Sunday 19 June 2011

SHUT UP!!!!!!

Of course, what really differentiates a Seventies blog from an Eighties or Nineties blog is that the former has to deal with social attitudes and assumptions, and therefore cultural products, that may have been worthy on their own terms, but totally unacceptable decades later.

The above song, which was a number one hit during the long hot summer of 1975, was performed by two regulars of the most popular World War II based comedy of the 1970's, written by "Dad's Army" writers David Croft and Jimmy Perry. Only it wasn't the rather lame and over-polite "Dad's Army" that they came from; it was from a much more prickly, class-conscious show. Alas, it was also a show in which the common racial stereotypes of the 1970's were upheld. That said, much of the rather treacley over-fondness that is now ladled over "Dad's Army" is partly due to a sense of guilt over the deliberate forgetfulness applied to "It Ain't Half Hot Mum".

The military is always a good medium to examine and ridicule class relations, and "It Ain't Half Hot Mum" was a more acidic dissection of the underlying tensions of British society than "Dad's Army". Like the latter programme, "It Ain't Half Hot Mum" offered a gallery of British class stereotypes - from blithering idiot upper class officers to the resentful members of the lower ranks, all held together by Windsor Davies' Sergeant Major Williams; the classic foreman, elevated from the working class to lord it over the rest of them, his small advance in rank provoking a torrent of gleefully malevolent abuse on those who were now below him.

Set on the Burma Front of 1945, Williams was forced to oversee an ENSA concert party full of female impersonators, intellectual Oxbridge-graduate musicians, and physically stunted tenor sopranos; all terrified of the Japanese and unanimous in their desire to escape Army life. Windsor Davies' Shut Up Williams was the most memorable character in the show, and indeed one of the great comic characters of the 1970's. The sheer physicality of Davies' perfomance was on a par with Leonard Rossiter's Rigsby in "Rising Damp"; both were minor-league bigots whose slight social advantage was turned into a gleefully malignant sense of schadenfreude.

Where "It Ain't Half Hot Mum" (rightly) falls foul of modern sensibilities is in its portrayal of the Indian manservants employed to keep the British soldiers' lives comfortable. Partly functioning as a kind of Greek chorus of comparative normality in observing the eccentricities of the British (especially the perceptive Punkah Wallah Rumzan), their role was rendered grotesque by Michael Bates' performance as Rangi Ram. Although raised in India and speaking fluent Hindi, Bates's grease-painted Bearer was too much of a caricature to withstand the soul-searching examination of racial attitudes that followed the urban riots of the 1980's. And of course the programme's racial outlook was much closer to that of the mid-1970's than to that of the war that had finished 25 years earlier, which had necessitated a much more pragmatic and respectful view of the cultures of the Indian frontier.

Simultaneously crass, brilliant and stupid, "It Ain't Half Hot Mum" is a classic example of the kind of priceless yet objectionable entertainment that the era threw up. There's a full episode below - make of it what you will.


David K Wayne said...

There was also a lot of weird sexual tension you find in older Britcoms - usually 'homosocial' as so many successful ones focus on all-male worlds. The heat, military female impersonation and the sub/dom relationship of Windsor and Don (tender and romantic on their TOTP appearances - very 'Lynchian' in retrospect). It seemed perverse even when I wasn't sure what 'perverse' meant. Even its stylized race relations had a kink about them.

A phallic version of 'Black Narcissus' perhaps? Or a gay 'M.A.S.H.'?

Phil Knight said...

Yeah, I think that's true, but I also think that it was to a certain extent deliberate - for example there's the recurring joke where Captain Ashwood genuinely thinks that "Gloria" Beaumont has turned into a woman when he dresses up as one.

Croft/Perry/Lloyd sitcoms are always difficult to get a handle on because they're a mix of the very sophisticated and the very crass, so it's always difficult to ferret out what the real intent is.

David K Wayne said...

