British actor Peter Sallis, best known for his roles as Cleggy in Last of the Summer Wine and Wallace in Wallace and Gromit, has died peacefully in his sleep at the age of 96.
Peter was born in 1921 in Twikenham, Middlesex, before studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. He made his official stage debut in a 1946 production of The Scheming Lieutenant. Later, from 1973, he appeared in all 295 episodes of Last of the Summer Wine. That's an insane innings, but it's Wallace that Sallis will be forever remembered—that cheese-loving inventor living a life rich of tea and crackers in Wigan with his loyal dog and sidekick Gromit.
When Aardman Animations and director Nick Park released "A Grand Day Out," the first Wallace and Gromit short, in 1989, they gave us two characters with more humanity than plasticine would usually allow.
Sallis' Wallace was a deceptively simple mix of kindness, naivety, and the blindsided selfishness that good intentions can breed. Most of the tension in Wallace and Gromit stems from Gromit having to clean up after Wallace, who is too good natured to see villainy when it presents itself in the form of a cat-burgling penguin or a robotic dog. Viewers, who tended to be children, were so often put in the shoes of Gromit: anguishing in his frustration as he tried to explain to Wallace that not all penguins are good.
It's remarkable then that Wallace remains such an appealing character. Rewatching the early shorts in 2017, the absence of cynicism is intoxicating. He's a pre-Shrek man out of time in the age of the Minion and the gritty Cars 3 trailer. Wallace's priorities don't extend much further than inventing, getting his hands on cheese, and chilling with his dog. The closest thing he gets to irony is Gromit's occasional eye rolls. Mostly the show was just comforting and warm, while Sallis' voice was like Wallace's knitted sweater-vest: odd but right, and a perfect fit despite its ugliness and ordinariness.
It's this balance of the banal, the bucolic, and the absurd that elevated Wallace and Gromit above its early 1990s peers: a thumbprint-marked clay man standing out amongst a bevy of hyper anime Saiyans, warped Nicktoons, and computer generated blobs. In a time when children's programming was decidedly postmodern, Wallace and Gromit dared to be earnest. Wallace's Rube Goldberg contraptions don't feel like a hackneyed 90s kids-film trope, they feel like a genuine extension of the character (Park based Wallace on his own father, who was an "incurable tinkerer.") Sallis' delivery of the line "they're techno-trousers, ex-NASA, fantastic for walkies!" lands with the soft appreciation of someone who knows much but thinks little.
Voicing the main character on a show rife with visual gags, it's easy to overlook the technical nuances of Sallis's work. Early Wallace and Gromit plays out like a Harold Pinter play for under 12s, with Wallace reading the paper while doling out sparse snippets of dialogue and the odd off-topic rant to the ever-quiet, ever-forgiving Gromit. Sallis' lines work as the locomotion in a show that leant heavily on silence punctuated by slapstick. In Wallace was a contradictory mix of tedium and mania. This, after all, is a man who decides to spend his bank holiday on the moon. "It's like no cheese I've ever tasted," he says with a mouthful of moon-rock, "let's try another spot!"
Wallace is simple, but that simpleness is presented without meanness. There's a Zen-like radicalism in his self-sufficiency and his unwillingness to want anything beyond cheese, chats, and relaxation. He's the quintessential low-key contrarian Northerner; a stop-motion moment in a chain of thought that passes through Piers Ploughman, "The Compleat Angler," the Luddites, Robert Wyatt's "Shipbuilding," and the films of Mike Leigh.
It's hard not to think of Wallace in the age of May, Corbyn, and Brexit. A friend of mine once insisted that Wallace is the kind of guy who'd be tricked into voting UKIP, as if Gromit or his innate empathy would allow it (that said, few people know the penguin from "The Wrong Trousers" was based on Nigel Farage.) Wallace (and Gromit) always seemed like a rebuke of the cold indifference of Thatcher, and the inauthentic moralising of Blair. Wallace is the mythic "good citizen," propelled by decency and humanism. Wallace finds himself in trouble because he can't not stop, listen, and help. And as his inventions prove, he's an idealist. Gromit is the realist. He knows you don't need to be catapulted out of bed. He expends all his energy protecting his friend from the fact that the world around them is full of barbarism and knobheads, and that other people's greed extends beyond the odd slice of Wensleydale.
As Wallace says however: "there's no use prevaricating around the bush." What Sallis, Park, and Aardman Animation created in Wallace was an avatar of curiosity and kindness. Bald, bumbling, benevolent: the character stands as a late century signpost of affability and inability, an unknowing advocate of friendship and self-assuredness in the age of uncertainty.
Slow, lilting, upbeat: Sallis lent Wallace a gentleness that feels eerily foreign in 2017. Listening back to those early episodes, you're left with a reverberating sense of wanting. In the age of the shout, the bellow, and the shriek, it's nice to find comfort in a gentle voice. "Let's have a nice hot cup of tea, hmm?"
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