Comedy as Occupied Territory:
It Ain’t Half Hot Mum
Few outside England and under 50 will have noted the passing last month of one of Britain’s great comic character actors: Windsor Davies. Although born in North London, he was actually Welsh by parentage, gifting him an accent he made much use of, delivered in a timber-shaking baritone. His greatest role, as a Second World War army battery Sergeant Major in the situation comedy It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, should have been the subject of reshowings and excerpts on the BBC after his death. Davies was much loved as an actor and as a man, but the BBC showed a mere few seconds of the program that made Davies famous. We will return to discover the reasons for this cultural downplay.
Davies was a character actor who played the same character differently in every role he took on, if that makes any sense. In the beautifully low-key comedy Never the Twain, he played an antique dealer constantly at war with his neighbor, another dealer, played by an equally talented actor, Donald Sinden, possibly the only actor barring Peter Cushing to make his eyebrows his main acting attribute. Sinden looks as Count Dracula would have looked had he opted for accountancy rather than vampirism as a career choice. There were many of these delightful actors and actresses on UK TV at that time.
But comedy in the UK is on the endangered species list. As with the original Puritans and their fear of dancing, the liberal progressive Left in Britain are horrified that someone, somewhere, might be laughing. Perhaps they have read their Nietzsche, who wrote that all jokes contain an element of cruelty, or their Orwell, who was of the opinion that every joke is a tiny revolution. Or, far more likely, they won’t have read that prophetic pair. It is unlikely they will have read much that wasn’t published in this century, unless it was a very short version of Marx for Dummies. And yet these same fey people feel themselves elect in the matter of what may or may not appear on television. You can imagine them poring grimly over thousands of minutes of genius British comedy like hardened police officers watching a child pornography film in its capacity as evidence.
Was British TV comedy a successful genre? British broadcasting companies bought many series from the US. As I am nearly 60 now, as a child I ran home from school to watch Lost in Space, Time Tunnel , Get Smart, or Wacky Races. But Britain had its own comedy industry, and it prospered. Viewing figures for home-grown comedy in Britain during this halcyon era, given the lower population of a pre-lapsarian, pre-immigration, pre-Internet age, were staggering. The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special regularly broke ratings records. Dad’s Army, featuring the bumbling attempts of an elderly group of men in a British seaside town during the Second World War to prepare for the expected German occupation, still attracts millions of viewers during its endless reruns. Some series are less well-remembered, and there are emerging cultural reasons as to why that might be.
One of my great pleasures as a teenager was to plant myself next to my father on the sofa and let him tune the television – manually – to watch the situation comedy It Ain’t Half Hot Mum. The program ran from 1974 to 1981, stretching to eight series – fifty-six episodes – and was written by Jimmy Perry and David Croft, a famous British comedy-writing team also responsible for Dad’s Army. At its peak, It Ain’t Half Hot Mum attracted fifteen million viewers – extraordinary figures for the time.
Set in India in 1945, the premise of It Ain’t Half Hot Mum is the British Empire seen through the lens of army life. Almost all the action takes place in a British Royal Artillery holding depot in Deolali, in which soldiers wait until they are posted to various parts of India or Burma. The main British characters, however, manage to postpone their posting to the jungle by virtue of the fact that they are part of the concert party, a group of entertainers whose job it is to keep up the morale of the soldiers passing through.
There are two officers at the camp, an upper-class booby of a captain and a worldly-wise major, along with a supporting cast of Indians. There are two stars of the show, however. The first is Battery Sergeant Major Williams, a bellicose Welshman played by the aforementioned late and lamented Windsor Davies. My father was a documentary filmmaker for most of his working life and, after casting Davies in one of his short films, pronounced him one of the nicest men he had ever had the pleasure of meeting. Having been born in 1926, my father just scraped into the tail-end of the war in Europe, serving in the British army of occupation in Austria in 1945 – “sweeping up after Adolf,” as he put it – and recognized Davies’ portrayal of the Sergeant Major as bone-chillingly accurate. It is worth watching an episode of the series simply to see Davies in action.
The other show-stealer is the Indian bearer to the concert party, Rangi Ram, played by white British actor Michael Bates in heavy make-up. Such casting which would be unthinkable now, but was defended by writer Jimmy Perry on the grounds that Bates had grown up in India and been a Captain in the Gurkhas, the elite Nepalese battalions commanded by the British, which still exist. He also spoke fluent Urdu.
