RADIO: THE NAVY LARK

by Peter Tatchell (copyright 2012) 

Over the years, BBC Radio has produced a number of groundbreaking series with a select few now regarded as classics … highly revered years after they ceased production and cherished in the memories of several generations of listeners. But there are others that may not have reached similar heights either then or now, but whose ongoing longevity at provoking laughter cannot be denied. One such case is The Navy Lark.

When first aired, it ran for a monumental seventeen years (at the time, a record) and nearly 250 episodes, though few would rank it with the likes of The Goon Show, Round the Horne, Take It From Here or Hancock’s Half Hour. But decades after it ended, The Navy Lark finds itself immensely popular in the home audio market and enjoys continual re-broadcasts via BBC7 (and its successor, Radio 4 Extra).

Service comedies were popular during (and immediately after) World War 2, the B.B.C. producing Merry-Go-Round and its spin-offs Much-Binding-In-The-Marsh, Stand Easy and Waterlogged Spa for a ready market of recently demobbed personnel.

A supporting player in the latter was talented character voice person Jon Pertwee who, after stints in Up the Pole (1947 to 1952) and Listen My Children (1948), later went on to star in his own series Puffney Post Office (1951) and Pertwee’s Progress (1955). But neither achieved the success to warrant a follow up season.

By 1959, the American television sitcom Sgt. Bilko and its U.K. equivalent The Army Game had proved enormous favourites with British viewers, so radio producer Alastair Scott-Johnson and writer Laurie Wyman thought Pertwee’s vocal talents might be better served in an ensemble piece about the comical goings on in the Senior Service.

Also aboard were established movie stars Dennis Price (Kind Hearts and Coronets, Private’s Progress, The Naked Truth) and Leslie Phillips (soon to appear in Carry On Nurse and Carry On Teacher) along with emerging wireless voice Ronnie Barker (Floggit’s, Fine Goings On, Variety Playhouse) and authority figure and resident “stack-blower” Richard Caldicot.

The basic premise saw cohorts Chief Petty Officer Pertwee, Lt. Price and Sub-Lt Phillips trying to keep out of trouble at a Portsmouth naval base and hide their schemes from their superior, Commander Povey (Caldicot). Lesser ranks were played by Barker (in several vocal guises), Heather Chasen, Michael Bates and Tenniel Evans.

The Navy Lark first aired on the Light Programme in March 1959 for a 16-week run. Audience figures were enough for it to come back that October for a follow-up season and also for a film adaptation to be commissioned.

Sid Colin joined Laurie Wyman in providing the script but for some reason the movie version featured only one of the show’s participants, Leslie Phillips, with Cecil Parker, Ronald Shiner and Nicholas Phipps assuming the parts played by Price, Pertwee and Caldicot (but with different names). It was only a modest success when it premiered that Christmas and wasn’t able to capture the charm of the series, particularly in the eyes of fans (then and in the years since).

Meanwhile, back on the B.B.C. airwaves a couple of months earlier for a second season, Dennis Price had deserted the weekly series (to appear on Broadway, in what turned out to be an unsuccessful run), his role being taken over by Stephen Murray. And after a game of musical chairs that first year, the cast of The Navy Lark was now anchored for its lengthy run on BBC schedules.

On November 5 1960 the team took part in a special appearance on stage at the Royal Festival Hall in the presence of The Queen and The Queen Mother in celebration of the WRNS 21st anniversary. (The 20 minute performance was not broadcast, but a recording survives).

But not everything was going swimmingly with The Navy Lark … by 1963 it was thought that service comedies had perhaps had their day. As a result, it was decided to revamp the series under the title of The TV Lark, and for the first ten episodes of the 5th season the characters were brought ashore to take part in the running of a television venture. Realizing it was a mistake, the team was hastily relocated to the original format for the final six editions of the series.

Then, a year later, writer Laurie Wyman was back in the visual medium again, but this time on the small screen. ITV company Associated-Rediffusion aired HMS Paradise (from July 16 1964 to January 7 1965), with Richard Caldicot playing Captain Turvey (not Povey) in a sitcom set at a naval base. For 26 weeks he was antagonised by the antics of three subordinates (played by Frank Thornton, Robin Hunter and Ronald Radd) whose personas weren’t entirely dissimilar to those of Murray, Phillips and Pertwee in the original version. But the series wasn’t a success and only an incomplete copy of one episode is known to survive.

