“You Have Been Watching…”

Chris Diamond on Hi-De-Hi!

First published July 2004

Whilst comedies of the 1980s such as Never The Twain can be marked out as being successful yet little remembered, there are a whole class of situation comedies from the same period which were also hugely popular and still well remembered – indeed often fondly so – but which never quite claw their way into that mystical élite whose denizens remain the byword for sitcom quality.

One was the product of a partnership that should be considered (at least on straight statistical evidence) as being due membership to that happy gang which includes the likes of Clement and La Frenais and Galton and Simpson. David Croft and Jimmy Perry had by the 1980s already notched up two massive hits with It Ain’t Half Hot Mum and Dad’s Army and were to have another on their hands with their 1981 venture Hi-De-Hi!, the story of the entertainment staff at the fictional Maplin’s Holiday Camp in (to begin with) 1959. Yet for whatever reason Hi-De-Hi! fails to be recognised by posterity for the genuine success it was. The question is: why?

By the time the show started on Thursday 26 February 1981 (after a well-received pilot in June 1980) the Perry/Croft partnership – with Perry writing and Croft on both script and directorial duties – was a secure mark of achievement, with the aforementioned shows having provided a span of unbroken success covering the entire period from 1968 to 1981. Hi-De-Hi! was to provide further coverage up to 1988 giving the partnership 20 years of uninterrupted and popular presence in the primetime BBC schedules; surely a feat unparalleled by any other team (in fact, through his equally inclusive association with ‘Allo ‘Allo – alongside writer Jeremy Lloyd – Croft was to stretch this run even further until 1992). It Ain’t Half Hot Mum was just coming to a close, which it did in July 1981, and Hi-De-Hi! was to take its place in as the mainstay of the BBC comedy schedule, which it comfortably achieved. So the order of the day was clearly more of the same; an extension of the formula that made the marque of Perry/Croft so ubiquitous for so long. The question at this point would obviously have been how to achieve this? Where could the formula be applied in order for all of the essential elements of the successful Perry/Croft brand to be utilised to full effect?

As was mostly the case for Jimmy Perry he merely looked to his past which had so far provided the Home Guard and sub-continental concert parties to great effect. He decided upon the life of the holiday camp entertainer that he had lived as a Redcoat at Butlin’s Holiday Camp in Pwllehli for a few seasons starting in 1948. From here sprang the idea for the fictional Maplin’s, its band of Yellowcoats and a huge vista of comedic possibilities mingled – as usual for Perry – with powerful dashes of nostalgia. The trademarks were there; a genuine ensemble cast, a fixed situation, broad characters embracing all ages and dispositions, representations of all classes and abilities, all human frailties were paraded just as they had been in Dad’s Army and It Ain’t Half Hot Mum. And once again the formula worked, the show was a hit and the participants became household names. It is worth considering why it should be the case that for this team lightning had struck not once but three times.

The success of the Perry/Croft comedies hinges on a combination of the creation of characters sufficiently suitable for the required ensemble and for the apposite casting of them. In this respect Hi-De-Hi! managed extremely well. The cast were perfectly suited to their roles. Paul Shane, as the rotund and shiftless Camp Comic (an ironic title for a man so aggressively heterosexual) Ted Bovis, was a comedian and singer working the dwindling club circuit across Britain; Jeffrey Holland, as the eager but inexperienced young comedian Spike Dixon (essentially Jimmy Perry himself, just as Private Pike had been in Dad’s Army), had been appearing in Russ Abbott’s Madhouse but prior to that had a clutch of credits as a straight Shakespearean actor playing in the likes of Henry V and As You Like It on television; Su Pollard, who became almost the most famous character as Peggy Ollerenshaw the cleaner desperate to be a Yellowcoat, had been a bit player in moderately successful shows such as Two Up, Two Down but had thus far made little impact; Ruth Madoc, who became almost inseparable in the public eye, even after over 20 years, from her character of Welsh vamp Yellowcoat Gladys Pugh was another straight professional who had appeared in the likes of Fiddler on the Roof and Under Milk Wood; and similarly Simon Cadell, who played the donnish Entertainment Manager Jeffrey Fairbrother to such perfection, was pure legitimate theatre and drama.

