TV Eye: ’Allo ’Allo!, a pièce de résistance

Forty years on from its first episode, the series remains a beautiful blend of farce and comic timing.

27 September 2023

By Andrew Male

’Allo ’Allo! (1982-1992)
Sight and Sound

There is much to enjoy in David Stubbs’s new book Different Times: A History of British Comedy. Part memoir, part polemic it combines a coming-of-age journey through the highs and lows of 1970s TV-watching with a philosophical stance forged in the white heat of the UK’s 1980s comedy revolution. Stubbs, who was born in 1962 and had his head turned by The Young Ones (1982-84) and The Comic Strip Presents… (1982-), argues that the fresh approaches of such ‘alternative’ comedians as Alexei Sayle and French & Saunders liberated comedy from “lazy reactionary types and tropes”, forcing it to relinquish previously exclusionary material that had mocked ethnic minorities, women, disabled people and the LGBTQ+ community.

In the process, he takes aim at, well, pretty much the entirety of UK comedy history. From Charlie Chaplin to Morecambe and Wise, few escape Stubbs’s gimlet eye for the racist, sexist or classist faux pas. Often the book can feel like a tiresome checklist of cultural wrongdoing (which beloved 70s comedians resorted to blackface, which were Tories, why were there no “persons of colour” in Dad’s Army, 1968-77), summed up in Stubbs’s telling line about Fawlty Towers’ use of the N-word, “If you wouldn’t do it now, you shouldn’t have done it then.”

The problem with such an approach is that it might work as a series of combative broadsides but has no place in a book that calls itself a work of history. For in assuming a position of ideological superiority to all that came before, Stubbs overlooks the craft of the comedy writer and performer and how they inevitably employed the stylistic and cultural tropes of the time to make their gags work.

Take ’Allo ’Allo!, which Stubbs dismisses in one sentence as a “the foreigners-are-funny capers… or Oh What A Funny Resistance”. Devised by the comedy writers David Croft and Jeremy Lloyd, who between them were responsible for such landmark British sitcoms as Dad’s Army, Are You Being Served? (1972-85), It Ain’t Half Hot Mum (1974-81) and Hi-de-Hi! (1980-88), this once-much-loved comedy about the wartime antics of French café owner and reluctant Resistance hero René Artois (Gorden Kaye) ran for an astonishing ten years from 1982 to 1992. Of course, on paper, it’s perhaps understandable why Stubbs might take against a comedy in which the Nazi occupation is played for laughs. However, on closer analysis, ’Allo ’Allo! is a far cleverer work than Stubbs or our own faded memories allow for.

Secret Army (1977-1979)

One important detail to remember is that ’Allo ’Allo! was originally conceived as a parody of the BBC wartime drama Secret Army (1977-79). Written by Colditz creator Gerald Glaister, Secret Army, which ran for three series, was a ruthlessly serious drama centred around a stronghold of the Resistance operating out of a Belgian café.

As much as it derived its humour from the war itself, ’Allo ’Allo! was also lampooning the tropes of serious BBC drama. In fact, many of ’Allo ’Allo!’s archetypes – the covert beret-sporting female Resistance member, the kind Nazi, the bosomy waitress – are based on Glaister’s original characters (in a sly moment of industry subversion David Croft even re-employed some of Secret Army’s actors within the ’Allo ’Allo! cast).

Despite Secret Army’s quest for realism, the show inevitably existed within the conventions of 70s BBC drama. For example, even though it featured Belgian, German, French, English and Italian characters, everyone within Secret Army spoke English, albeit with slight accents. Lloyd and Croft parody this exquisitely. Not only do all their characters speak English, but they do so with ludicrously exaggerated ‘foreign’ accents. Tellingly, the two main British characters, English airmen Fairfax and Carstairs (John D. Collins and Nicholas Frankau), possess the most outrageous accents of all (a theatrical cross between RAF slang and Bertie Wooster’s Drones-speak) and are utterly unable to understand the ‘English’ spoken by the French and German characters. This expert comedy device was refined in season two with the introduction of the undercover British agent Crabtree (Arthur Bostrom) whose “perfect” French (inspired by Ted Heath who spoke French with a posh English drone) is rendered as a horribly mangled mix of Franglais, malaprops and unintentionally scatological puns. Like everything in ’Allo ’Allo! it ’s funny because it is working on numerous levels, poking fun at the war and wartime dramas, but also consciously re-presenting it as French farce and pantomime.

Within the near-perfect pilot episode, it’s a brand of farce encompassing everything from dark jokes about town-square assassinations to the sight of the great Sam Kelly, as German officer Hans Geering, attempting to hide a Swiss cuckoo clock down his trousers. With exquisite aplomb, each subsequent episode became a more exaggerated, absurd and improbable version of that pilot episode, referencing and replicating its own tropes, catchphrases and performances until it became a metatextual high parody of itself. Of course, none of this would have worked if the jokes weren’t there or if the actors, like Kaye and Kelly, weren’t up to the task but 40 years on from that first episode ’Allo ’Allo! remains a beautifully choreographed blend of farce, wordplay and exquisite comic timing. To dismiss such a show as merely “foreigners-are-funny capers” or even “Oh What A Funny Resistance” is not only to ignore the era in which it was made but also to fundamentally misunderstand the show itself. In doing so, Stubbs underestimates the intelligence of the people who made it, and crucially, the British audiences who watched it. Or maybe he simply doesn’t find the sight of a Nazi officer with a cuckoo clock down his trousers inherently hilarious.

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