Wyman was also busy with various other radio ventures at the time … three seasons of David Kossoff’s So I’ll Tell You (in 1958, 1962 and 1968), Jack Warner’s The Motor Way (1962), Ted Ray and … (also 1962) and three seasons of The Embassy Lark (1966, 1967 and 1968).

Back on the sound wireless for a seventh season, The Navy Lark was able to occupy a timeslot it could call its own for the rest of its run … beginning with three series on the Light Programme, then a further six under its new incarnation Radio 2, a new episode would be aired just after lunchtime on a Sunday afternoon.

And about the only major problem encountered during that latter half of its cosy, regulated lifespan was the unfortunate departure of Ronnie Barker in 1968. By then, television had found a new star (via The Frost Report, The Ronnie Barker Playhouse, Hark at Barker) and the Sunday recording sessions of his later venture Frost on Sunday clashed with those of The Navy Lark, making him unavailable. Soon after, his enormous success in such shows as The Two Ronnies and Porridge meant radio budgets could simply no longer afford him.

By the 12th season in the early 1970s, after providing almost 200 scripts for The Navy Lark, Laurie Wyman’s authorship credit was now shared by George Evans (though it’s thought he’d been contributing to a number of earlier editions without billing).

Meanwhile the programme continued on with a regular diet of humour for its army of listeners throughout the British Isles (many of whom would probably have been in the navy), as well as those around the globe who were able to hear the large selection of episodes provided by the BBC Transcription Service and broadcast by their local station. (Over the years, BBC Archives kept only a few of the programmes, but happily the many TS versions went on to form the basis of those available for repeats and merchandising).

By the end of 1975 it was decided that the show had finally runs its course after fifteen seasons and The Navy Lark concluded its run on January 18 1976. There was one last hurrah the following year when a special edition was recorded as part of the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations.

Then, a decade later came the start of the avalanche of audio cassettes, compact discs and box sets offering a large selection of the surviving episodes (including many previously thought “lost” which had been taped off-air by fans and subsequently restored to acceptable sound quality). It’s a situation which continues to this day.

Radio

starring Dennis Price (series 1), Jon Pertwee, Leslie Phillips, Stephen Murray (series 2 on), Richard Caldicot, Heather Chasen, Michael Bates, Ronnie Barker (series 1 – 9), Tenniel Evans

Series 1: Light Programme Sunday 7-00pm March 29 to July 12 1959 (16 episodes)

Series 2: Light Programme Friday 7-30pm October 16 1959 to April 8 1960 (26 episodes)

Series 3: Light Programme Wednesday 7-30pm November 2 1960 to March 15 1961 (20 episodes)

Series 4: Light Programme Friday 7-30pm September 15 1961 to March 9 1962 (26 episodes)

*** THE T.V. LARK: Light Programme Friday 8-00pm January 25 to March 29 1963 (10 episodes)

Series 5: Light Programme Friday 8-00pm April 5 to May 10 1963 (6 episodes)

Series 6: Light Programme Friday 8-00pm September 27 1963 to January 31 1964 (19 episodes)

Series 7: Light Programme Sunday 2-00pm July 11 to October 3 1965 (13 episodes)

Series 8: Light Programme Sunday 1-30pm September 4 to November 27 1966 (13 episodes)

Series 9: Light Programme Sunday 1-30pm July 2 to November 12 1967 (20 episodes)

Series 10: Radio 2 Sunday 2-00pm October 13 1968 to February 9 1969 (18 episodes)

Series 11: Radio 2 Sunday 2-00pm December 28 1969 to April 12 1970 (16 episodes)

Series 12: Radio 2 Sunday 2-00pm May 16 to July 18 1971 (11 episodes) (followed by two repeats)

Series 13: Radio 2 Sunday 2-00pm March 26 to June 18 1972 (13 episodes)

Series 14: Radio 2 Sunday 2-00pm July 29 to October 21 1973 (13 episodes)

