In Memoriam: Peter Sallis

❉ Best known as Clegg in Last of the Summer Wine and the voice of Wallace, Sallis enjoyed a surprisingly diverse career.

Most actors are never lucky enough to be known for a single iconic role.  Even fewer actors manage two such roles.  Peter Sallis, who died on June 2nd, 2017, was lucky enough to be remembered for three such parts, although his body of work is considerably more diverse than those would suggest.

Peter Sallis had been a successful actor for more than twenty five years before audiences were introduced to his long-running character Norman “Cleggy” Clegg in long-running sitcom Last of the Summer Wine.  A decade later he voiced Rat in a long-lived series of animations based on The Wind in the Willows.  Five years after that he provided the voice for a character who would gain world-wide fame: Wallace, of Wallace and Gromit fame.  Any one of those parts would ensure a legacy worth celebrating, but to be known for three is remarkable.

Born in Twickenham, Middlesex, in 1925, acting came late for Peter Sallis: it was during the war that he took part in an amateur stage production whilst in the RAF.  He instantly knew that acting was his preferred vocation and joined RADA as soon as the war ended.  In 1947 he found his first work on television (as Peter Quince in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream), although the theatre provided a regular income as television work did not become regular for Sallis until the 1950s.  A starring turn as the famous diarist Samuel Pepys in a fourteen-part adaptation of the writer’s life was shown on BBC1 in 1958, but Sallis was never one to seek lead-role status and was content to take character parts for the rest of his career.  A modest and quiet man, he preferred to work and was famously publicity-shy.  As is so often the case with actors who favour character roles, Sallis was never lost for work: his appearances throughout the 1960s saw him in such programmes as Danger Man (1961), The Avengers (1964), Sergeant Cork (1964), Public Eye (1965) and Doctor Who as Penley in The Ice Warriors (1967).  His Doctor Who role illustrates particularly well the attitude Sallis had to acting – he takes the role seriously, refusing to send-up the production, and impressively is more than capable of holding his own against notorious scene-stealer Peter Barkworth.

Despite the success of Last of the Summer Wine, Sallis continued to be as busy throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, appearing on the stage, on television and films in every genre there is: sitcoms and children’s series on TV, absurdist dramas directed by Orson Welles on stage, and on screen in comedies and horror films (both Scream and Scream Again and Taste the Blood of Dracula were released in 1970).

Nevertheless, it is for Norman Clegg that most people in the UK will recognise Peter Sallis, which is hardly surprising given that he played the part in 295 episodes over more than thirty seasons.  Sallis himself freely admitted that the quiet and retiring Cleggy was probably closer in character to himself than any other he played, and being the only actor to appear in every episode was bound to ensure long-term recognition.  It is fitting that just as Cleggy is the most “normal” of the trio of old men whose adventures we join, so too is his Wind in the Willows rat, balanced against the exuberance of Toad and the reticence of mole.

At a time when many actors are considering retirement, Sallis was to find worldwide fame as Wallace in the series of animated plasticine adventures made by Nick Parks.  Parks has said that he had only ever considered one person right for the part of Wallace, and the enthusiasm and relish Sallis brought to the role would vindicate Parks’s decision: as charming as the animation is, a great portion of its success is due to the strengths of Sallis’s narration, which is warm and inviting without ever becoming whimsical or sentimental.

Living to 96 is no mean feat in itself, so we should look back on Sallis’s work with admiration, rather than sadness.  That much of it is available on DVD is nothing short of miraculous and provides ample chance for the television enthusiast to find themselves unexpectedly pleased when Sallis pops up in an episode of The Pallisers (1974), Tales of the Unexpected (1980) or The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (1973).  His work is always with us, and it’s an unexpectedly rich and diverse body in which he never gave anything less than an honest and compelling performance.

❉ Peter Sallis OBE (1925-2017) passed away at the Denville Hall retirement home for actors in Northwood, north west London, on Friday June 2nd, 2017.

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