Sunday, September 09, 2007

A Brief Encounter

Going shopping with a teenager demands more physical endurance than I can now muster, and so two hours of hurtling through the malls and department stores of Huddersfield yesterday had about done for me. I was flagging somewhat, and as I reached the exit door of Boots my youngest daughter was already down the steps and out into the street.
Coming up the steps – and at a far more sensible pace – was an elderly man. I was glad of the excuse to stop for a moment, and so I held the door open for him and waited. As he drew level he glanced up at me and smiled. “Thank you,” he said.
It was only when he spoke that I realised who he was: Peter Sallis.

The TV programme ‘Last Of The Summer Wine’ must be into something like its zillionth series, and so Mr. Sallis’s face (as the character of Cleggy) is familiar to all in the UK, but it was his voice that I recognised first - the unmistakable voice of Wallace and Gromit.

There’s a connection between us, though he wouldn’t know it. Twenty years ago, when I was involved in making the children’s TV animation series, 'Bump', we were looking for someone to do the narration. I remember a meeting between the animation team from CMTB and the producers of the series.
“You know who’s got a great voice?” I said. “That guy in ‘Last Of The Summer Wine.”
“Who – Compo? Bill Owen?”
“No, the other one. The one who plays Cleggy: Peter Sallis?”
“Oh yeah, I know who you mean…”
The idea was tossed around a bit, but I think maybe the producers felt that I’d had more than enough input already, what with doing the artwork and the music. And in any case Dennis Hooper, the main man behind 'Bump', already had another actor in mind, 'Hi-de-Hi' star, Simon Cadell. It was Simon who eventually got the job, and very good he was too.

Bristol in the late eighties was a big centre for animation. Everybody knew each other and there was a fair bit of crossover from team to team. Steve Box, new boy on the CMTB team, eventually became Nick Parks’ right hand man over at Aardman Animation, and I think Terry Brain from CMTB also did some work for Aardman.

A couple of years later, when the first Aardman production of Wallace and Gromit was released, I recognised the voice that I’d first come up with for Bump. Peter Sallis. Hey, I told them you’d be good, I thought. Probably just coincidence, but I’ve often since wondered whether my suggestion had subconciously been taken on board, to crop up again at Aardman.

So anyway, I was remembering all this yesterday as I held open the door of Boots the chemist for Peter Sallis. Maybe he was there to buy some Wallace and Gromit shampoo, or some Wallace and Gromit soap-on-a-rope. I bet people keep asking him to say ‘Cracking weather, Gromit’ or ‘I do like a nice piece of Wensleydale.’ Does he bless the day that Wallace and Gromit came into his life, or does he curse it? And is it in any way my fault? Too late to bring it up now of course.
“Thank you,” he said.
“You’re welcome,” I said, and let the gentleman pass by.

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