Series 15: Radio 2 Sunday 2-00pm November 9 1975 to January 18 1976 (11 episodes)

*** JUBILEE NAVY LARK: Radio 2 Saturday 1-00pm July 16 1977

Episodes of The Navy Lark were not originally given titles (in the Radio Times or on the actual scripts) but in recent years fans and subsequent BBC commercial releases have allocated some. 

later reunion and tribute appearances

PLAYBACK: Jon Pertwee Remembers The Navy Lark (15 min)
Radio 4 Monday 8-45am January 28 1991

THE LIGHT ENTERTAINMENT SHOW (70th Anniversary edition)
Radio 2 Saturday 7-30pm November 14 1992 (90 min)
includes a Navy Lark segment
(Phillips had also appeared in the 60th Anniversary edition R2 on October 3 1982)

FAREWELL TO THE PARIS
Radio 2 Saturday 7-30pm March 11 1995 (2 hours)
featured Phillips and Pertwee

REUNION: The Navy Lark
Radio 4, Sunday 10:15am August 31 2008 (45 min)
includes reminiscences by surviving cast members Phillips, Chasen, Evans and others

Film

THE NAVY LARK (20th Century-Fox, 1959, 82 minutes) rel Dec 27 1959
Cecil Parker, Leslie Phillips, Ronald Shiner, Elvi Hale, Nicholas Phipps, Gordon Jackson, Cardew Robinson, Hattie Jacques, Reginald Beckwith
(script by Sid Colin and Laurie Wyman)

Discography 

1 – Laughs Ahoy Landlubbers
BBC double-cassette ZBBC 1096, 0563 227168
3/7  Mount Rumpus Atoll (December 7 1960)
3/17  Commodore Goldstein (February 22 1961)
4/4  The Northampton Hunt Ball (October 6 1961)
9/16  Cuthbert Joins the Navy (October 15 1967)

The last two episodes of the above double-cassette have also been released as:
The Navy Lark
BBC (single) CD 9781408400111
4/4  The Northampton Hunt Ball
9/16  Cuthbert Joins the Navy

2 – Getting In The Swim
BBC double-cassette ZBBC 1173, 0563 411163
2/16  The Lighthouse Lark (January 29 1960)
5/3  A Deliberate Bashing (April 19 1963)
7/7  Let Loose with a Chopper (August 22 1965)
8/9  Mr. Phillips Promotion (October 30 1966)

3 – HMS Troutbridge Rides The Swell
BBC double-cassette ZBBC 1250, 0563 36520X
10/2  The Redundancy Drive (October 20 1968)
11/11  The Forebodians Hijack Troutbridge (March 8 1970)
12/1  The Put-A-Horse-Out-To-Graze Fund (May 16 1971)
12/2  Impressions for Survival (May 23 1971)

4 – Shanghai Surprise
BBC double-cassette ZBBC 1327, 0563 366486
12/4  The Mysterious Radio Signals (June 6 1971)
12/5  Operation Recovery (June 13 1971)
12/6  The Slogan Contest (June 20 1971)
12/7  Sir Willoughby at Shanghai (June 27 1971)

5 – Larking Around Loch Ness
BBC double-cassette ZBBC 1477, 0563 401672
12/8  Operation Cowes Barge (July 4 1971)
12/10  The Loch Ness Monster (July 18 1971)
13/1  The TV Documentary (March 26 1972)
13/3  Number One’s Married Quarters (April 9 1972)

6 – All Aboard The Love Boat
BBC double-cassette ZBBC 1592, 0563 394684
13/7  The U.S.A. Navigator Swap (May 7 1972)
13/11  Opportunity Knockers (June 4 1972)
13/12  Friday the 13th (June 11 1972)
13/13  The New NAAFI (June 18 1972)

7 – Left Hand Down A Bit
BBC double-cassette ZBBC 1677, 0563 390247
13/8  Son of a Sea Lord (May 14 1972)
14/5  The Digital Isles Go Unstable (August 26 1973)
14/9  Captain Povey’s Wig (September 23 1973)
14/13  The Talpinium Shell (October 21 1973)