The series is available on YouTube – although the quality is often poor – but will never again be shown on British television, for reasons I imagine you can work out for yourselves. Those reasons, however, are interesting not for what is stated, but for what is unstated. It pays to examine the press coverage surrounding the proposed repeats of It Ain’t Half Hot Mum on British television just seven years ago.
In 2012, Britain’s Right-leaning Daily Express newspaper quoted a television source as saying that “the word has gone out that the series of It Ain’t Half Hot Mum will never be shown in the future [on the BBC].” The censors felt that the undertones of racism and “catty remarks about different races and religions” had no place on the BBC. That rule still applies except in the case, perforce, of the white British.
The fact that it is mostly the British who are made to look foolish in It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, as anyone who has watched ten minutes of the show can attest, is not mentioned. Let us continue, and move across the political media floor to Britain’s most Left-wing newspaper, The Guardian. British readers will know the stance that The Guardian takes on all topics connected with race, which, for this rapidly fading newspaper, is all topics. Essentially, this is the editorial line: white people are bad, particularly English-speaking ones, and brown people are sainted. It Ain’t Half Hot Mum is, The Guardian patiently explained, “racially [unacceptable].” Unacceptable to whom? Not necessarily the British public, who were not consulted.
This lack of consultation or consideration is key to understanding what is happening not simply to comedy in the UK, but to culture across the West. What is available as art or culture is not now decided in any free-market, demand-led sense, but assessed by a modern equivalent of Britain’s old Lord Chancellor, through whose offices all publicly consumable art used to have to pass before being deemed permissible or not for the great unwashed. He would wield his infamous green pen, and passages from plays, films, and books would be struck out or rendered acceptable to polite taste as if in answer to the wave of a wizard’s wand.
As I write, comedic inquisitors, both official and unofficial, are poring over British television comedy with a forensic zeal, looking for any trace of the prejudice they see all around them, as mediums see spirits, and utilizing their favorite stratagem of judging the past by the moral mores of the present. Perhaps, watching it now, the reason It Ain’t Half Hot Mum is so funny is that it has become transgressive.
As with all successful situation comedies, there are running gags in the series, and many involve race and homosexuality. The Sergeant Major mangles the English language, screams “Shut up!” at anyone and everyone, and believes one of the concert party to be his illegitimate son. The Indian bearer constantly talks about “we British” and quotes absurdist and presumably invented Hindu proverbs. One of the officers shows far too keen a liking for those members of the concert party who dress up as women for their shows. The punka wallah spouts a stream of Urdu, finished off with a pithy English phrase. My personal favorite is the incidental music, which consists of famous English and North American songs of the period, performed very slowly and accompanied by a sitar and tabla.
There has never been a series like it and never will be again, as long as the Cultural Marxists decide not merely what is and isn’t funny, but what is and isn’t permitted to be funny. This is the reason I believe that Milan Kundera’s novel The Joke will be the 1984 of this century.
The Left would find much to cheer them in the series. There is a constant undercurrent of unrest where the British are concerned, and all British Leftists know that the British Empire was the holocaust and slavery rolled into one. The British characters may talk about “coolies,” but the Indian administrators give as good as they get, constantly complaining about the British presence in India. It makes for good humor – unless, of course, you are a Leftist. They would be blind to the narrative equality of It Ain’t Half Hot Mum.
There are also very British class interactions in the series. The Sergeant Major represents the old working class, while the officers are classic upper-middle-class stereotypes. Again, it has always struck me as curious and amusing that North Americans find Britain’s class system entertaining. The US obviously has its own social striation, as anyone who has read The Great Gatsby will understand, but class in Britain was never merely a question of wealth. A rich builder and a penniless Lord could drink together in a pub, and class would be apparent behind the bonhomie, but such an obvious juxtaposition is not necessary today. A vestigial class distinction is still apparent today to anyone with a sensitive enough radar for the British cultural arrangement.
Class and race aside, there is another lobby who would not accept the revival of It Ain’t Half Hot Mum. Much of the comic dynamic between the Sergeant Major and the concert party is due to his radical homophobia, in the real sense of the word. In the opening title sequence, while the soldiers of the concert party are queening about on the stage, Davies can clearly be seen mouthing the word “poofs!”, one of his several catchphrases. I would recommend this short clip as a fine introduction.
