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SUMMER WINE INTERVIEW WITH STEPHEN LEWIS

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INTERVIEW WITH STEPHEN LEWIS (SMILER)
January 1995
Reproduced by kind permission of Summer Wine Appreciation Society.

Cast as the character Clem Hemingway for the episode "That Certain Smile" Stephen Lewis had no idea that his character would be so popular, and that he would appear again and again on a semi-regular basis. I caught up with Stephen while he was in pantomime in Barnsley to discuss Summer Wine and some of the other favourite characters including Insp Blake of "On the Buses."

Q First of all, Stephen, could you tell me how you started in the acting profession?

I started with Joan Littlewood, the famous Joan Littlewood, in the East London Theatre Workshop Company. I was a merchant seaman at the time but I was a great fan of the theatre, and my mates were as well. I was home at the time and a mate said "Come and see this Company that are down from the East End - they're great." We went and were very impressed. They had this thing of asking the audience if they would like to stay after the show and ask the actors what they thought of it. The curtain came up again and we all sat on the stage and talked to them. Afterwards we went to be bar with them and had a drink and got to know them better. The next week that we came back they did another show and we went to see that, and eventually got to know them. When they came back a couple of years later a mate of mine said "That company are back." We went down to see them and we were chatting away as if we know them. Joan Littlewood was talking to me in the bar. She said I'd said something about what was happening on the stage, so she said "You're so blooming clever, why not do it yourself." So I said "Alright" and she said "We're doing auditions." Just for a laugh I turned up and did a little thing for them and I thought "There's no way." Anyway, afterward in the bar, Joan said she'd let me come in the play. The show got very good notices and afterwards she said "Are you going to be in the next thing?" I replied that I didn't know as I was going off to sea. She was angry with me at the time you know, but I had no intention of becoming an actor.  At that time, I just liked enjoying myself. When I came back again the manager came round and said to me "We're doing a show. Would you like to come and be in it?" I went back with them and stayed. It really got into me. We went into town with The Hostage" and and "Mrs Wilson's Diary". That's how I got into the business and stayed.

Q - Years later you became popular as Blakey in the long running comedy series "On the Buses". What was it like working with the cast?

It wasn't like work at all. It was great fun you know. The scripts were good and it was always worthwhile working on it. It was just easy, something the public knew about - buses.  Everyone used to know about buses. We used to film in the street so we were always with the public, not like in a studio. We went to a real bus station in London to work, and London Transport wouldn't have us. They got a letter from London Transport at the beginning of the series saying that they felt it might damage their image. The director framed this letter and hung it in his office. We had to use Eastern National Bus Company (much laughter) which went out of Wood Green. We had a lot of fun there because they'd had a sort of running strike for three months before we started, so manager/worker relations were not too good, and we got loads of angles from that which I was to embody and put in to the part.

Q - I understand they made three feature films for the cinema after the series. Can you recall any funny or unusual incidents while filming these?

They were all funny. Some of them were quite dangerous. In "Mutiny on the Buses" there's a scene in the bus garage with foam used and I slipped in the foam and went into the pit under the bus. It was real foam we used to make it look good, you know, and I went completely under the foam. While I was down there waiting for the signal to come up I realised suddenly, how dangerous it was, because as I breathed in, the foam went into my throat, and I suddenly rose up and started to choke. I tried to get out of the pit but it was all slippery, and I kept slipping back. It was one of the guys on the crew who realised how dangerous it might be and he started reaching down into the pit and grabbed me. It was him pulling me and more people pulling me up, but I had to be given respiration. It was very, very dangerous. The scene itself looked very, very funny. The director said that it was well worthwhile. There's the one with the lion in the bus in the same film. The favourite is the skid pan from "On the Buses", lavatories blowing up - they're all very dangerous.

Q Which character do you get most recognised for - Blakey or Smiler?

