Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Army Game: Fowler's Flogger

It’s nice to go back to real vintage British television. A lot of the stuff I write about generally spans the late 1960s to present day. Although I have stuff that spans a greater period than that, very rarely do we travel that far back and look at stuff. This week is a little different as we take a look at the 1957-1961 series, The Army Game. The series is loosely based on the 1956 film Private’s Progress, this Granada program started out in 1957 as fortnightly live sitcom. By the time we get to the episodes in this article today, the series moved from being broadcast live to being recorded on 2” tape. Based on what I saw, even though it may have been recorded on videotape prior to broadcast, it was very probably recorded as if it were live with very little or no stops in recording at all.

This article is meant to be a loose tribute to Harry Fowler who passed away on January 4th at the age of 85. I say it is loose because I honestly haven’t seen too much of what he has done. He has appeared in such series as Dixon of Dock Green, Z Cars, The Melting Pot and In Sickness and In Health. He also had a small but for me memorable role in Doctor Who. In the Army Game, he plays Corporal “Flogger” Hoskins. Although The Army Game started in 1957, there were many cast changes over the years. Some notable cast members who had left prior to series 4 were Bernard Bresslaw, Alfie Bass, and Bill Fraser. Flogger only joined in series 3 but by the time we get to the episodes in today’s article, Flogger appears to be the leader of his little gang of conscript mischiefs. At this stage there were other cast members who joined to be the soldiers including Ted Lune (Private Leonard Bone), Mario Fabrizi (Lance-Corporal Ernest “Moosh” Merryweather), and Dick Emery (Private “Chubby” Catchpole). Frank Williams is also in the series as Captain TR Pocket but I know him mainly from another army comedy series institution known as Dad’s Army where he played the Reverend. Speaking of conscription, in an article I wrote about Yes Prime Minister, Hacker is talking about trying to bring back conscription. You can read about that here.
Of course, I have to mention that William Hartnell stars in the series. I’ll touch more on this later but Hartnell plays Sgt. Major Percy Bullimore. He is in the series from the very beginning but then leaves for a couple of years and returns in 1960. From the episodes I viewed, he only recently returned.
The Do-Gooders TX: 11.10.60

The episode starts off with Flogger, Bone, Moosh and Chubby in court as they are standing for charges related to gambling. In the episode as the police officer giving evidence is a young Geoffrey Palmer. Palmer had been in other episodes of the series since the beginning but it is good to see him. The CO, Major Upshot-Bagley, meets someone at the court proceedings that can talk to the boys about the harm of gambling and try to reform them. Later, this guy goes to the base they are stationed and gives a lecture to them about gambling. No one is interested in what he has to say with the exception of Chubby. In fact, after his friends leave the mess hall, Chubby shows this guy where all the gambling paraphernalia they used is stored. This includes a roulette table, a table cloth for dice and of course the dice itself.
Bullimore is not convinced of this miraculous change in Chubby. He starts to watch Chubby very closely; in fact he is afraid the other members of Chubby’s group will use this as an excuse too.  But Chubby is just trying to do good deeds.  He is going around picking up trash at the base and is collecting clothes to give to a church. He even has leave to leave the base so he can help out at a church. Flogger has a horse he wants to bet on and asks Chubby to help him out and put some money on it for him once he gets into town. Of course being a reformed man, Chubby would never do such a thing. Suddenly Flogger has an inspired idea. Flogger and the rest of his mates could also help out at this church and he could slip away and put money on this horse. He gets permission to do so from Captain Pocket. Once again, Bullimore doesn’t believe it and decides that he will trail them himself……

We get to the church and there are old people welcoming other people in and suddenly Bullimore walks in wearing a disguise of a long black coat and a black hat trying not to look conspicuous but unfortunately he looks extremely conspicuous. He makes his way to the backroom where Flogger and the rest of the guys are hanging out. When Bullimore bursts into the room, he finds that the guys are doing nothing wrong. In fact, they are helping out like they said they would. Bullimore leaves annoyed as his plan had failed. After Bullimore leave, the boys take out all the gambling gear and start up. Confusingly, so does Chubby which is odd as he had changed his way and it didn’t seem like it was a ploy to get out of the base. That plot point seems a little sloppy to me.  As they start gambling, Bullimore returns in uniform through the back door with guards and catches the group in the act of gambling much to Flogger’s disbelief.

I know The Army Game was a huge hit for ITV. This episode is simply not that funny and I think it is for a couple of reasons. It is very obvious from the start that the timing of the episode is off in every aspect of the episode. Mainly everyone’s rhythm is off-kilter. Lines are sometimes delivered early or in a way that they don’t sound funny. Some of the lines are delivered over the top. I hate to say it but almost all the performance from Fowler in this episode is way over the top and is not funny. Hartnell fumbles some of the lines, which is something I have seen before in another series, and it just didn’t feel like a very tight production. As I mentioned above I am sure this has everything to do with the way the production was recorded and was probably just an off night for the crew. I think another reason is that it is not a very funny script. It is interesting but nothing really happens. Like I mentioned above, why does Chubby change from giving up gambling to want to start again with no hesitation. It just seems sloppy. I am not looking for art but I would like something that holds together well. This got me worried about watching the next episode but as it turns out, I didn’t have to worry about anything at all.
The Marshal’s Baton TX: 18.10.60

Major Upshot-Bagely thinks it would be a good idea if the boys had a pep talk about aspiring to be better men or even an officer. The “highlight” of the speech will be the Marshal taking his baton out of an ordinary army issued back up basically saying that anyone can be a Marshal. It is decided to store the Marshal’s baton in the Major’s safe in his office.