If someone tells you a joke, you will either find it funny or you won’t, but it will not be a conscious decision on your part. Freud, who famously wrote on jokes and their relation to the unconscious, also believed that “the ego is not master in its own house.” Those on the Left also believe this, the difference being that they themselves wish to be the master in your house. Once they have gained control over language, progressives wish to decide what you may and may not laugh at. In the end, their desire is to reduce all of us to the status of North Koreans, ecstatically laughing or weeping copiously whenever their leader is present, and carrying out those state-mandated responses to the best of our ability.
A second observation. If you watch an episode – and non-Brits will need at least the first in order to fully understand this whole piece – you will see something quite amazing. While the Sergeant Major endeavors to introduce an element of masculinity into his soldiers – who are often quite brave in the series – today’s army is doing precisely the opposite, feminizing fighting men in the cause of some anarcho-tyrannical diktat.
The Left are fighting an incremental war on culture. Their strategy is to isolate pockets of cultural life that they can alter and subvert, and then to advance slowly, feeling their way through small victories which will aggregate into ultimate victory. Commissars official and unofficial will be poring over the back catalogs of once-loved comedians to find a scintilla of content that today’s favored victim groups might conceivably be offended by. It is Salem 2.0.
A final point. Imagine that the series It Ain’t Half Hot Mum had never been made, and that just today, an aspiring young TV writer pitched it to the BBC or similar. Obviously, the series would be turned down with utter contempt. But I believe something else would happen. I believe the writer would be reported to the police. This is the way that the UK is heading, at breakneck speed. It is now essentially the Soviet Union with slightly pleasanter weather and slightly better department stores. This will not end well.
I will leave you with a quote from Battery Sergeant Major Williams, which might well be applied to the contemporary political Left: “Shaaaaaaaat up!!!!!!!”
RIP Windsor Davies, 1930-2019
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There is no need for any contemporary BBC comedy to be amusing, so long as it is didactic and portrays minorities sympathetically. And BBC drama need not be entertaining: it is better seen as vehicle for scolding the ‘gammon’ (the staid white male characters) or for passive-aggressive casting of BAME (Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic) actors into incongruous roles — Greek gods, Medieval English Royalty, that sort of thing
Likewise BBC documentaries are keen to challenge the inhabitants of backward rural areas of Britain with ethnic presenters. The only good countryfolk are those who take in refugees, the occasional Muslima campaigning for a mosque or black rappers/urban entrepreneurs bringing the blessings of Windrush to the benighted Styx.
None of this is in the least surprising: it is corporate policy. The BBC runs compulsory ‘sensitivity training’ for all staff where the doctrine of White Male Privilege and Unconscious Bias is catechised. It is expected that white male attendees listen in shamed silence: ‘resisters’ who endeavour to demur are reported to HR.
I wonder what the BBC of today would make of Love Thy Neighbour’s Eddie Booth.
On the one hand, his jokes at the expense of his Afro-Caribbean neighbour would surely be regarded as criminal. On the other, the negative way the Booth character portrayed the racially conscious, English working class (ie as boorish and stupid) would probably be welcome.
Love thy Neighbour was perfectly timed as a prelude to the Thatcher era – where coloured immigration into Britain proceeded unchecked (despite Thatcher’s hollow promises) and the interests of British workers were repeatedly attacked.
‘Sinden looks as Count Dracula would have looked had he opted for accountancy rather than vampirism as a career choice’
Shame on you with your anti-semitic dog whistles.
I take a slightly different perspective to some of this.
The days of these comedies, whether it be Love Thy Neighbour, Till Death Do Us Part, Dad’s Army and no doubt ‘It Ain’t half hot mum! – are not really something I’d hark back to as being golden times where people were free to black-up, say ‘nigger’, or “poofter” or to be called “chalky” – or lament how the BBC would never allow such things on the air again.
All of them, at the time, were in my view part of a propaganda effort designed to mock and undermine the British and the certainties that we generally had about ourselves and all sorts of cultural values we had and tended to cling to.
