An Enduring Documentational Experience

Unless you write books or guidance for long-lived technologies, such as assembly code programming or software design patterns, the products of your IT documentational effort tend to have a somewhat limited shelf life. There's always a new version of ASP.NET, Linux, J2EE, or C# just around the corner, ready to be released into the wild a month or so after you finish your latest magnum opus. I know this only too well from eight years of writing books about Active Server Pages and ASP.NET.

However, compared to the real heroes in the writing world, eight years is but a blink of the eye. I can remember as a teenager watching some early episodes of a program called Last of the Summer Wine with my parents, and struggling to see the point of it. Three old men wandering around amidst beautiful scenery wasn't my idea of a sitcom. Yet now, some 40 years later, I'm watching it all over again.

Last of the Summer Wine (LOTSW) began with a trial series in 1973, and was such a hit that it continued until the final episode in August 2010, becoming the longest running sitcom in the world. But after 37 years, 31 series, and 295 episodes, it is no more. Yet, thanks to the wonders of multi-channel digital TV, we can now watch most of the episodes all over again. And I can't get enough.

It's hard to say what it is about the program that keeps bringing me back to watch more of the old episodes. It's not that it was hilariously funny, amazingly fast and sharp, or had the international appeal of Friends, Frasier, and The Big Bang Theory. Nor was it focused on a single character, such as Lucille Ball or Captain Bilko. And the broad popularity of LOTSW means it can't just be that it appeals to my strange sense of humour. For example, when Compo asked Cleggie what a "trice" is (after Seymour mentioned that their latest problem would be "over in a trice") Cleggie's answer was "Well it's like a jiffy, but with three wheels."

Perhaps it's the wonderful scenery - the on-location filming around Holmfirth in Yorkshire is beautifully done; and especially interesting if you've been there and seen the town and countryside around it. Or is it the amazing combination of strange but believable characters that seem to turn the observations of ordinary life into a wonderfully gentle comedy of errors. And there must be some other underlying effect that lulls you into a sense of calm and satisfied appreciation. I suspect it's the lilting guitars and harmonica of the theme tune and incidental music, or recognizing how your Mother also used to put newspapers on the kitchen floor when you came in from outside. Or remembering that (like Compo) your grandfather tended to drink his tea out of the saucer.

For me, though, there's also the poignancy provided by Peter Sallis who bears a remarkable likeness in appearance and manner to my late father. Peter played the lead part of Norman Clegg, and was the only one of the three main characters to have been in all of the episodes. He was a well-respected actor long before Last of the Summer Wine, of course, but is now best known for his "Cleggie". Though you'll probably know his voice if not his face - he is Wallace in the Wallace and Grommit films.

I suppose what prompted all this was watching a documentary about the series this week, featuring the writer Roy Clark. Roy wrote every episode over the 37 years as they filmed on location in summer and then in the studios during the winter. He wrote around changes in the characters as famous faces joined and well-known members passed on, even replacing two of the three lead actors (one several times). Yet none of the changes seemed odd or forced; somehow it all just worked, year after year.

But the point is, how would most IT documentation engineers cope with writing follow-on guidance and updates for a product that changed every year for 37 years? I'd be on ASP.NET v34.0 by now, still wondering how to describe the latest implementation of the Request collections, or document the new features available in output caching. It's hard to see how I would maintain my focus, my interest, and even my sanity.

Mind you, at the rate that Windows Azure is evolving, we'll probably be on version 37.0 sometime next year...

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