Their sitcoms have a clear and present terror of sex. As grotesquerie or pratfall, like in Carry On movies (themselves subject to dizzying levels of sexual anxiety and confusion). Hi-De-Hi must have been the most uptight, chaste holiday camp in British history. Allo Allo was almost (Wilhelm) Reichian in its pathologies. Zipped up (or camp) unattractive posh blokes running away from horny unattractive working-class women. We still fall back on similar set-ups even now. It's a 'tradition' of British comedy that many either love, or identify as a symptom of national sickness.

BTW - has every contributor here put their own tracking system in? It takes forever to load (ooh-er!).

Phil Knight said...

Ah, you've just put me in mind of the Herr Flick/Helga saga.

I think the sense of sexual awkwardness in these programmes, and in British culture (and perhaps neoliberal cultures generally) is tied in with childishness. The characters in Croft/Perry/Lloyd comedies are childish, and of course they all appealed to us when we were children.

My own (currently vague) take on this is that feeling comfortable with sex (if this is actually possible) is down to basically becoming an adult, whereas our culture has fooled itself into believing it's about "openness" and "frankness".

The result being that we're still overgrown kids - we just swear more.

So the likes of Hi-De-Hi do reflect reality, and it's a reality that we pretend we've left behind.

David K Wayne said...

Must be why that kind of comedy suddenly gave me the creeps around the age of 13. League of Gentlemen and Jam really indulged the latent horror of British sitcom, with its grotesquerie and ominous sexual exchanges.

Croft etc. also have a fixation on the 40s/50s. This may because in those 'innocent' days sexual intercourse hadn't yet been invented (just good clean fun like WW2). Well according to a certain poet, himself resembling a Carry On character.

Matt Moore said...

One thing about the Croft/Perry/Lloyd sitcoms is that they're all about dysfunctional, hierarchical institutions. The margins of the armed forces in It Ain't Half Hot Mum or Dad's Army, the holiday camp in Hi-de-Hi, the department store in Are You Being Served. A bit of stretch with Allo Allo but you could argue that Occupied France is an institution. They don't really deal with families or friendship groups (Liver Birds/Likely Lads/Til Death). The situations are all about groups of people who fundamentally do not want to be together but are trapped with each other in these weird organisational structures.

As for the 40s/50s thing, I think it's a different kind of innocence. This was not only the period when Croft & Perry were young men but also when they experienced the world as soldiers and holiday camp entertainers (Dad's Army, It Ain't Half Hot Mum and Hi-de-Hi have their roots in Perry's own experiences) rather than as writers or TV producers. A sitcom based on Perry's 70s experiences would have looked just like "Moving Wallpaper".

That said, there's enough repressed sexual and class tensions in these series to keep Marcuse fans busy for a long time.

Phil Knight said...

I'd like to have another watch of Croft/LLoyd's attempt at a masterpiece, "You Rang M'Lord" which if I remember correctly had a longer running time of about 50 minutes.

The class tensions were quite explicit, as was the homosexuality of some of the characters (instead of the usual nudge, nudge, wink, wink).

I always thought that "Gosford Park" was just a big-screen version of it.

Matt Moore said...

Phil - I've not seen "You Rang..." but it also sounds like a seaside postcard version of the recently revived "Upstairs Downstairs". And "seaside postcard" is not necessarily a diss.

Phil Knight said...

Maybe. What I remember about it was that it was very darkly lit, and Paul Shane played a criminal footman who was riven with class hatred for his superiors - he always had some dark scheme against the householders. Jeffrey Holland was also a fairly sinister character - a butler who may or may not have been "seeing to" his female superiors.

I remember watching it at the time, and thinking blimey, this is strong stuff for this type of show.

But then again it also had Su Pollard in it, so any dark overtones could quickly be dispelled by her appearance on the scene.

Matt Moore said...

Apparently aiming at a comedy-drama feel - so your memories may not have been way off:,_M'Lord%3F

Matt Moore said...

And we now live in a post-Croftian world.