TV: THE ARMY GAME

by Peter Tatchell (copyright 2010)

It took twenty years for British viewers to be allowed advertisements on their television sets, and two more years before the new licensees had produced a successful sitcom … The Army Game.

A decade after the end of World War II, Britain still had national service and programme planners at Granada (commercial franchise holder for the north of England) decided to create a comedy series set at the fictitious army base of Nether Hopping in Staffordshire, with storylines centring on the shower of layabouts who inhabit Hut 29.

The idea took inspiration from the popular American series Sgt. Bilko (aka The Phil Silvers Show) which had premiered on C.B.S. in September 1955 and was being aired by the B.B.C. from April 1957. Also in the mind of writer/creator Sid Colin was the success of the recent Boulting Bros. wartime comedy Private’s Progress (released in March 1956) which starred Ian Carmichael, Terry-Thomas, Richard Attenborough, Dennis Price and, lower down the cast listing as a gruff sergeant, an actor named William Hartnell. 

Hartnell (now christened Sgt. Maj. Bullimore) joined an ensemble group which featured Geoffrey Sumner as the easily-coerced Maj. Upshot-Bagley, Michael Medwin as the ever-scheming Cpl. Springer, and Alfie Bass, Charles Hawtrey, Norman Rossington and Bernard Bresslaw as the put-upon Hut 29 Privates (Bisley, Hatchett, Cook and Popplewell).

Scheduled for an initial run of thirteen episodes on alternate Wednesday nights, The Army Game premiered on June 19 1957 and rocketed into the ‘top-10’ most watched programmes within weeks. Colin scripted the initial six episodes, with Larry Stephens and Maurice Wiltshire taking over for the second half of the run.

Bresslaw, as the tall, gormless ‘Popeye’ Popplewell, was a standout from the start, even having his own catchphrase “I only arsked” and being signed by H.M.V. to record a handful of songs in the guise of his character. But it would be Hawtrey and Bass who would gain most from their participation in the series.

A second season of twenty-six weekly episodes began soon after the first batch (again scripted by Stephens and Wiltshire), with audience figures rating the show as the most popular on television for much of its six-month run throughout early 1958. Added to the cast during this period was the colourful Sergeant Major Claud Snudge, a scene-stealing portrayal by Bill Fraser (and for a small number of these episodes, Sumner, Hawtrey and Rossington were replaced, with other actors taking over their roles).   

After a solid twelve months on air, changes were afoot in Nether Hopping, with four of The Army Game’s main players moving on. Missing when the series returned that September would be Bresslaw, Hawtrey, Sumner and Hartnell. But in the meantime, most of the cast took part in a big screen version of the show.

I Only Arsked saw the team whisked off to the desert (courtesy of Hammer Films) in a fairly enjoyable romp with David Lodge stepping in as yet another incarnation of the loudmouthed Sgt. Maj., and Michael Bentine and Arthur Howard (Whack-O!’s Mr. Pettigrew) also in the cast.

Hawtrey and Rossington, along with Hartnell, had actually played similar roles in another low budget movie covering much the same ground … Carry on Sergeant (released several months earlier, in October 1958). For Charles Hawtrey, it was the start of a legendary association with a series that would continue into the 1970s and become his greatest claim to fame. 

Back on home soil, the third season of The Army Game saw a number of new faces in and around Hut 29. Fraser now assumed the mantle of the antagonistic authority figure, Frank Williams (a decade before assuming the role of the Vicar on Dad’s Army) was signed as the gullible Captain Pocket and north-country comic Ted Lune became the none-too-bright Pvt. Bone.

Lew Schwarz joined the writing team of Colin, Stephens and Wiltshire to help churn out the required thirty-nine weekly storylines. (Unlike the usual B.B.C. package of a half a dozen episodes) Granada was adopting the standard U.S. practice of a lengthy nine month season, from autumn to early summer. And by the following February The Army Game was back at the top of the ratings (a spot it held in March and April as well). It was to be the peak of the show’s four year run.

With the absence of Bresslaw and Hawtrey, the interaction between Snudge and Bootsie took centre stage as the pair moved closer to a double act. Bass and Fraser were joined by Medwin, Rossington and Lune in a specially-written segment for the 1959 Royal Variety Performance (staged June 23 at the Palace Theatre, Manchester and broadcast on BBC radio).

It was to be Medwin and Rossington’s last appearance with the team and they had moved on three months later by the start of season 4. Harry Fowler joined the cast as conniving Cpl. Hoskins and Mario Fabrizi as L. Cpl. Moosh Merryweather (with fledgling writers Barry Took and Marty Feldman now supplying some of the scripts). Technology also began recording the antics of those present, with Granada deciding to capitalize on the show’s huge popularity and make a package of telerecordings available to television companies throughout the Commonwealth. Hordes of British ex-pats soon joined the throng of happy home viewers (and fifty years later it also allowed a new generation of fans to see what all the fuss was about when these recordings were eventually released as DVD sets).