The remainder of the subsidiary cast were made up of a clutch of character actors, comedians and cabaret artistes such as Felix Bowness (Fred the jockey), Barry Howard and Dianne Holland – Jimmy Perry’s sister-in-law – (as Barry and Yvonne Stewart-Hargreaves, the ballroom champions) and Leslie Dwyer (Mr Partridge the drunken irascible Punch and Judy man). Similarly erratic but, one could well contend, inspired casting is to be seen in all of the programmes of the Perry/Croft canon for whom ensemble pieces remained the driving force behind both the situation and the comedy. To explain, it would not be possible to explore the situations of army platoon, concert party or holiday camp staff without including a wider cast as a matter of course. It would hardly be feasible, let alone desirable, to concentrate on one or two central characters and to use them as a conduit to the remainder of the cast. So a true ensemble was central to the success of the project.

Each of the characters, in common with normal Perry/Croft practice, gets to be the focus of an episode from time to time. The most used at the outset were often Ted Bovis and Gladys Pugh along with Jeffrey Fairbrother, for the simple reason that the format of the show meant that these three most senior players would have the most interaction. Hi-De-Hi! employed the same basic structure as Dad’s Army in that there was a small inner sanctum populated by senior characters who would then move through to the outer circle and the rest of the cast. In Dad’s Army this was achieved by Captain Mainwairing holding court in the vicar’s office with Sergeant Wilson and Corporal Jones before going out to drill the rest of the men in the church hall. In Hi-De-Hi! precisely the same effect is achieved by focusing the plotlines to the greater extent on Jeffrey Fairbrother’s rather tatty office where he would deal with Gladys and Ted before moving out to the staff room for the morning meetings with the rest of the staff.

But the others got a fair crack of the whip also and provided many of the most famous shows. In the episode “Who Killed Mr Partridge?” the character of the old lush Punch and Judy man played by Leslie Dwyer managed to dominate an entire show without even appearing. At the outset of the episode a body is seen floating in the Olympic-sized swimming pool and it is recognised as being that of Partridge. The remainder of the show is concerned with the claustrophobic recriminations and accusations the team make amongst themselves in a superb example of what can be achieved by having a strong ensemble cast with the depth in each character to sustain an entire episode which hardly moves beyond the confines of the staff room.

Other cast members are given their moment in the sun too, such as the episode that involves Yvonne and Barry, the ballroom champions, putting up a spirited fight to be allowed to wallpaper their chalet as usual, or when Spike Dixon (Ted’s eager but largely hopeless sidekick) has a crisis of confidence and decides to go home and work in a bank only to resolve to stay at the last moment – or even when Fred the jockey is told that his horses have to go to a knacker’s yard only to be reprieved at the last minute by the all-powerful Joe Maplin. By being able to shift the focus of episodes of the show around the cast the writers not only manage to expand the number of situations available to them, thereby prolonging the run of the show, but they also manage to prevent the public becoming bored with characters they may eventually feel they have seen enough of.

Another successful trait of the Perry/Croft programmes are a genuine affection for the subject-matter, no doubt aided by Perry’s involvement with them at various stages of his life. It would be all too easy to subject a situation like a Holiday Camp with its Hawaiian Ballroom, Milk Bar, Olympic-sized swimming pool, nobbly-knee and spaghetti-eating competitions, to ridicule of the kitsch and heavily ironic kind. But in Hi-De-Hi! there is never the suggestion that the entertainment the staff are offering is anything other than the best available or that their public do not appreciate it heartily.

To an extent this is dictated by the sure fact that within its time period of the late ’50s and early ’60s the public did genuinely enjoy such attractions and that to suggest otherwise would be disingenuous. But also by avoiding such references and accepting the surroundings and routine of the day as nothing other than perfectly normal and not to be commented on – essentially playing it straight – the day-to-day business of the camp becomes merely a backdrop and not the focus of the action itself. The interaction between the cast therefore becomes the driving force of the comedy. Once again the basic rule of sitcom is demonstrated: get the situation right and the comedy can be more easily wrapped around it but the situation in itself is not enough, and this was a lesson David Croft and Jimmy Perry knew well.

