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Monday, January 25, 2010

Hi-de-Hi! : the shows that prove today's comedy is a joke


It's exactly 30 years this month since Hi-de-Hi first appeared on our screens. Here's my tribute piece to Jimmy Perry and David Croft's great series from the Sunday Express.
Above you can watch a classic clip from the show. Enjoy!

HI-DE-Hi! It’s exactly 30 years ago this month since the classic Jimmy Perry and David Croft comedy series made its debut on BBC television.

Set in a holiday camp in 1959 and featuring a wonderful array of comic characters the show was a huge hit with viewers, running for eight years and some 58 episodes.

The signature tune Holiday Rock became a hit and the programme won a Bafta for best comedy in 1984. Thirty years on the original camp comedy remains as popular as ever. last year there was a Hi-de-Hi stage show and the whole eight series are now available on DVD.

How can we explain its enduring appeal?

For a start the gentle, heart-warming comedy of Hi-de-Hi provides a refreshing contrast to the more aggressive and nastier humour that sadly dominates television schedules today.

Watch an episode of Hi-de-Hi and you’re left with a glow inside. Of how many of today’s comedy shows can we say that? Hi-de-Hi was a programme that could be enjoyed by all the family, young and old alike. My 80-year-old grandmother loved it and so did I as a teenage student. It’s a throwback to an age when comedy was inclusive and not merely aimed at one particular age group.

About the only comedy in recent years that has had this same cross-generational appeal is Only Fools And Horses, which is why so many of us will be tuning in to BBC1tonight to watch Rock And Chips, the show’s prequel. Hi-de-Hi was the third major comedy series from the pens of Jimmy Perry and David Croft after Dad’s Army and it Ain’t Half Hot Mum.

Perry and Croft’s formative years were in the Forties and Fifties and their work is characterised by a great nostalgia for the time when Britain was arguably at its best. Their humour is rooted not in an era of selfish, me-first individualism but in a time of great solidarity when people were working together for the common good.

Unfortunately in the past few decades our society has become more atomised and the wonderful spirit of camaraderie that saw Britain through the Blitz has evaporated. That said, it lives on in Perry and Croft’s work. “I think people looking at these shows see a gentler, nicer, decent and better kind of Britishness and they look back with genuine nostalgia,” says cultural historian Professor Jeffrey Richards.

Hi-de-Hi, like Perry and Croft’s other comedies, was based on the two men’s real-life experiences. Perry had worked as a redcoat at Butlins, Croft produced theatrical shows for holiday camps and because both men knew their subject matter well Hi-de-Hi had an authentic feel.

Another factor behind the show’s success was the inspired casting. Simon Cadell was perfect as the shy university professor Jeffrey Fairbrother, so out of his depth in running Maplin’s holiday camp. Ruth Madoc was superb as Gladys Pugh, the sultry vamp from the Valleys. The exuberant Su Pollard was born to play enthusiastic chalet maid Peggy, while real-life comedian Paul Shane was great as the camp’s comedian Ted Bovis.

Felix Bowness, passionate about horse-racing in real life, was ex-jockey Fred Quilley in charge of Maplin’s riding school. Veteran actor Leslie Dwyer was wonderful as the grumpy, child-hating Punch and Judy man Mr Partridge.

Good comedy always mixes laughs with moments of pathos and Hi-de-Hi was no exception. Who couldn’t feel sorry for Peggy, one of life’s great triers, in her never ending attempts to become a yellowcoat? Who couldn’t feel sympathy for Ted Bovis, the comic who had never quite made it? Whatever their failings all of the characters in Hi-de-Hi were loveable.

In one episode Ted, always on the lookout for some extra cash, engineers a scam by asking unsuspecting holidaymakers to donate to the Campers’ Amenity Fund. He puts the money he has collected on a horse, which wins at 33-1. In a meeting with Jeffrey Fairbrother he refuses to hand the money over, claiming that the bet hadn’t been put on but on hearing that an elderly couple had been robbed of the money they had saved up to pay for the flight to attend their daughter’s wedding in Canada he comes to their assistance.

In analysing Hi-de-Hi’s appeal we must not forget one very important factor: a comedy series lives or dies by its ability to make us laugh. Hi-de-Hi did just that. It mixed verbal humour with some great slapstick routines. Remember the scene when the pantomime horse rides a real horse over the fields? Mr Partridge, who is holding a bottle of whisky and a banana, sees the two horses. He looks at the bottle and then the banana. He throws the banana away and takes another swig of whisky.

Despite their proven track record Perry and Croft have not found favour with the new, trendy BBC management in recent years, with Perry being told that his work was too “traditional”.

As we mark the 30th anniversary of Hi-de-Hi wouldn’t it be nice if the corporation for once listened to the public and commissioned another Perry and Croft series?