By 1960 The Army Game was in the home stretch (and, indeed, national service itself was soon to be abandoned). So great was the rapport between Bill Fraser and Alfie Bass that Granada commissioned a spinoff series called Bootsie and Snudge, which eventually proved even more successful than its predecessor (and also enjoyed enormous popularity when sold overseas).

With the pivotal characters now “demobbed” (and written out), William Hartnell and Geoffrey Sumner reprised their original roles (not seen since the second season) and Dick Emery was signed as Pvt. Chubby Catchpole. Maurice Wiltshire and the team of David Cumming & Derek Collyer provided nearly all of the scripts.

Strangely this final season of programmes, does not appear to have been made available for overseas audiences, and less than a quarter survive as telerecordings.

By the middle of 1961, The Army Game staged a strategical retreat and exited our television screens.

Episode Guide

Series 1: ITV Wednesdays 8-30pm Fortnightly June 19 to December 4 1957 (13 episodes)
only 2 episodes are known to survive:
September 11 1957     The Mad Bull
December 4 1957        The New Officer

Series 2: ITV Fridays 8-30pm December 20 1957 to June 13 1958 (26 episodes)
only 1 episode is known to survive:
December 27 1957      W.R.A.A.C.S.

Series 3: ITV Fridays 8-30pm September 19 1958 to June 12 1959 (39 episodes)
no episodes are known to survive

Series 4: ITV Fridays 8-30pm (38 episodes)
October 9 1959           Snudge and Jimmy O’Goblin
October 9 1959           Enter a Dark Stranger
October 16 1959         Snudge’s Budgie
October 23 1959         The Camera Never Lies
October 30 1959         Where There’s Smoke
November 6 1959       When the Poppies Bloom Again
November 13 1959     The Take-Over Bid
November 20 1959     Night Train to Itchwick
November 27 1959     Officers and Gentlemen
December 4 1959        Tiger Bisley
December 11 1959      The Bisley Court Martial
December 18 1959      The Long Walk
December 25 1959      Miracle in Hut 29
January 1 1960            Happy New Year
January 8 1960            The Invisible Man
January 15 1960          The Bowler Hatting of Pocket
January 22 1960          The Soft Life
January 29 1960          Son of Snudge
February 5 1960          A Rocket Called Fred
February 12 1960        Don’t Send My Boy to Prison
February 19 1960        A Piece of Cake
February 26 1960        Never Volunteer
March 4 1960              A Marriage Has Been Arranged
March 11 1960            The Good Old Days
March 18 1960            A Question in the House
March 25 1960            The Claude Snudge Story
April 1 1960                April Fool
April 8 1960                Goodnight Ladies
April 15 1960              One of the Lads
April 22 1960              Holding the Baby
April 29 1960              Pen Pals Anonymous
May 6 1960                 Are You Receiving Me?
May 13 1960               The Efficiency Expert
May 20 1960               Bull By the Horn
May 27 1960               A Touch of the Other
June 3 1960                 The Feud
June 10 1960               Out of This World
June 17 1960               Emergency Hut 29

Series 5: ITV Tuesdays September 27 1960 to June 20 1961 (39 episodes)
9 episodes are known to survive:
September 27 1960     The Return of the Pig
October 11 1960         The Do-Gooders
October 18 1960         The Marshal’s Baton
October 25 1960         Insurance
November 1 1960       It’s in the Book
November 8 1960       Waltzing Matilda
November 15 1960     The Kindest Man in Britain
December 20 1960      The Artist
airdate unknown         Officer Material 

Film

I Only Arsked
Hammer Films 1958 (79 min) released February 8 1959
starring Bernard Bresslaw, Norman Rossington, Charles Hawtrey, Geoffrey Sumner, Michael Medwin, Alfie Bass, Michael Bentine, Francis Matthews, David Lodge, Arthur Howard

Discography

Bernard Bresslaw:

The Army Game / What Do We Do in the Army?
(both with Michael Medwin, Alfie Bass and Leslie Fyson)
H.M.V. single (45) POP 490

Mad Passionate Love / You Need Feet
H.M.V. single (45) POP 522

I Only Arsked
H.M.V. EP 7EG 8439
I Only Arsked
You Need Feet
Mad Passionate Love
Alone Together

Charlie Brown / The Teenager’s Lament
H.M.V. single (45) POP 599

I Found a Hole / Ivy Will Cling
H.M.V. single (45) POP 669

DVDs

The Army Game (vol. 1)
Network 3-disc set 7952272 (2005)
includes the first 26 episodes from series 4

The Army Game (vol. 2)
Network 3-disc set 7952481 (2006)
includes the 2 surviving episodes from season 1,
the 1 surviving episode from season 2,
the
remaining 12 episodes from series 4 (April 1 to June 17 1960)
the 9 surviving episodes from series 5
+ bonus features:
Bootserella
(excerpt from Chelsea at Nine of January 7 1960),
BOOTSIE AND SNUDGE: Being Nice to Bootsie (February 14 1963)

I Only Arsked
Hammer / DD Home Entertainment dvd DDO6350

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