Europe South Asia Asia Pacific Americas Middle East Africa BBC Homepage World Service Education

Front Page



UK Politics







Talking Point

In Depth

On Air

Low Graphics

Monday, July 12, 1999 Published at 21:45 GMT 22:45 UK


Farewell to a Cockney-born Yorkshireman

Bill Owen's role as the loveable rascal Compo attracted a loyal legion of fans

In his woolly hat, threadbare jacket and wellies, Bill Owen, who has died at the age of 85, became one of the nation's best-loved stars as the mischievous Compo in BBC One's Last of the Summer Wine.

As he relentlessly pursued Nora Batty, going wild for her wrinkled stockings and exasperating everyone with his harebrained schemes, viewers shared his matchless portrayal of a pensioner enjoying a second childhood.

[ image: Compo:
Compo: "A geriatric Just William"
Although he had been a successful actor, dramatist and even a songwriter, it was the part of Compo which rejuvenated London born Owen's career.

Last year he recalled: "I became a professional entertainer 63 years ago, but the past 26 have been occupied by a little man in a woolly hat."

Millions of viewers regularly tuned into the gentle comedy to watch the boyish exploits of Compo, Clegg and Foggy (latterly replaced by Truly) in the Yorkshire town of Holmfirth.

Drawn together by loneliness and with a capacity for youthful pranks, the unlikely elderly trio enjoyed a warm and loveable relationship.

Each episode was always marked by Compo's never-ending and unrequited pursuit of the formidable Nora Batty.

Owen summed up Compo as a "geriatric Just William" who never grew up.

Yorkshire love affair

The townspeople of Holmfirth took the actor to their hearts and Owen admitted to a serious love affair with Yorkshire.

[ image: The actor will be buried in Holmfirth where the TV series was filmed]
The actor will be buried in Holmfirth where the TV series was filmed
At the age of 83, he disclosed that he planned to be laid to rest in the churchyard at Holmfirth, for which he had helped raise money for repairs.

He became an honorary member of the Holmfirth Rotary Club, president of the Air Training Corps cadets and held a number of other titles.

However, many of his second generation of fans were unaware of his earlier glittering career, not just as an actor, but as a writer of plays, musicals and popular songs.

Songwriting career

In partnership with Mike Sammes, he wrote the lyrics for dozens of pop songs for the likes of Engelbert Humperdinck, Harry Secombe, Sacha Distel and Pat Boone, as well as Sir Cliff Richard's 1960s hit Marianne.

His steadfast support for the Labour Party and socialism led him to write and perform in a number of great political pantomimes and revues - especially Babes in the Wood and What's Left?

He also adapted the classic novel of working class life, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, for the stage.

[ image: Bill Owen was a successful actor, dramatist and even a songwriter]
Bill Owen was a successful actor, dramatist and even a songwriter
Bill Owen was born William Rowbotham in London in 1914, the son of a tram driver.

His mother worked in a laundry and his grandmother was the local midwife.

He knew from his early years that he wanted to go on the stage, but it was an uphill struggle as his parents could not afford to have him trained.

On leaving school he became a printer's apprentice but, disliked his work so much that he joined a local dance band as a vocalist.

At the age of 18 he took an acting course, paying for his tuition by singing and playing the drums in London nightclubs.

Eventually he was given a job with a repertory company then toured music halls with a cabaret act.

For several summer seasons he was an entertainer at Butlin's holiday camps. He devoted the rest of the year to the Unity Theatre, where he gained great prestige as a producer.

During the Second World War he enlisted in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, reaching the rank of lieutenant, but was forced to return to civilian life after being injured in an explosion during a battle training course.

He went straight back to acting but it was not until early in 1947 in a production of Caste - in which he appeared as a raucous Cockney - that management agencies began to wake up to his potential.

He starred in The Way To The Stars, School For Secrets and Dancing With Crime before signing with the J Arthur Rank Organisation. It was then that he was persuaded to change his name from Rowbotham to Owen.

His first film under this name was When the Bough Breaks and his role of Bill Collins firmly established him on British screens. Also among his 46 movies were Once A Jolly Swagman, Georgy Girl, Lindsay Anderson's O Lucky Man and many of the early Carry Ons, such as Sergeant, Regardless and Nurse.

Co-star to Hepburn

He always insisted his greatest love was the theatre.

"I feel at home there," he said.

He scored a great success on the New York stage as Touchstone in As You Like It, starring Katharine Hepburn.

One of his prized possessions was a photograph showing him playing a scene with Miss Hepburn, which she inscribed: "To Bill, with affection and gratitude - Katharine Hepburn."

[ image: Bill Owen starred with Katherine Hepburn on stage in New York]
Bill Owen starred with Katherine Hepburn on stage in New York
Other stage successes included a 1950 Sam Wanamaker production of The Threepenny Opera, a stint with Sadlers Wells Opera in the Mikado and David Storey's play In Celebration - in the film of which he also starred.

His small screen credits included the 1960s BBC comedy Taxi! alongside Sid James, as well as the classic Brideshead Revisited for ITV.

It is his charming role as Compo, though, for which he will long be remembered.

Before stepping into the role in 1973, he had never tried a Yorkshire accent. Yet the natural ease with which he slipped into it meant that for many it was a surprise to find he had a natural London accent.

"Compo has provided me with some sort of security, which I never had before," he recalled last year.

He was awarded the MBE in 1976 for his tireless work for the National Association of Boys Clubs and for his role as chairman of the Performing Arts Advisory Panel.

Although he had only a rudimentary education himself, he was awarded last year an honorary degree by Bradford University.

Owen's 17-year marriage to first wife Edith ended in divorce in 1964. He married former actress Kathleen O'Donoghue in 1977. He had a son, Tom, and a step-daughter, Kathie.

Advanced options | Search tips

Back to top | BBC News Home | BBC Homepage | ©

UK Contents

Northern Ireland

Relevant Stories

12 Jul 99 | UK
Summer Wine star dies

In this section

Next steps for peace

Blairs' surprise over baby

Bowled over by Lord's

Beef row 'compromise' under fire

Hamilton 'would sell mother'

Industry misses new trains target

From Sport
Quins fightback shocks Cardiff

From Business
Vodafone takeover battle heats up

IRA ceasefire challenge rejected

Thousands celebrate Asian culture

From Sport
Christie could get two-year ban

From Entertainment
Colleagues remember Compo

Mother pleads for baby's return

Toys withdrawn in E.coli health scare

From Health
Nurses role set to expand

Israeli PM's plane in accident

More lottery cash for grassroots

Pro-lifers plan shock launch

Double killer gets life

From Health
Cold 'cure' comes one step closer

From UK Politics
Straw on trial over jury reform

Tatchell calls for rights probe into Mugabe

Ex-spy stays out in the cold

From UK Politics
Blair warns Livingstone

From Health
Smear equipment `misses cancers'

From Entertainment
Boyzone star gets in Christmas spirit

Fake bubbly warning

Murder jury hears dead girl's diary

From UK Politics
Germ warfare fiasco revealed

Blair babe triggers tabloid frenzy

Tourists shot by mistake

A new look for News Online