Peter Sallis OBE, the voice of Wallace, is 96 today. What else could his dear friend and partner in folly, Gromit, do but prepare a birthday afternoon tea . Grilled Wensleydale on toast, with a dab of Branston pickle would be ideal.
Peter Sallis became an established actor on television through the success of the long running series Last of the Summer Wine; an original cast member, as Clegg, he appeared in all 235 episodes between 1973 and 2010. With the laconic Lancashire accent we hear in this and in Wallace and Gromit one almost might expect his career to have arisen from performances in Coronation Street, but in fact he was born in Twickenham, west London, and established his credentials on the London stage. He appeared opposite Dame Judi Dench in Cabaret in 1968, and in several classic British films from that period, including Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, and Charlie Bubbles, both with Albert Finney.
In many respects The Last of the Summer Wine represented both the best and the worst of British television comedy. When it started it was a sharp but wry look at the nature of friendship between retired men in a world very different from the one they had grown up and worked in. Having long been accustomed to living and working in a northern community with a tradition of strong and forthright women, be they mothers, wives, sisters or daughters, they often are perplexed by their new aspiration for for equal rights. (Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? explored similar themes among the younger men during this period too.) Over time however the characters became stereotypes, the storylines became cliches, and it became nondescript anodyne ‘family entertainment.’ Perhaps that’s why it remained popular: never underestimate the popularity of the banal.
It’s hardly surprising that in 1989 the arrival of Wallace & Gromit had such an impact, and continues to capture our imagination. It was surprising, novel, and entertaining . It’s not that it came from nowhere, but it was a fresh formula that drew on previously successful formats and directed them towards new, younger, audiences. The two sources that would appear to have most influenced the evolution of Wallace & Gromit are, first, Oliver Postgate, who used stop-motion animation during the 1960s and early 1970s to produce series such as Ivor The Engine, Noggin the Nog, Clangers, and Bagpuss; and then Tony Hart’s Morph which first appeared in 1977. These television programmes probably influenced the young Nick Park (born in 1958) growing up in Preston during the 1960s and 70s. In 1985 Park started work with Aardman Animations, the company that had created Morph for Tony Hart, and the Wallace & Gromit project that he had already started was completed.
Park has said that Wallace is broadly based on his father but both characters draw from the long heritage of comedy: Wallace at times seems like the reincarnation of Robb Wilton (inset left), the mid 20th century music hall comedian whose most celebrated monologues often began ‘The day war broke out my wife said … ‘ – some of which survive as clips on YouTube. Wallace has a propensity for eccentrical inventions, supposedly labour-saving devices but ergonomically inefficient. Gromit, without a mouth but with expressive eyes and the dexterity to survive extreme hazards, is in the tradition of silent movie stars such as Buster Keaton. Together they’re a fusion of Robb Wilton and Salvador Dali, via Heath Robinson and Tim Hunkin. Long may they flourish.
And long may Peter Sallis continue to receive acclaim for his contributions to British television comedy.