Hi-De-Hi! has many other such devices in common with its other compatriots, such as Dad’s Army. Joe Maplin is the equivalent of the Mrs Mainwairing figure, although dissimilar in role they both are unseen and all the more threatening for that (Peggy’s invisible, Harpy-like boss Miss Cathcart also falls into this category to a lesser extent). There is also minimal involvement with the chief protagonists of the piece. In Dad’s Army we see actual Germans hardly at all. In Hi-De-Hi! we see actual campers – in plot terms and beyond making up the numbers around the pool – on a strictly limited number of occasions.

It Ain’t Half Hot Mum was also adept at sharing out episodes and screen time to alternating platoon members. Such devices are effective but not quite enough to prevent the actors becoming bored, it seems. One of the principal accusations that are made against the likes of Hi-De-Hi!, and one that is difficult to dodge, is the variation of quality due to the eventual changes in personnel in the staff room. Whether the actors involved became worried that they were being under or ill-used, feared becoming type cast or perhaps did just become bored, is a matter for them, but the effect was often all too apparent on both the quality of the show and its overall feel.

The most obvious change was when Simon Cadell moved on in 1983 (he was to die tragically early in 1986 of cancer) and was replaced by David Griffin as Squadron Leader Clive Dempster the new, less naïve, more rakish Camp Entertainment Manager who remained until the last episode. Not much changed with the introduction of Griffin to the cast. Gladys Pugh quickly fell in love with him as she had done with Fairbrother, he was quickly appraised by Ted and, although not as soft a touch as his predecessor, was amenable enough to allow his schemes and fiddles to operate largely as they had before. However easily the Squadron Leader fitted into the don’s delicate boots it remains difficult for an audience to retain the same confidence in a show when such a leading member chooses to move on. Others such as Leslie Dwyer and Barry Howard also left in time, the former due to ill-health, and although not as central to things as Simon Cadell they created the impression that soon there would be no-one left. .

People leaving is of course one thing, and can always be excused for a variety of different reasons, but a further and often less welcome development (and another less benign trait of the Perry/Croft mode of work) is the addition of new characters. Over the seven-years of the programme’s run there were more than just a few changes. Barry Howard was replaced by Ben Aris who, as Julian Dalrimple-Sykes the rich pig farming ballroom dancer, was to arrive to partner Yvonne when Howard had left (Aris had already appeared in an earlier episode when Julian had tried to lure Yvonne from Barry). Another addition was Sammy the old-time, somewhat vagabond-like comedian who effectively replaced the departed Leslie Dwyer (although by no means immediately; Sammy did not become a regular member of the cast until 1985 and then only for two of the eventually eight series) played by Kenneth Connor, and who had a curious unexplained hold over Joe Maplin that allowed him several keenly envied concessions and a little muscle to flex over management. In due course, that management came to be personified by the villainous figure of Alec Foster, the hardnosed head office hatchet man played with chilling effectiveness by Ewan Hooper – another addition to the cast.

There is obviously good sense behind introducing new players to a successful show, particularly when they are simply replacing characters who have left for whatever reason. And ideally they should also, as in the cases of Sammy and Julian, have been featured in even a small way in earlier series. But none of this conceals the basic fact that when the public come to love a show they also extend to the characters involved a sense of ownership so that any tinkering with them can produce negative results far in excess of what anyone might reasonably expect.

Hi-De-Hi! did at least not go down the debilitating road of actually replacing the actors who played the characters, but chose to replace the character outright (a mistake David Croft was to make to particularly poor effect when he was required to swap the actors playing Captain Bertorelli in ‘Allo ‘Allo, already not the most complete character and whose catchphrase “What-a mistake-a to make-a!” was surely the most ironic line ever uttered in any sitcom), so damage was at least limited in that sense. But when a show which has been built upon the successful cohesion of its players arrives at a point when a noticeable number of those players are no longer there, then why should the public maintain their interest?

