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Bill Owen

Bill Owen.jpg
William John Owen Rowbotham

(1914-03-14)14 March 1914
Acton, Middlesex, England
Died12 July 1999(1999-07-12) (aged 85)
Resting placeSt John the Evangelist Churchyard, Upperthong, West Yorkshire, England
Occupation(s)Actor, songwriter
Years active1941–1999
Edith Stevenson
(m. 1946; div. 1964)
Kathleen O'Donoghue
(m. 1977)
Children2, including Tom Owen

William John Owen Rowbotham, MBE (14 March 1914 – 12 July 1999) was an English actor and songwriter. He was the father of actor Tom Owen. He is best known for portraying Compo Simmonite in the Yorkshire-based BBC comedy series Last of the Summer Wine for over a quarter of a century. He died on 12 July 1999, his last appearance on-screen being shown in April 2000.

Early life and career

Born at Acton Green, London to a working-class family (his father a staunchly left-wing tram-driver),[1][2] Owen made his first film appearance in 1945, but did not achieve lasting fame until 1973, when he took the co-starring role of William "Compo" Simmonite in the long-running British sitcom Last of the Summer Wine. Compo is a scruffy working-class pensioner, often exploited by the bossy characters played by Michael Bates, Brian Wilde, Michael Aldridge and Frank Thornton for dirty jobs, stunts and escapades, while their indomitably docile friend Norman Clegg, played by Peter Sallis, follows and watches with a smirk. He wore a woollen hat and spent much of his time lusting after dowdy housewife Nora Batty. The series, starting in 1973 and finishing in 2010, is today the world's longest-running comedy series. Owen became an icon, a darling of its audience and central to its success and episodes for 26 years, right until his death.[3] The threesome of Compo, Clegg and Foggy (this third character was initially Blamire, played by Michael Bates, and when Brian Wilde's Foggy took a hiatus, replaced by Michael Aldridge's, Seymour Utterthwaite) remains the most popular group of three the show ever produced. Foggy was replaced in 1997 by Frank Thornton's character Herbert 'Truly' Truelove, who remained in the show until its final episode in 2010.

Owen served in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps during World War II, where he was injured in an explosion during a battle training course. His first screen role was in the 1941 short Tank Patrol, produced by the Ministry of Information.

During the 1960s, Owen had a successful second career as a songwriter, with compositions including the hit "Marianne", recorded by Cliff Richard. At this time he also collaborated with songwriter Tony Russell on the musical The Matchgirls about the London matchgirls strike of 1888. He co-starred as Spike Milligan's straight man in the West End hit Son of Oblomov in 1964. Owen also recorded a novelty song with Kathy Staff in 1983 called "Nora Batty's Stockings".

Owen was a regular in the early Carry On films - Sergeant (1958), Nurse (1959), Regardless (1961) and Cabby (1963) and also featured in several Lindsay Anderson films including O Lucky Man! (1973) and In Celebration (1974). On TV had had regular roles playing Fred Cuddell in 13 episodes of Taxi! (1963); Sergeant Sam Short in 13 episodes of Copper's End (1971), George Edwards in 4 episodes of Emergency-Ward 10 and George Chambers in 4 episodes of Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?. He also had a cameo appearance in Brideshead Revisited as Lunt, Charles Ryder's scout during his days at the University of Oxford.

Personal life

Owen was a staunch socialist and supporter of the Labour Party. Peter Sallis described Owen as being "slightly to the left of Lenin" and claimed that Owen's left-wing views contrasted so much with the right-wing opinions of Michael Bates that Last of the Summer Wine was almost not made because of their arguments.[4] Owen was a founding member of the Keep Sunday Special campaign group, and president of Arts for Labour, a campaign group of performers linked to the Labour Party.[5] He was awarded the MBE in 1977.

He was the subject of This Is Your Life in 1980 when he was surprised by Eamonn Andrews in Trafalgar Square.[citation needed]

Bill Owen's grave in the churchyard of St John's Parish Church, Upperthong Lane, Holmfirth
Bill Owen's grave in the churchyard of St John's Parish Church, Upperthong Lane, Holmfirth

Illness and death

While filming the Last of the Summer Wine French special for the millennium of 2000, Owen fell ill but insisted on continuing despite being in pain; when he got back to England, he was confirmed as having pancreatic and bowel cancer.

He continued working right up to his death from pancreatic cancer in Westminster, London,[6] on 12 July 1999.[7] Owen is buried in the churchyard of St John's Parish Church, Upperthong, near his beloved town of Holmfirth in Yorkshire, the home of Last of the Summer Wine. His co-star Peter Sallis was buried next to him after his death aged 96 in June 2017.[8]

Selected television roles

Year Title Role Notes
1963 to 1964 Taxi! Fred Cuddell
1971 Coppers End Sergeant Sam Short
1973 to 1974 Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? George Chambers
1973 to 2000 Last of the Summer Wine Compo Simmonite 185 episodes
1982 Tales of the Unexpected Meakins "The Moles" S5 E6

Selected filmography


  1. ^ Last of the Summer Wine: The Inside Story of the World's Longest-Running Comedy Series, Andrew Vine, Aurum Press, 2011
  2. ^ Barker, Dennis (13 July 1999). "Bill Owen". Retrieved 15 July 2020.
  3. ^ "Index of /nom/nominations/last-of-the-summer-wine-1". Archived from the original on 27 September 2007. Retrieved 15 July 2020.
  4. ^ "Argument 'threatened Summer Wine'". 17 May 2009. Retrieved 26 October 2018.
  5. ^ Grant, Linda (5 May 1991). "Politics Reaches for the Stars". The Observer. p. 86. Retrieved 20 July 2022.
  6. ^ "Deaths England and Wales 1984–2006". Retrieved 26 October 2018.
  7. ^ Dennis Barker (13 July 1999). "Bill Owen". The Guardian. Retrieved 27 December 2018.
  8. ^ "Last of the Summer Wine star Peter Sallis is laid to rest next to co-star Bill Owen in Holmfirth". Huddersfield Examiner. Trinity Mirror Group. 2 January 2018. Retrieved 28 May 2018.