It Ain't Half Hot Mum - Series One Review
Some people had the Duke, others James Bond but, for me, the man who, to my young eyes, defined machismo was Glenn Hughes - the biker chap in the Village People. In as far as I can remember, it was the mix of leather, a motorbike, the cap and a moustache that gelled Hughes as an emblem of sterling masculinity, particularly when he seemed to be linked to other symbols of male strength - a cowboy, construction worker and a policeman. A song like In The Navy certainly didn't harm his case, either.
It was only with the arrival of Frankie Goes To Hollywood that I realised that the biker chap may not have been the equal of Wayne or 007 but that he represented something else entirely. For some months, I'm guessing, this mix of manliness and obvious connections to the gay scene was confusing and, in watching Northern Exposure for a series of upcoming reviews, was reminded of this time as I watched ex-astronaut Maurice Minnifield's bewilderment on realising that his beloved showtunes were a small part of gay culture.
Of course, had I a better memory of It Ain't Half Hot Mum, it might all have seemed obvious. For here, back in 1974 and despite the show being famous for the boiled-in-the-heat temperament of Sergeant Major Williams (Windsor Davies), there's a certain campness to the character that is at odds with the ferocious tearing down of his lovely boys. Being an actor, Davies clearly understood the ebb and flow of his character but I couldn't help but notice a cheeky twinkle in his eye, almost of pleasure, when invited to get closer to his men. In the first episode, this is best seen when Captain Ashwood (Michael Knowles) invites Williams to look at something that, in the heat, has shrivelled up. The impression is quite clearly given that Ashwood is talking about his penis and the look that Williams gives the camera is not only of shock but of mild interest. This being a British sitcom, which has at least one instance per series of a penis being confused with something entirely different, the joke isn't exactly a new one but Davies makes it funny, simply by his reaction.
In both uses of the word, there's a queerness to Davies' character - were It Ain't Half Hot Mum being produced today, he would, more than likely, be thought of as a gay icon what with his combination of male aggression and dainty mocking of the concert troupe. Even his referring to this group as lovely boys has something of the Quentin Crisp about it and Davies chews over the words to make the most of them. Again, though, Davies has that oddness as he reveals an unrequited love, is convinced that Parkins is his illegitimate son and, simply by being in the camp at all, suggests that his frustration at commanding a group of, in his words, poofs is born out of not being a very competent soldier. Otherwise, why is Davies not on the front line? He is, though, in this first series and would continue to be, quite the best thing about It Ain't Half Hot Mum and whilst watching these eight episodes, found that it wasn't half as good when he wasn't plotting, scheming or shouting, "Sh'up! 'shun!" at his lovely boys.
The show is a odd thing indeed - Jimmy Perry had served in a Royal Artillery Concert Party in Deolali, which is both pronounced and is the origin of the word 'doolally', in India during the last year of the second world war. The purpose of the troupe was to entertain troops who were heading towards the front line and when Perry had a hit with the stories of the Home Guard in Dad's Army, his follow-up, should you pass over Lollipop Loves Mr Mole, was based on his memories of India in 1945. It Ain't Half Hot Mum was a rum old show in which the life of the army - Croft and Perry did occasionally remind the viewer that the war against Japan was continuing despite having VE Day occur at the end of this season's second episode - sat comfortably against the music-hall comedy of the concert party. The crux of the humour is in the contrast between types - Davies' soldier is set as the shouting bulldog of an officer whilst, all around him, are those that he would consider an insult to the uniform. His superiors, Colonel Reynolds (Donald Hewlett) and Captain Ashwood are ineffectual and let the men away with, in Davies' eyes, far too much whilst the concert party are a mix of the university educated, the incompetent and the stupid, not to mention those who took an obvious delight in dressing up in women's clothes. The clear differences between Davies and drag queen Gloria (Melvyn Hayes), the short and rotund Lofty (Don Estelle, who would have a number one hit in 1975 with Davies and their version of number one hit single in 1975 with their rendition of Whispering Grass) and the smart but gangling Gunner Graham (John Clegg) is where It Ain't Half Hot Mum finds many of its laughs and what it doesn't get there, it gets with the underhanded management of the camp by those with the real power - Rangi Ram and the wallahs Muhammad and Rumzan.
It is Rangi Ram who, to modern eyes might cause problems given that he is played by Michael Bates, a white man 'blacked-up' for the part. Interestingly, though, as Bates made clear at the time, he was the only Indian playing an Indian in the show given that he was born in Janshi in India and spoke Hindustani and despite being white, was more Indian than the actors who played Rumzan (Barbar Bhatti) and Muhammad (Dino Shafeek, who sings the music hall numbers between scenes and who would later appear in Mind Your Language). The show, at least not in this first season, doesn't really ever let the laughs come from the obvious racial differences between the locals in Deolali and the British occupying power. Indeed, the impression that It Ain't Half Hot Mum gives is that it is Rangi Ram who runs the army camp and not the Colonel, Captain or Sgt. Major as he, along with Solomons from the concert troupe, do seem to resolve most of the situations into which Williams plunges them.
And plunging is quite the right word - this is as farcical a show as many other British sitcoms and moreso than most with a wealth of detail in the plotting and scheming of the concert party to avoid being sent up the jungle. Yet there's also a sadness to the show that many of the Perry/Croft sitcoms also had - Dad's Army was the last that these old soldiers would see action, even if it was on home soil whilst the smiles of Hi-De-Hi were stretched thin against a public that was becoming disinterested in the British holiday camp. Behind the songs and the comedy sketches It Ain't Half Hot Mum has its men performing for soldiers who will, most probably, die in the jungles and there's a fear that the concert party, should Williams get his way, will be next. There's also, and this was acknowledged in the show's final season, the sense that these men are in India because they're not wanted back home. Gloria tells a story about a landlady shutting a door in his face after telling him, "No theatricals!", which I read as being, "No homosexuals!" without actually using the word. Finally, the wallahs and Rangi Ram worry about what will happen when the war is over and whether they'll be accepted into Britain or forced to remain in India, thus looking ahead to mass immigration from India and elsewhere during the fifties. That would all be come, though, leaving this first season as the one in which audiences were to meet the gang...'cos the boys are here, the boys to entertain you!