8 – Espionage On HMS Troutbridge
BBC double-cassette ZBBC 1851, 0563 389559
14/1  The Montezuma Revolution (July 29 1973)
15/1  Sequel The Talpinium Shell (November 9 1975)
15/2  NANA (November 16 1975)
15/10  The Case of the HGM Mark 5 (January 11 1976)

9 – The Admiral’s Inspection
BBC double-cassette ZBBC 2002, 0563 38168X
2/1  New at the Helm (October 16 1959)
2/2  Fatso’s Box Brownie (October 23 1959)
2/3  Bringing Back the Barge (October 30 1959)
2/4  The Mock Action (November 6 1959)

10 – HMS Troutbridge Goes Dutch
BBC double-cassette ZBBC 2136, 0563 557850
2/5  Going Dutch (November 13 1959)
2/6  The Figurehead (November 20 1959)
2/10  Cementing Relations (December 18 1959)
2/11  Strike Up the Band (December 25 1959)

11 – Troutbridge Joins The Fleet
BBC double-cassette 0563 552212
1/1  The First Episode (March 29 1959)
1/3  Number One’s Chair (April 12 1959)
1/4  The Fairground Lights (April 19 1959)
1/16  The Whittlesea Carnival and Fete (July 12 1959)

12 – The Admiral’s Party
BBC double-cassette 0563 553677
1/5  The Comfort Fund (April 26 1959)
1/6  Stuck Up the Inlet (May 3 1959)
1/7  The Admiral’s Party (May 10 1959)
1/8  The Hank of Heather (May 17 1959)

13 – The Multiple Mines
BBC double-cassette/ 2CD 0563 535210
1/9  The Multiple Mines (May 24 1959)
1/10  The Gun Mechanism Test (May 31 1959)
1/13  A Watch on the Initiative Test (June 21 1959)
1/14  An Exercise in Filming (June 28 1959)

14 – The Smuggling Spy
BBC double-cassette/2CD 0563 53625X
1/15  The Smuggling Spy (July 5 1959)
2/15  A Crisp Romance (January 22 1960)
2/17  Pertwee Posted to Portsmouth (February 5 1960)
2/19  Tug of War (February 19 1960)

15 – Going On Leave In Croydon
BBC double-cassette/2CD 0563 494581
7/6  Admiral Pertwee’s Fleet (August 15 1965)
7/8  Making a Right Pig’s Breakfast (August 29 1965)
7/9  The Mysterious Pudding Mine (September 5 1965)
7/13  Going on Leave in Croydon (October 3 1965)

16 – Stranded
BBC double-cassette/2CD
11/1  Commander Murray and the Squatters (December 28 1969)
11/3  Pertwee Climbs Up the Promotion Ladder (January 11 1970)
11/4  Stranded (January 18 1970)
11/9  The Security Clampdown (February 22 1970)

17 – Taking Some Liberties
BBC double-cassette/2CD 0563 510145
7/1  Taking Some Liberties (July 11 1965)
8/11  The PM Papa (November 13 1966)
8/12  Getting Rid of Pertwee (November 20 1966)
8/13  Off to Sea at Last (November 27 1966)

18 – Back from the Antarctic
BBC double-cassette/2CD 9781846071461
9/1  Back from the Antarctic (July 2 1967)
9/4  The Naval Review (July 30 1967)
9/11  Troutbridge’s Silver Jubilee (September 10 1967)
9/18  Sub Lt. Philluips at Dartmouth (October 29 1967)

19 – Just the Ticket
BBC 2CD
8/1  Where is Troutbridge? (September 4 1966)
8/4  Buoys Will Be Buoys (September 25 1966)
8/8  Just the Ticket (October 23 1966)
8/10  Pertwee and the Tratvian Beer (November 6 1966)

20 – Number One Gets Married
BBC 2CD
11/12  Number One Gets Married (March 15 1970)
11/15  Sub Lt. Phillips to Leave for Dartmouth ((April 5 1970)
13/4  The Newhaven-Dieppe Smuggling Run (April 16 1972)
13/10  The Master of Sardinia (May 28 1972)

21 – Women in the Wardroom
BBC 2CD
9/10  Women in the Wardroom (September 3 1967)
9/12  Cecil the Navigation Computer (September 17 1967)
9/13  A Russian Rendezvous (September 24 1967)
9/17  The Flying Machine (October 22 1967)

