Very busy. It was all bit surreal after location filming.
There is always a warm up man before shooting. I was fascinated by all that. Very Music Hall. When you film in front of an audience you are presented to them individually and then you go on the set and the audience seem miles away. You can hear them laughing, and of course they watch you on a large screen intercut with stuff from location filming. It is the strangest thing I have ever done professionally. I didn’t quite know how to pitch the performance. It was always a struggle. I never really knew what I was doing… technique wise. I did watch what Peter and Maggie did of course – we all did I think. But I followed mostly what David did. I thought David was brilliant on studio days. He was the lead of course and had more to do, but he seemed very comfortable with it, so I copied what he did.
- Can you tell us a bit more about the costumes, sets and vehicles used?
BBC sets and costumes are the best. And as you would expect the attention to detail was unbelievable. In Netherthong that wall and trough near the post office, I leant against it during a take and it was plastic! I was gobsmacked it looked absolutely real up close. Interiors were exactly the same. It took an awful lot of hard work and skill to put it all together.
The costumes, many were made specifically for the actors and their characters. From Nathan and Bermans. Mine too unbelievably! All very expensive of course.
The vehicles were fab. Buses and cars of the period just looked great. A team of people looked after all of them. Wally had a motor bike of course and Seymour his three wheeler car. We pushed it quite a lot I think.
Compo had a motor bike and sidecar in series two. The motorbike was an Ariel. A 1922 grass racing motorbike.
I had been on a motorbike a couple of times when I was in my teens but I couldn’t really ride one and didn’t have a license or anything. The first time I rode the motorbike properly was when the mechanic for the bike said I could test it out during the lunch break. The unit base/location was in a village on a hill where the church scene for the wedding took place and the roads were quiet but nevertheless it was a public highway. I got on the bike and the mechanic told me to go down the hill about a half a mile and turn left into a crescent, turn round and come back, just to get the hang of it. He showed me how to change gear told me to not go above twenty and that if I needed to brake quickly to pull the back brake and NOT the front, otherwise I’d fly off, he said and then we’d all be in trouble. His exact words!
So with no helmet, no license, no insurance, off I went. I bombed down the hill – because obviously I’d been told not to – and turned into the crescent at speed, too sharply and went up a pavement and hit a wall. I think I pulled the back brake but I slid up the petrol tank and smacked my groin on the handlebars. Very, very painful.
Of course I fell instantly in love with it. Wanted to ride on it all the time in between takes, which they let me and I did with David and Paul Oldham in the side car a lot of the time. Up and down all the back streets in Holmfirth. Nobody seemed to mind. I think I thought I was Steve McQueen in ‘The Great Escape’! It was absolutely fantastic.
- Compo had many of the most visually humourous scenes, from dressing up as a gypsy fortune teller to falling into the toilet. Were these fun to film? There were a number of stunt scenes, such as riding on the handcart for the camping trip, being pulled along by the gypsy caravan and dropping through the roof at the cinema, how were these filmed and did you do the stunts yourself?
Yes they were always fun to film. There were lots of them. Every episode there was something. Very enjoyable.
With regards the stunts. I didn’t do all of them. The canal and the gypsy caravan were both stunt men. The canal end scene was me in a big blow up paddling pool full of coloured black water to match the canal, in a car park back in Holmfirth. The caravan I really wanted to do but they wouldn’t let me and with good reason. I watched the scene being filmed and as always these things are pretty hairy to do. I could have been hurt doing that one no doubt about it.
The cinema scene where Compo lowers himself into the middle of the film was me. We shot that scene not in the cinema but in a barn somewhere on a very hot day. It was one of the first scenes we shot of the second series. The bar was suspended from the rafters, a screen in front and back lit. The bar was about 10 or so feet off the floor and I just hung off it with some mattresses laid out on the floor in case I fell… Health and safety wasn’t what it is now! But it wasn’t difficult. Joe Belcher, the Mexican admiral, was great and propped me up during takes so I could wipe my hands and get a good grip, as I said it was very hot, and it was shot relatively quickly.
- What are your memories of working with the older cast members? Peter Sallis, Maggie Ollerenshaw, Derek Benfield
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.
Maggie hung out with us younger lot quite a bit. She was really good fun. I liked her a lot.
Derek Benfield I did a lot of scenes with. He was cool as cool can be. Very well rehearsed, knew exactly what he was going to do in a scene. I wasn’t always sure what I was going to do but he went with everything you gave him. And of course he wasn’t at all like Mr Scrimshaw. He was a very private man. We had lots of chats on set about literature and poetry and films. He was lovely.
- Do you keep in touch with any of the cast?
No. Time passes as they say and we all moved on to other things, different lives. It’s nearly thirty years ago since the pilot!
I was in a play with Paul Oldham not long after the second series at Nottingham Playhouse back in 1989. I was in a television drama for the BBC with Paul again in 2009 but we were not in the same episodes so I never saw him. That happens a lot.
Gary Whitaker and I were in a play together at the Royal Court Theatre in 1991.
Joanne Heywood, I bumped into on the Strand one day about five or six years ago briefly. Lovely to see her and I hadn’t seen her since the series finished.
Judy Flynn I met at again at a theatre night last year. It was nice to see her albeit briefly.
The business is like that you suddenly turn a corner and boom there’s someone you worked with. You have a quick chat and you both have to be somewhere and then they’re gone.
- Do you have a favourite memory and/or favourite episode?
I must confess that I haven’t seen all the episodes of the second series. I must get the DVD. Keep meaning to.
The pilot was memorable as it was shot as a film. Gareth Gwenlan had been an actor as well so I enjoyed listening to his stories and watching him direct. It was my first job too so I have a soft spot for it.
The motorcycle stuff, all of it, as I mentioned earlier, that was just the best. Perfect!
The Gypsy Fortune Teller episode and the last episode when Dilys and Brad get married are probably the ones that stand out to work on. They were a lot of fun. I always liked it when all the cast were together in scenes. There weren’t that many really. The boys had their scenes. The girls had theirs. So I remember those episodes particularly. There are two photos of all of us together on the internet I have seen. One outside the hotel in Huddersfield and the other on a wall in Holmfirth. They’re just great and they capture us perfectly I think. They made me smile.
- What have you been doing since FOTSW ended?
Bits and bobs of T.V over the years. I pop up every now and then.
Mostly theatre though. I’ve worked with some very talented theatre directors and some fantastic actors of course. I’ve been very lucky in that respect. And like most actors I wait for the phone to ring. Which is not always easy. But… Eventually it does and then suddenly you find yourself in the middle of another adventure! That’s how I always think of work. It seems to help!
In 2014 I set up Pimlico Films. The idea being to make a series of short films. Very low budget. I always wanted to try and direct something. I first had the idea back in 1987 filming the pilot!
Along with another producer I made a couple of films last year. One of them ‘Emily goes to Pimlico’ we have just entered into a few film festivals. There’s more work to be done on it I think. Film festivals are a bit of a lottery. But we’ll see what happens. We have a website: pimlicofilms.co.uk
Many thanks to Paul for providing this contribution and supporting the site.