Its Smiler now, because the series is so recent. You know it's really great that all the people who recognise you are complementary. Its nice to know its something they liked so much, and, of course, I'm doing panto now. As I come on stage in different scenes, when I have some sad news to tell the audience I go "Aww Aww" (Smiler impersonation) and the whole audience goes "Aww Aww " with me (much laughter).

Q - On to "Last of the Summer Wine". Were you a fan?

I was always a fan. Its got so much charm, set in countryside like this. I don't think any other country in the world has comedy like that. The characters are so marvellous in the way they're acted and written. Ronnie Hazlehurst's music and everything about it has tremendous charm and good humour, and still little serious bits about life as well.

Q How did you become involved? Did someone contact you and say "This is what we want you to do"?

Yes. The first one I did with Michael Aldridge. They sent me a script and said "Would you like to play this part?" I said I would read it and it was absolutely smashing. It was about being in a hospital, seeing my dog brought to me, and when they showed it to me it was lying upside down with its legs up and I thought it was dead (laughs). It was the only friend I ever had.

Q After that episode ("That Certain Smile") you came back as a semi regular from 1990. Have you any idea why?  Was it that the episode was so popular?

They liked me and asked me to come back again, and I've been doing it ever since.

Q What was it like working with the late Michael Aldridge?

Oh smashing, a great man. He lived at the time quite close to where I lived. I had great regard for him in the show. He was lovely.

Q Has Smiler developed since he first appeared?

No. Only in that all the characters now know about him and occasionally make remarks about him. Yes, I suppose he's now known as one of the community. It's a good character and I like playing the part. I like to spread the little bit of gloom into other peoples' lives! The public love it. They seem to think we're onto a good thing. Funny how misery gets a laugh.

Q What was your favourite episode from the series?

I like  the one with the little tractor thing - the Christmas one ("Stop that Castle") . "Aladdin gets on your Wick" was another favourite, and I very much liked the 1994 special with Norman Wisdom. There are some more coming up that I liked, where I am avoiding Marina ("Concerto for Solo Bicycle"). That's a regular thing now avoiding her. When you're as handsome as me you get women chasing you, and in one episode I jump over a bridge into a river to escape her ("Dewhirsts of Ogleby Hall"). They've set me up as a fall guy now, you know, when they want to get an idiot to stand in they think of me right away. To avoid her, they put me in instead of one of them. I was the lover! Marina was even sitting next to me in the concert (Christmas 1994) - touching my knee.

Q - You were thrown out by Nora at the end of the 1993 series, so where are you living now?

That will all come to light in later editions (much laughter). Well, you've got to hide yourself when you're sought after by women!

Q - Moving on from Summer Wine - what's it like appearing in pantomime?

It's absolutely marvellous. The people are so warm and enthusiastic, and the kids are so warm and loving. It's going to be hard the night we finish. I'm not too happy about it coming to an end as I'll be in tears as well. It's a great experience to meet the people face to face. I wouldn't miss a panto for the world. I've never had such a warm reaction as I've had from the people in Yorkshire - it's been marvellous.

Q You told me that you are appearing in a film for the BBC. What else have you got planned for the future?

Well, I've done a film for television called "The Great Kandinsky" which is based on a character like Houdini. I've got some good stuff to do in that I'm a birdman doing bird imitations, and all sorts of things. I'm also working on a sitcom myself, but I can't tell you anything about that at the moment.

Q - Now there is an "On the Buses" fan club, how do you feel about having two fan clubs?

It means a lot of letters. I've never had as many fan letters as I'm having now. 99 per cent are about Summer Wine, so it shows how popular the show is.

Q - How do you relax between series? What do you like to watch on TV?

Well, I like to watch repeats of "Last of the Summer Wine". I like to watch documentaries and whodunnits. I loved Sherlock Holmes when I was a kid. Things like "Murder She Wrote". I like to watch and work out whodunnits. Some you can spot a mile off, but not always. I like the David Attenboroughs, which are tremendous, and of course "Summer Wine."

Q - Thank you for the interview, Stephen.

Thank you and good luck with the Society.

Interview by Clive S Eardley (President)

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