Meet The Gang (29m35s): The Sergeant Major has Gunner Graham whitewashing the stones at the front of the officers' quarters and refuses to give him leave to attend the concert rehearsal. With a concert coming up, Gunnner Solomons has to get Graham out of duty and so he appeals to the Colonel, much to the Sgt Major's displeasure. But during the concert, word comes of a riot in town that's moving out to the army camp and the Sgt Major may have to depend on his lovely boys for safety.
My Lovely Boy (29m57s): Rangi Ram spots a similarity in the photographs held both by Sgt. Major Williams and the new boy, Parkins. In fact, they're both of the same woman - in the Sgt. Major's case, it's of Edith, the only woman that he ever loved whilst, with Parkins, it's his mother. Figuring it out, Rangi Ram lets the Sgt. Major know what a mistake he's making by sending his long-lost son into the jungle to face action on the front line against the Japanese so Williams tells Parkins that he's going to join the concert party as a ventriloquist. Only problem being that he can't help moving his lips.
The Mutiny Of The Punka Wallahs (30m06s): When the officers decide to get rid of the punka wallahs - the Indians who operate the fans in the officers quarters - in favour of electric fans, not only do the punka wallahs go on strike but so too do the local workers at the electricity provider. They are then joined by those at the telephone exchange but before complete chaos ensues, Solomons comes up with a plan...
The Jungle Patrol (29m54s): Sgt. Major Williams has his chance - he's talked the Colonel into allowing him to take his group of lovely boys into the jungle for a few days as part of a survival course. Williams wants these nancy boys to live off the land but Rangi Ram has, thanks to a deal with Solomons, followed the troupe into the jungle and, unknown to the Sgt. Major, been providing the boys with food and drink.
The Road To Bannu (30m10s): The concert party is at the train station, getting ready to leave for the titular town in order to put on a show for some troops on the frontier. With the train journey over, they set off by jeep but when it breaks down, they find themselves the guests some trigger-happy tribesmen whose leader has a love of Bing Crosby. As Solomon dresses up as the White Christmas singer to keep the tribesmen happy, so too does Gloria as Dorothy Lamour. Which would be fine but when their host takes a particular liking to him...
The Inspector Calls (29m52s): Sgt. Major Williams wants the concert party to do guard duty but the Colonel refuses saying that they don't have the right uniforms for full service. So Williams conceives of a plan to persuade them to dress up as soldiers, rather than women, for a song in their act and, once uniformed, then get them doing guard duty. But when the general arrives and asks to inspect the men, the concert party need a little musical accompaniment before presenting arms.
Whilst this DVD doesn't look as though any remastering has been carried out on it, it does look as though it is a straight transfer from what exists in the archives. Although the quality of the image is variable - colours fade between scenes as does the sharpness of the picture - I suspect that It Ain't Half Hot Mum has not been particularly well cared for and that the funds do not exist for any restoration work. The 2.0 Mono soundtrack is a little noisy but it is acceptable and English subtitles are available throughout.
There were eight episodes in the first series of It Ain't Half Hot Mum but only six - those described above - exist in broadcast quality. It's a nice touch, then, for the two remaining episodes to have been included here as a bonus:
A Star Is Born (25m10s): After a disastrous show during which the stage collapsed and Gloria's costume was torn to reveal his very unladylike underwear, the boys realise that Parkins isn't cut out for a life on the show and plan to get him a job backstage. Hearing of their plan to get rid of Parkins and suspecting that he'll be sent up the jungle, the Sgt. Major gets rid of the Colonel, takes over the camp, promotes Parkins to Battery Clerk and orders the remaining men up the jungle. Rangi, however, has different plans and they involve gelatine.
It's A Wise Child (25m10s): Solomons is in the officers' quarters and spots that the Sgt. Major has the same picture beside his bed as Parkins keeps. Rangi Ram is unable to keep the secret any longer and tells Solomons who passes it on to the rest of the concert party, including Parkins. After one mistake too many, the Colonel tells Ashwood to post Parkins up the jungle, which worries the Sgt. Major. Neither want to be related - Williams: "He can't be my boy...he's an idiot!; Parkins; "He can't be my dad...he's too much of a bastard!" - but that leaves it to the concert party to come up with a plan.
Both episodes look as though they were archived on home video what with the fuzziness of both the picture and soundtrack as well as the, I'm assuming, Seven Network logo that appears following a commercial break. Neither episode will look surprising to anyone with an archive of old television material on VHS tapes but they have been edited down to approximately twenty-five minutes from the usual thirty.
I wanted to like this more than I actually did but found that it wasn't as funny as I remembered it. And there was a lot to remember - quite unbelievably, there were eight seasons of It Ain't Half Hot Mum, which varied between six and eight episodes per series. The show finally stopped being made in 1981 - two series were broadcast in 1976 and it took a break in 1979 - which leaves a lot of shows during my childhood but I didn't really warm to this. It's not unfunny, the characters are easy to like but it all seems more rushed than is necessary. I'm assuming that it does get better and, like many other shows, a second or third season saw the writing improving and the cast coming together better, which leaves this only laying the groundwork for what was to come.