I don’t know about you, but with all the terrible things happening in the world recently I feel I could do with a laugh. So I’ve decided to inaugurate on this blog a semi-regular series called TV Comic Genius, which will look at various TV comedy shows I’ve been fond of over the years. I’m dubbing this first instalment number three because, looking in the Blood and Porridge archives, I realise I’ve already written pieces about two of my favourite comedies, Dad’s Army (http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=4548) and Father Ted (http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=5159).
What qualifies as great comedy is purely a matter of taste – my taste. So don’t expect me to be writing about Friends anytime soon. Or anytime ever.
I can’t help but feel that Sergeant Ernie Bilko – played by the late, great Phil Silvers in the CBS situation comedy that ran from 1955 to 1959 under the titles of The Phil Silvers Show and You’ll Never Get Rich, though British audiences usually knew it as plain old Bilko – is a figure whose genius is under-appreciated in his native land.
My American girlfriend, for instance, seems strangely unaware of the greatness of the show, in which the devious Bilko runs the motor pool at a US Army base called Fort Baxter and takes every opportunity to fleece his fellow soldiers in gambling rackets, get-rich-quick schemes and generally dodgy pieces of capitalism, whilst simultaneously running rings around his incompetent commanding officers. Whenever I mention it and she professes her indifference, I find myself waving my arms in the air, suffering palpitations and spluttering, “But it’s Bilko… Bilko…! Bilko!!!”
I’m surprised that Americans don’t have Bilko higher on their cultural radar. In the UK, in contrast, people of my age and older seem to have absorbed the show into their DNA. The BBC first broadcast it from 1957 to 1961, and then repeated it from 1961 to 1967, and then pretty-much showed it on a loop, in the late evening or early morning, from 1973 to 2004.
It was a British Bilko fan, for instance, who caused a near-riot when she wore a T-shirt with the crafty sergeant’s face on it whilst travelling through Tibet in 1987. In a Tibetan town called Gyangste, a Chinese soldier tried to tear the T-shirt off her while hundreds of locals gathered around them and grew increasingly agitated. The incident was triggered by the resemblance — visible to Chinese and Tibetan eyes, if not to anyone else’s — between Phil Silvers and the Dalai Lama (http://articles.latimes.com/1987-11-13/news/mn-13983_1_dalai-lama).
And recently a devoted fan in the English Midlands town of Coventry opened a museum dedicated to Bilko (http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-coventry-warwickshire-34639443). Journalists treated the story with bemusement, though considering the number of British Bilko buffs I’ve known over the years I’m just surprised such a museum wasn’t opened here sooner.
Why did Bilko appeal so much in Britain, I wonder? Could it be the sergeant’s similarity to the greatest comic character in British literature, Sir John Falstaff in William Shakespeare’s Henry IV Parts One and Two and The Merry Wives of Windsor? Both Falstaff and Bilko are swaggering, garrulous, egomaniacal characters for whom life wouldn’t be worth living if they didn’t think they were cocks of the walk. They manipulate like mad, they’re entirely untrustworthy, and despite their endless boasts about being dynamic men of action they plainly hunger for the easy life.
And to justify their self-importance, both need a constant entourage of simpler-minded souls around them. But while Falstaff makes do with Bardolph, Nym and Ancient Pistol, Bilko has an army of disciples, sidekicks and stooges. It’s literally an army because it consists of corporals, privates and fellow-sergeants at Fort Baxter – Barbella, Henshaw, Fender, Zimmerman, Paparelli, Mullen, Dobermann, Ritzik and Grover. (These were played by, respectively, Harvey Lembeck, Allan Melvin, Herbie Faye, Mickey Freeman, Billy Sands, Jack Healy, Maurice Gosfield, Joe E. Ross and Jimmy Little. At least three of them later worked for the TV kiddies’ animation studio Hanna-Barbera – Melvin voiced Drooper in The Banana Splits, Gosfield voiced Benny the Ball in Top Cat and Ross voiced Botch in The Hair Bear Bunch and Sarge in Hong Kong Phooey – so when I first saw Bilko as a teenager, I was puzzled that though I didn’t know the faces of his entourage, they certainly sounded familiar.)
The size of their ‘crews’ isn’t the only way in which Bilko and Falstaff differ. The latter’s seedy exuberance has its limits. Falstaff’s ultimately shown to be pathetic and contemptible. He’s crushed at the end of Henry IV Part Two when Prince Hal snarls, “I know thee not old man…” – the prince has ascended to England’s throne and he’s disgusted to see his disreputable, roly-poly former companion turn up at his coronation looking for favours. Accordingly, it seems apt that Falstaff dies at the start of the ensuing Henry V.
Bilko, though, is a force of nature. Not even a king could put him in his box. If he’d received the rebuttal that Falstaff did in Henry IV Part Two, you suspect that a minute later he’d have bounced back and smooth-talked Hal into buying a dodgy second-hand coronation carriage or a hundred pairs of boots – all left boots, no right ones – for the coronation-parade guard of honour.