22 – Doing an Unfortunate
BBC 2CD
6/9  Stormy Weather (November 22 1963)
6/10  Chasing the Kepeac (November 29 1963)
7/2  Smugglers on the Solent (July 18 1965)
sp  The Jubilee Navy Lark (July 16 1977)

23 – A Fishy Business
BBC 2CD
8/5  Steamship Day (October 2 1966)
9/19  A Fishy Business (November 5 1967)
9/20  Troutbridge in Quarantine (November 12 1967)
10/1  Troutbridge Electrifies Portsmouth (October 13 1968)

24 – You’re a Rotter
BBC 2CD
7/3  Mr. Murray is Victimised (July 25 1965)
8/2  The Float-a-Peddle Fiddle (September 11 1966)
9/3  A Filthy Ferryboat (July 16 1967)
10/6  Sub-Conductor Phillips (November 17 1968)

25 – Avoiding Reduncancy
BBC 2CD
8/6  Farewell to HMS Varsity (October 9 1966)
8/7  The Army Lark (October 16 1966)
10/8  Pertwee’s Enlistment Expires (December 1 1968)
13/2  The P.O.W. Escape Exercise (April 2 1972)

26 – (title unknown)
BBC 2CD 9781445890937
2/24  Secret Mission to Calais (March 25 1960)
7/11  The Sabotaged Floggle-Toggle Box (September 19 1965)
9/4  Jigsaws and Jemmies (July 23 1967)
10/7  The Mickey Mouse Toothbrush (February 2 1969)

The following release reissues four episodes previously available on cassette:
The Very Best Episodes – volume 1
BBC 2CD
1/14  An Exercise in Filming (June 28 1959)
2/16  The Lighthouse Lark (January 29 1960)
2/19  Tug of War (February 19 1960)
5/3  A Deliberate Bashing (April 19 1963)

The following box sets contain specific seasons of The Navy Lark:

The Navy Lark – Series 1
BBC 8CD boxed set 0563 494778

The Navy Lark – Series 2 – volume 1
BBC 6CD boxed set 0563 52412X

The Navy Lark – Series 2 – volume 2
BBC 6CD boxed set 0563 524170

The Navy Lark – Series 3
BBC 10CD boxed set
contains 19 episodes (1 to 19)
(* ep 20 later recovered and issued on series 6 part 2 set)
plus Radio Roots tribute to Jon Pertwee

The Navy Lark – Series 4 – volume 1
BBC 7CD boxed set
contains 1? episodes

The Navy Lark – Series 4 – volume 2
BBC 6CD boxed set
contains 11 episodes (episodes 15 to 17, 19 to 26)
plus 1962 Christmas greeting to Antarctica

The Navy Lark – Series 5
BBC 8CD boxed set
contains all 6 episodes, plus 9 editions of The TV Lark

The Navy Lark – Series 6 – volume 1
BBC 5CD boxed set 9781408467336
contains the first 10 episodes

The Navy Lark – Series 6 – volume 2
BBC 5CD boxed set 9781408467343
contains the final 9 episodes, plus 3/20 The Surprise Wedding (March 15 1961)

The Navy Lark – Series 7
BBC 7CD boxed set 9781408469040
contains all 13 episodes

Books

Ronnie Barker
It’s Hello From Him
by Ronnie Barker (New English Library, 1988)
Dancing in the Moonlight
by Ronnie Barker (Hodder & Stoughton, 1993)
Ronnie Barker – The Authorized Biography
by Bob McCabe (Andre Deutsch/Chameleon, 1998)
The Authorized Biography Of Ronnie Barker
by Bob McCabe (BBC Books, 2004)
And It’s Goodnight From Him
by Ronnie Corbett (Penguin/Michael Joseph, 2006)

Jon Pertwee  
Moon Boots And Dinner Suits
by John Pertwee (Elm Tree, 1984)
I Am The Doctor
by Jon Pertwee (Virgin, 1996)

Leslie Phillips             
Hello – The Autobiography

by Leslie Phillips (Orion, 2006)

Advertisements

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: