A new study by academics from Leeds Beckett University has explored the way in which BBC series Last of the Summer Wine has permanently changed people’s memories of the town of Holmfirth in West Yorkshire. Senior Lecturers in Media and Cultural Studies, Dr Lynne Hibberd and Dr Zoë Tew-Thompson, discuss their new research, which has been published in the latest edition of Memory Studies journal.
What we were interested in doing in this research was to look at some of the ways in which media is embedded into our daily lives without us particularly noticing it. We were also intrigued to think about how audio-visual media like films and television programmes are experienced off-screen and so provoke a different kind of sensory engagement. We might physically visit sites of film or TV tourism for example, or we might be in a supermarket when we hear a song that reminds us of a particular movie scene and momentarily re-live the feelings that fictional world provoked.
Holmfirth – Copyright Tim Fields
Holmfirth, West Yorkshire, is an interesting case study because Last of the Summer Wine was filmed there for over 37 years. This has meant the town has literally changed to accommodate it. Just as any business trading over four decades will produce a physical presence, employment, footfall, and a hub of other businesses around it, the presence of Last of the Summer Wine has had an impact on Holmfirth. We see that residual remnants of the TV series are peppered around the town – businesses are named after key characters, shops sell tourist memorabilia, and the whole area is often referred to as being ‘Summer Wine country’. These embedded elements of the series are interesting because over time they start to exist as independent entities which no longer bear any relationship to a TV text. Instead we just refer to them casually as place markers and names of goods and services. Although we use these names as though they’re no longer attached to a text, we’re simultaneously aware of an ‘official’ version of events which says: look, Last of the Summer Wine is important, special, different, because it’s television. So Holmfirth has a tourist bus which takes visitors along a particular route with direct relevance to the series – it guides us around the town to show off specific areas and sights that we might have seen on TV. It brings together fictional identities, events and experiences.
One of the curious things about Last of the Summer Wine is that because it was around for so long people have a cultural awareness of it even if they’ve never watched it. It almost acts as television ‘wallpaper’, we have a sense of it being around in the background, and a general feeling of the type of thing it was even if we’ve never consciously made an effort to take it in. The ubiquity of this type of television means that it’s the kind of thing that’s frequently overlooked by academic studies that tend to focus on the new, latest thing. For its audiences though, this type of television is hugely important – many of its pleasures lie in the way that it’s a stable, routine presence which has its own rituals associated with it.
For us personally, these rituals involve memories of families, Sunday evenings, bedtime routines, tense homework experiences, smells of favourite meals, prints on pyjamas – all the kinds of tiny details that make up our daily lives but that we often don’t focus on.
We can use media to focus on these micro-experiences and so build up a really rich description of people’s daily lives, routines and habits, identifying what’s important to us by looking at the things which are so central to our experiences that we overlook them.
On a global scale, we might say that broadly we tend to see the same kinds of representations of Yorkshire on film and TV – things like Heartbeat, Where the Heart is, Emmerdale (Farm) and The Darling Buds of May - lots of green hills and country life. This is such a pervasive image that all of our respondents said that they’d use Last of the Summer Wine to describe Holmfirth to someone not familiar with the area, even though many of them said they’d never watched the series themselves! This gives a sense in which television, whether factual or fictional, creates cultural memories which are shared and experienced almost as though they’re the real thing. We found that the show connected to people’s memories of specific times: for example, one interviewee related that she knew exactly when the first episode was shown on television because it was the day that she came out of hospital with her youngest son. By acting as a form of cultural memory television can evoke a sense of community, nostalgia and belonging.
Although the series broadcast its final episode in 2010, its presence has been inscribed, embedded and appropriated into the town of Holmfirth and its people. This reminds us that Last of the Summer Wine is not just a cultural artefact but forms part of a wider cultural, industrial and personal memory.