Bilko’s dishonesty and the fact that he’s unstoppable should make him monstrous. He does, however, contains glimmers of virtue. Occasionally he’ll act protectively towards the soldiers serving under him, even if for the rest of the time he’s trying to empty their pockets. For instance, in the episode The Con Men Private Doberman – who, played as a man-child by Maurice Gosfield, measuring five-feet-two-inches tall and 200 pounds in weight and sporting a nose that wouldn’t disgrace a proboscis monkey, is surely the most hapless character in the show’s cast – receives a pile of money as an insurance pay-out. Bilko stalks in like a Jurassic Park velociraptor to relieve Doberman of his money, but then the ultra-naïve private tries to give it to him, believing that Bilko will invest it wisely in one of his schemes. Bilko backs off, unexpectedly conscience-stricken. Later, a trio of conmen cheat Doberman out of the money and Bilko intervenes, takes on the conmen at cards and wins it back for him.
In other words, being with Bilko at Fort Baxter is like living in a high-tax-regime Scandinavian country. It takes away your money but at least you get some paternalistic care in return.
Of course, Bilko contains a more obvious strand of socialism. The show revels in how the blue-collar drones at the bottom of the pile hoodwink, manipulate and put one over on the fat-cats at the top – in this case the commanding officers at Fort Baxter, who’re usually depicted as a shower of rarefied and gullible nincompoops. It’s telling that many of the non-commissioned men at the base have non-White Anglo-Saxon Protestant surnames – Barbella, Zimmerman, Paparelli, Ritzik, Bilko himself – while the officers’ quarters have the stultifying air of an ‘old money’ country club.
The base’s commander, Colonel Hall, played by the wonderful Paul Ford, is at least wise enough to know that Bilko is always up to something. But he’s never quick-witted enough to figure out what he’s doing, and how to stop him, until it’s too late. Meanwhile, though Bilko comes from a lower stratum of Fort Baxter society, he never misses a beat when he intrudes on its upper echelons and rubs shoulders with his supposed superiors. He’s particularly good at flattering and, of course, manipulating the silly, giddy creatures that are the officers’ wives. (“I’m sorry, the Colonel didn’t tell me his daughter was visiting… Why… It’s Mrs Hall!”) While those ladies blush and titter before Bilko’s smarm, poor old Hall watches with the anguish of a farmer seeing a fox move in on his prize hens.
Nonetheless, you get a sense of dependency – affection, even – between Bilko and Hall. In the episode The Transfer, the colonel’s dream seems to come true when Bilko is reassigned to another base and is replaced at Fort Baxter by a proper, professional soldier. Unfortunately, his replacement proves to be so efficient that he makes life a misery for all the other, less competent men around him, Hall included. The Colonel realises that – surprise! – he actually misses Bilko and wants him back.
Indeed, very occasionally, Hall allies himself with Bilko, though the results are predictably disastrous. This is never more so than in the episode The Case of Private Harry Speakup, in which Hall wants to speed up the induction process for new recruits and Bilko lends a hand by making the medical and psychiatric tests less rigorous. As a consequence, a pet chimpanzee called Zippy accidentally gets inducted and ends up in army uniform.
The remarkable thing about Bilko is that for a show six decades old, it’s still extraordinarily funny. Much of this is due to the smartness of the scripts, which were largely written by Nat Hiken, the show’s creator. (Among the other writers contributing to the show was a pre-Broadway Neil Simon.) Hiken’s talents helped Bilko win three consecutive Emmy awards for Best Comedy Series, though in 1959, the last year of its life, it lost out in the Emmys to the more-of-its-time The Jack Benny Program. Incidentally, does anyone today find the creaking, ponderous Jack Benny funny?
But obviously, a large part of the joy of Bilko comes from Phil Silvers’ performance in the main role. All glasses, grin and jabbering voice, Silvers swooshes around Fort Baxter like a quick-thinking, fast-talking, wheeling-dealing whirlwind. So fast does he go that it’s a wonder Silvers manages to affect any comic timing or, indeed, generate any coherent jokes from the character. But he does, endlessly. It doesn’t surprise me that the great comic character actor Robbie Coltrane has praised him for “the speed and accuracy of his delivery.”
Classic TV comedy is full of memorably manic performances. But they run the risk of becoming tiresome. One example is Basil Fawlty, who – despite the talents of the man inhabiting the role, John Cleese – leaves you feeling exhausted after you’ve sat through a half-hour episode of Fawlty Towers. Yet I’ve never had that feeling with Bilko. So entertaining is his high-octane conniving that I could happily spend whole days in his company. Mind you, by the end of it, he’d no doubt have fleeced me of every penny in my possession
And by the way, any BBC people who might be reading this – isn’t it time you gave the show another airing? By modern standards, it might be a bit too technically primitive for your mainstream channels. But I don’t see why it couldn’t be repeated on BBC4, which would give yet another British generation a chance to appreciate the genius of Phil Silvers and Nat Hiken.