While cleaning the office, Flogger boasts to the men that he could open any safe in 10 seconds with nothing more than a bent safety pin. So, he is challenged to do this and is given a bent safety pin. He proceeds to open it and sees the baton. As the group are looking at it, the Major returns so they quickly shut the safe but the baton was not put back. The rest of the episode is about them trying to find a way to get the baton back into the safe before they are caught and before the Marshal arrives to give his pep talk. There is a funny moment when the baton ends up in the pig swill and Bone is ordered to go into the swill bucket and fish it out. So, Bone carefully rolls up his right hand sleeve but then uses his left to dig out the baton. It is also decided that while Flogger is in the office trying to open the safe with Bullimore and the Major watching over him that Bone will need to run in to create a diversion. It is decided that Bone will need to run into the room and say something like “Sir, Sir I have a message” and then he is told to faint. At least this is what Flogger told him to do in those words.  So as Flogger is in the office trying to open the safe Bone runs in, stands there and says, “Sir, Sir I have a message and faint!”.  Very funny. Of course Bullimore suspects something is going on with the group the entire time and will not let them out of his site which makes it much more difficult for them to return the baton. Finally they get the baton the Marshal and everything turns out alright.

This episode is much funnier than the previous ones. It is clear to see why this series was so popular. Everything I said in the above paragraphs about why I did not enjoy the The Do-Gooders does not apply to this episode. My criticism for Flogger is not warranted here at all. It is clear to see why he was a popular and engaging character. In the previous episode Bone and Moosh almost seem like incidental characters as they do very little but here they are very much a part of the plot and they do a great job in adding a lot to the episode.
Of course I am fascinated by William Hartnell in the series. He gets top billing. William Hartnell created one of the most iconic roles in television and of course I am talking about Doctor Who. These episodes I watched were from 1960. He began playing Doctor Who in 1963. It is not often I see anything Hartnell did other than Doctor Who. It is very cool to see a role he played so close to when he started playing Doctor Who. There are moments that you see him do something that you could easily see him do in Doctor Who. It is kind of weird seeing him doing flat out comedy. From watching him play the Doctor, it was obvious he was capable doing it, especially in stories such as The Romans and The Gunfighters. It was weird for me to see him do comedy. He was much better in The Marshal’s Baton than in The Doo-Gooders.  For my own viewing of Doctor Who, I am currently in episode 5 of The Keys of Marinus. It is really cool to see Hartnell in a role that was done just four years apart from The Keys of Marinus and the two roles couldn’t be any more different. That alone is a good reason to pick up The Army Game DVD set.

Speaking of Doctor Who, I would like to address missing episodes. There were 154 episodes of The Army Game made. 104 episodes are missing resulting in 50 episodes existing. From a series that aired in the late 1950s and early 1960s, this is a decent survival rate. I just want remind Doctor Who fans how lucky we are that out of 26 years of the classic series, there are only 106 episodes missing. Granted, early episodes of The Army Game were televised live and probably were never recorded at all. Picking up the series set from Network was a great buy. The prints used in the episodes are not the greatest shape but I have no reason to think that this would have been restored at all. Who is to say the negatives of the episodes even exist. It looks like the quality of the episodes are OK but they look generally pretty bad during the credits. Especially with the closing credits that have a lots of scratches on it. Some episodes don’t even have full closing credits.
It’s kind of interesting as the series itself is kind of a mystery. There are a few articles that give an over view of the series but there isn’t really any kind of episode guide that gives episode descriptions. In fact, we don’t know all the episode titles. Look it up on Wikipedia or other places and there are great groupings of episodes that don’t even have titles. Even Kaleidoscope doesn’t have episode titles for a lot of the series. If they don’t know then who would? It is even more interesting that if there were no episode titles, do we even know if there are a whole set of scripts that exist for the series? It is possible that this series may have whole swaths of episodes that we not only don’t know the names but may have no idea even what the episodes are about. If that is true, then that is truly sad.

As tributes go, I admit that this is pretty flimsy at best. If this article does anything it will hopefully entice people to maybe check out The Army Game. The set is pretty reasonably priced and with 50 episodes, there is a lot to see. Perhaps an article is not the greatest tribute anyway; perhaps it is seeking out that person’s work and checking it out for yourself!
Oi, Harry, customer!
Next week: Is it a comedy or a drama? Either way it is excellent. I will spend the next two articles writing about series 1 of Mapp & Lucia starting with The Village Fete and Battle Stations.

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Have a great week!


Dave G said...

I don't really have much to say since I have never seen The Army Game. I suppose it would be interesting to see William Hartnell, but I just don't feel a great desire to get this set.

On a side note, if you haven't already, check out Get Some In! Inspired by the antics of The Army Game and Dad's Army, it was written by John Esmonde and Bob Larbey and stars the wonderful Tony Selby. He plays a Drill Instructor in charge of a group of young men performing their national service in teh RAF. I highly recommend it.

Greg said...

It's an interesting series. What draws me to something like Dad's Army or It Ain't Half Hot Mum is that it takes place during a historical event. The Army Game was contemporary. Of course now that consription is no more, that is kind of makes it historical.
It's a meaty boxset coming in at 6 discs and also includes an episode from the spin off series. If you ever have a few extra dollars to spend and not sure what your next DVD purchase would be, I would suggest giving it a go. There are some pretty good laugh out loud moments.

Michael Fett said...

This is one of those shows constantly tries to get me to purchase, but I pass on. Kind of funny because I found Hartnell to be pretty good in Carry On Sergeant.

Greg said...

If you have some disposable income, you may want to check it out. He is alright in it. It is a good cast and it is fun vintage British television!

Anonymous said...

Who is the actress in the NAAFI canteen scenes?

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