It is well known for example that “Alf Garnett” – played by (Jew) Warren Mitchell – was established for the purposes of mocking the concerns of the Englishmen who were against “coloured immigration”, race mixing, and all the rest of it.
They created a character, to ‘educate’ the masses on how everyone against what was coming was some kind of bigoted, uneducated raving loon like Alf – who himself distorted and projected false narratives on what those problems really were about.
It was designed to make Alf – and his views – a laughing stock. Nobody wants to be the butt of the jokes, to the the ‘dumb’ one, the bigoted idiot….so it trained people to reject those kinds of instincts, to make people roll their eyes at people who were concerned about race and immigration, as they were just “having a rant” like Alf Garnett.
The shows of the era may have contained irreverent words, poked some fun at gays and “foreigners” – but the real aim, in my view, was to serve these shows up as a mechanism to make the English feel ashamed of themselves and to see how “wrong” it was to have such ‘bigoted and racist’ beliefs.
Like with more modern comedy vehicles, like Four Lions (with the bumbling Islamic terrorists) or American shows like South Park, Family Guy….. people are conned into thinking they are outrageous, edgy, “politically incorrect”, and they champion these things on that basis.
I think that is wrong. They are not de-conditioning society, they are reinforcing ‘political correctness’ through the back door.
I vaguely remember a Family Guy skit where they’re playing golf. Tiger Woods comes over and the other characters say “hey, you can’t be here!” – with the implication being his disgraced womanising antics etc at that time…..only for it to then sweep down in shot to a sign on the grounds of the golf club saying “No Blacks”.
That is a reinforcement of how wrong and silly it would be for anyone to have such views, how bad things were before, how shocking it was – it is not a challenge to liberal orthodoxies.
The BBC would be ashamed to have those old shows aired now, with talk of “poofters” and folk in dark makeup with mock-Indian accents. Of that I am sure. This is because ‘context’ and ‘intent’ no longer matters to these people and words in of themselves are taboo, even when they are being said to explain why they should be taboo!
But in many ways I think they had already served their purposes and they were “propaganda Mk1” – just a cruder and blunter instrument for the era they were set in. I don’t think the comedy writers of the time (who I suspect were just as left-wing then as they are now) or the BBC has changed at all. It has gone so much further that is would be ashamed of the very left-wingery it originally put out.
I only vaguely remember It Aint Half…..so I can’t really pass judgement on the programs nature……but I do often hear about “good old days” of comedy where characters were free to racially abuse one another (even those like “Rising Damp”) and say ‘naughty words’ Were they all they seemed? I’m no longer quite so sure.
Don’t you think that this sort of comedy was made and became popular because we related to it and found it funny?
And werent we just laughing at ouraelves anyway?
Great article. These were fantastic shows I remember from my youth very fondly, few more so than It Ain’t Half Hot Mum. Wonderful comedy that has seldom been matched since that era.
These shows were on when I was a child. I watched some of them with my parents and some of them were quite funny. They all had catch-cries and Windsor Davies’ “lovely boys” was funny.
I agree with British Activism however that this was part of a deliberate cultural-cringe campaign aimed at making British people ashamed of their own history and culture by providing “lowest-common-denominator” examples – Alf Garnet – Love they Neighbour et al. Who can argue that it wasn’t a spectacularly successful campaign?
I agree with quite a bit of your piece but am puzzled why you think the right any less keen to steer Popular Culture than the left.
It wasn’t the “left” who drove TW3 off the air. And it was the noted wit Roy Jenkins (I believe) who, as Harold Wilson’s Home Sec., got rid of the Lord Chamberlain’s antiquated right to censor.
Puritans are as likely to be found on the left or the right. You’re old enough to remember the fragrant (and never wrong) Mrs. Mary Whitehouse.
Well, in the UK at least, with its controlled democracy, there is no ‘right’ and ‘left’. Both major parties are virtually indistinguishable version of socialism and social engineering. Certainly, the current ‘Conservative’ party – in reality, nothing of the sort, would simply mimic whatever the cultural Left wanted to ban, because they are cut from the same cloth. Thanks for commenting.
@Mina, I think we need to draw a line between Greek words and English words that derive from Greek. For example plethora is essentially a Greek word, though in Greek it was spelled plethore if I am not wrong. Economy, however, is an English word (we can see that by the spelling) that has its origins on the Greek oikonomos.
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