This leads on to another failure in the magic spell of the Perry/Croft vehicle (and one which Croft was to repeat again in ‘Allo ‘Allo) that of going on for just too long. Hi-De-Hi! ran for eight series and 58 episode, and on the road up to the summit of its glory was a triumph. From the first episode in 1981 until at least the departure of Simon Cadell in 1983 the situations were fresh, the characters eager to be exploited, the cast superb. The third series ran for 13 episodes, a stretch almost unheard of in the UK where the average run for a series was six shows (although perhaps twice a year). And the public loved it. But as the cast revolved and the scope for situations narrowed the magic began to fade and the show was quite palpably not what it was. The series in 1987-88 (the final episode was in January 1988) was to be the last.

Any show coming to a close might be expected to wind down gently, especially after over 50 episodes. But here Hi-De-Hi! can claim another parallel with Croft stablemate ‘Allo ‘Allo which also suffered from definite fatigue when it was forced to half-hour editions for the US market and then lost its way. Both of those series seemed, with closure imminent, to gain a second wind. Where they both had superbly realised pilot episodes that took great joy from the freedom to set up their situation and principal characters (the pilot episodes for both ‘Allo ‘Allo and Hi-De-Hi! remain two of the finest examples of their genre ever filmed), so they both benefited from a new sense of focus that the impending finale brought them.

Fortunately the situations chosen for both programmes provided a natural end for each series that did not seem contrived. For ‘Allo ‘Allo it was the end of World War II and the liberation of Nouvions. For Hi-De-Hi! it was the end of the season with the added piquancy that the camp was itself to close. This breath of life for a, by now slightly rickety, sitcom (though not in production terms, it was still a good-looking and superbly designed show) gave a new sense of purpose and allowed the writers to work to a definite conclusion, something that always focuses the mind in any occupation.

With the closure of the camp on the horizon, the atmosphere became a little sentimental, a little dramatic. After all, the motley crew that all the viewers had come to love were being abandoned to the fates in the real world well away from the protective womb of Maplin’s. While ‘Allo ‘Allo could at least gain a natural high from the fact that they were going to benefit from the war ending there was not much comfort on offer to the entertainment staff at the camp. Thus it seemed the show was doomed to end on a down.

However, in a masterstroke Jimmy Perry afforded the last word to the character who should have been the most pessimistic of all, Peggy the maid. She who had striven for a Yellowcoat for all those years but never quite made it was now never going to get the chance. By the end of the last episode the segregation from her friends and acquaintances on the staff was made all the clearer as she could not even leave on the same coach to the station as the rest, and had to instead stay behind to complete the cleaning. As the camera pulled away from her slow moving melancholy figure it pulled up to give a panoramic view of the whole camp with Peggy walking to the path in the centre, by now a tiny figure. Just as the tragedy came to a crescendo of unfulfilled ambition and loss she turned round and, with all her might, shouted “Hi-de-hi!” and jumped into the air.

And with that the credits rolled for the last time accompanied by a deafening roar of approval from the audience as optimism became the last word from a great show.

Is it purely snobbery that prevents the likes of Hi-De-Hi! from taking its place amongst the great sitcoms? Perhaps, but I think not. Hi-De-Hi! is lucky in that it has not dated which is one of the great boons of setting a show resolutely in the past and leaving it free from fashion and modish topicality. And yet it does seem a little out of date for all that. Dad’s Army is understandably much like it, but it is true premier division material because it reminds people of a time (idealised no doubt) that they care to remember. And there’s the rub. No matter how successful Hi-De-Hi! or ‘Allo ‘Allo or It Ain’t Half Hot Mum were, or how fondly remembered they are, or how often they’re repeated, they will never be promoted to the front rank of situation comedy because they just do not concern themselves with a situation that enough people take seriously or personally enough.

Fawlty Towers benefits because everybody has had bad service or stayed at a terrible hotel; Only Fools and Horses gains because everybody has had to struggle to get by at one time or another; One Foot in the Grave has a jump on many others since everybody will get old and encounter the problems the Meldrews face. But just not enough people have had direct experience of holiday camps in the ’50s or army concert parties in the ’40s to be any more than amused by them.

For all that, though, Jimmy Perry and David Croft have a right to be proud for producing such great material and over such a prolonged period.

“Goodnight campers!”