And wouldn’t it be fitting if Britain’s two greatest comedy writers received official recognition for the enormous pleasure they have given to so many people in the shape of two long overdue knighthoods?


DBC Reed said...

Paul Shane may have been a comedian at the time of Hi-de-HI but he started out, like Bernard Manning,as a singer.Did you know that Manning guarded Hess and Speer at Spandau? There must be a TV series in that.Also Manning is generally described as of Jewish background ,which will come as a surprise to a mate of mine who,as a teenager, exchanged obscene jokes with Manning's brother while on a RC retreat in Manchester.

Undergroundman said...

The reason modern sit-coms are rubbish is because they are a bit old fashioned as a genre now. The best comedy is stuff like BrassEye, Alan Patridge and The Office, a kind of sit-com but the characters come across as not much less comic that real life characters like David Brent who we meet every day.

As regards satire it's true, how can it compete with stuff like Obama getting the Noble Peace Prize before he's done anything to promote peace and then just orders 30,ooo troops to Afghanistan.

Remaining sit comes of recent vintage ( remember I live in Poland ) like Men Behaving Badly just relied on boring vulgarity that's not that funny.

The problem is that the TV medium became just something that had to be filled to fill up people's boring telly obsessed lives and so the actual quantity of life experience in Blair's bland Britain has diminshed so much that there are few characters for writers to derive inspiration from.

The amusing nature of Brent comes from the black hole of boredom which is office life and Brent's attempt to make himself a comedic character to entertain his staff whilst they generally think he's a prat is exactly what makes it bleakly funny.

My own favourite sit-com used to be Shelley as even as a kid I was a bit of a layabout and a chancer and I haven't changed so much since.

Which is why I buggered off to Poland to avoid the kind of dull corporate driven mediocrity everyone is forced to accept whilst regarding the marketspeak jargon as much bullshit as the people who spout it.

These days I tend to read books that make laugh, like Michel Houellebecq whose visceral lothing of everything in contemprary life is so extreme ( and true ) that it's as hilarious as the pretentious dimwits who dominate our public domain.

People forget that Houellebecq is a satirist and biting satire is the way forward.

Bernard Crick used to tell his students to read 1984 and see how humourous it was, the absurd disproportion between the Party rectitude and shiny Utopian vision and the bleak reality of a dingy London where nothing works.

A satire of New Labour Britain in this respect awaits its writer, in the same way France has the scabrous Houellebecq.

Robin Carmody said...

Perry and Croft must be nearly ninety. I'm afraid their cultural time, rightly or wrongly, is up - I know it was Croft and Lloyd and their series were never as good, but did you *see* even five minutes of 'Here Comes the Queen'? There's a *reason* nobody commissioned that.

There are a lot of programmes which better reflect what British TV was once capable of - genuinely challenging and stimulating - which the Sunday Express would never allow anyone to yearn for. Quite a few of those are on DVD, as well. You can't live in this sort of mythical universe forever.

Mr. Piccolo said...

Great post! I could not agree more. Although I have never seen “Hi-de-Hi”, one of my favorite TV comedies is a British series, namely Galton and Simpson’s “Steptoe and Son.” Even though “Steptoe and Son” came out before I was born, I think it is much funnier than the stuff on TV nowadays. I can’t think of any show around today that can match the writing of Ray Galton and Alan Simpson or the acting of Wilfrid Brambell and Harry H. Corbett.

In the US, our comedies have also become relentlessly mean-spirited. These shows are often “edgy” or “controversial” just for the sake of it. I often think the real reason for this is because the creators are not talented enough to be funny without resorting to shock value. But people in the coveted 18-35 year old demographic (particularly 18-35 year old males) can’t get enough of that kind of stuff, so it pretty much dominates most of the comedy landscape.

Oddly enough, I once read that “Steptoe and Son” was considered rather caustic when it first came out, because of the often troubled relationship between Albert and Harold. But compared to what is on today, “Steptoe and Son” looks positively heartwarming.

neil craig said...

You are right that British TV comedy which used to be unsurpassed nowadays is almost non-existent. I think this is because broadcasters are now so po-faced & PC. Benny Hill got cancelled because of that. Even Fawlty owers, with its "they aren't niggers they're wogs" & the racist attitude to manuel would be out. Porridge would get canned trivialising prison. Most comedy is about people's weaknesses & prejudices & these are simply unmentionable now.

Anonymous said...

Hi-de-Hi! is actually touring the country from March which is a fitting tribute to the talents of its writers.
The show will star Barry Howard and Nikki Kelly from the original series: Peter Amory (Emmerdale)as Jeffrey Fairbrother, Damian Williams (Sky's Are You Smarter Than Your Ten Year Old?) and Abigail Finley as Peggy.
Tour dates: