1 9 7 4 – 1 9 8 1 (UK)
56 x 30 minute episodes
Following his success with Dad’s Army, co-creator Jimmy Perry drew on his experiences as a member of a Royal Artillery Concert Party in Deolali, India, to create another World War II bound comedy series.
The motley crew sent to entertain the British troops in India were the responsibility of Sergeant Major Williams (the brilliant Windsor Davies), a gruff Welsh RSM who referred to his charges as ”A bunch of pooftahs” and whose favourite command was “Shut Up!”.
The concert party included Bombardier “Solly” Solomons (written out after the early episodes), Bombardier Beaumont (who was very effeminate, dressed up in drag for the concerts, and was constantly referred to as ”Gloria”), an intellectual pianist referred to by Williams as ”Mr La-de-Da” Gunner Graham, chief vocalist “Lofty” Sugden (so-called because he was extremely short) and Gunner Parkins (who the Sgt Major treated kindly and referred to as ”Lovely Boy” because he believed him to be his illegitimate son), Scotsman Gunner Mackintosh, and Gunners Clark and Evans.
The entire troupe was run by a couple of commissioned buffoons called Colonel Reynolds and Captain Ashwood.
The high-camp hi-jinks allowed for broad music-hall-style humour to emerge, and the production had a manic energy about it, creating a wholly different atmosphere to the rather measured pace of Dad’s Army.
All the same, there were some similarities, principally the writers’ dogged attempts to give most of the characters their own catchphrases. Unlike their earlier series, however, few of them stuck this time around.
The local Wallahs genuinely considered themselves to be true Brits, providing much of the racial humour. Michael Bates (in black make-up and a turban) played the part of chief Wallah and narrator Rangi Ram.
Detractors claimed that, at the very least, a real Indian actor could have been cast in the part rather than a white-skinned man. Bates had a tongue-in-cheek response: he pointed out that he was born in Jhansi, India, spoke Hindustani before he learned English, and, as the two genuinely brown faces in the cast actually belonged to a Pakistani and a Bangladeshi, he was, in fact, the only real Indian in the production.
Sadly, Bates died in 1978, and the part of Char-Wallah Muhammed was increased to maintain the balance. By this time, the vengeful, petty-minded BSM Williams was the dominant force in the show, constantly boiling over with anger at the inefficiency of his gunners.
Fake palm trees and a polystyrene crocodile were additions to a ”jungle” in Norfolk where the series was made. And it wasn’t half cold there for the cast.
They shivered with glycerine ”sweat” applied to their foreheads and chests, and to make the mist for the ”swamp”, dry ice was dunked in mud and stirred. The desert was a Sussex coast sandpit.
The physical contrast in size and volume between Williams (Windsor Davies) and ”Lofty” (Don Estelle) drew the biggest rewards and the two created an unlikely double-act that resulted, incredibly, in a #1 hit single in 1975 with their rendition of Whispering Grass.
The last episode of the series showed the team ”demobbed” and on their way home.
Windsor Davies passed away in January 2019, aged 88.
Bombardier ”Gloria” Beaumont
Bombardier ”Solly” Solomons
Gunner ”Lofty” Sugden
Gunner Nobby Clark
Gunner Nigel Parkin
Gunner ”Nosher” Evans
Punka Wallah Rumzan
Ah Syn, the cook