1 9 5 7 – 1 9 6 1 (UK)
157 x 30 minute episodes
Debuting on ITV in 1957, The Army Game was British comedy at its best, very much in the style of Carry On films which were to start the following year (Indeed, some of the Army Game cast developed into Carry On regulars).
William Hartnell (who in time became the first Doctor Who) was the appropriately named Company Sergeant-Major Bullimore, with Bill Fraser as the odious beady-eyed Sergeant Claude Snudge, who together had responsibility for the men in Hut 29 of the Surplus Ordnance Depot at Nether Hopping transit camp in remote Staffordshire.
Modelled on the 1956 film Private’s Progress, the concept was simple: a group of men serving out time as conscripts in the army are determined to dodge duty and derive maximum fun out of a situation they’d rather not be in.
The fact that National Service was still compulsory in Britain when the series began, and also that the Second World War had only been over for 12 years, meant that audiences could readily identify with the situation and sympathise with the plight of the conscript.
Cockney Corporal Springer (Michael Medwin) – later replaced by Harry Fowler as Corporal ‘Flogger’ Hoskins – led as motley a crew of conscripts as you’re ever likely to meet, including Private ‘Popeye’ Popplewell (Bernard Bresslaw); Private ‘Cupcake’ Cook (Norman Rossington); Private ‘Professor’ Hatchett (Charles Hawtrey, whose character was heavily into knitting) and Private “Bootsie” Bisley (Alfie Bass), who received his nickname as he’s been “excused boots” for most of his service life.
Bresslaw displayed a minus IQ in the series and had a catchphrase of “I only arsked”, which became the title of a 1958 movie spin-off from Hammer Films.
Quite happy to let the sergeant-major run the camp his own way was the OC, Major Upshot-Bagley (Geoffrey Sumner), who was content to vegetate – and tend to his pigs – until he is pensioned off. He was replaced as OC in 1958 by Captain Pilsworthy
Mostly broadcast live to air, The Army Game spawned a Top 5 pop hit in 1958 with its theme tune.
But not everyone saw the funny side of The Army Game, and a real serving officer believed it to be a corrupting influence and decreed that the men in his command should not watch it. He relented after the cast heard of his edict and “invaded” his headquarters.
The cast of The Army Game changed a great deal over the years (remarkably, for a short while, three of the characters were played by different actors before their principals returned to the roles), with most of the original members leaving after the second series.
That slow drain of thespian talent – Charles Hawtrey, Bernard Bresslaw, William Hartnell and Michael Medwin were among the first to go – proved the show’s undoing.
New arrivals who felt honour-bound to devise skiving stratagems included the cowardly Private Bone (Ted Lune) and Private ‘Chubby’ Catchpole, played by Dick Emery whose stock line “Hello, honky tonks” he took into his later solo show.
The episodes of The Army Game that have survived the passing years do not seem anywhere near as funny now as they once were, probably because the era of National Service has since long passed into the memory.
One further peacetime army sitcom was tried in the 1970s (Get Some In!) but otherwise, subsequent service productions have harked back further, to the war years, the most notable example being the BBC’s Dad’s Army.
In 1960, Alfie Bass and Bill Fraser marched their beloved characters into civvy street for Bootsie and Snudge.
Company Sgt Major (CSM) Percy Bullimore
Sgt Claude Snudge
Pvt ‘Excused Boots’ “Bootsie” Bisley
Pvt ‘Popeye’ Popplewell
Cpl ‘Flogger’ Hoskins
Pvt Billy Baker
Pvt ‘Cupcake’ Cook
Norman Rossington (1)
Keith Banks (2)
Pvt ‘Professor’ Hatchett
Charles Hawtrey (1)
Keith Smith (2)
Pvt ‘Chubby’ Catchpole
L/Cpl Ernest ‘Moosh’ Merryweather
Pvt Leonard Bone
Maj. Geoffrey Gervaise Duckworth
C B Poultney
Major ‘Piggy’ Upshot-Bagley
Jack Allen (1)
Geoffrey Sumner (2)
Capt T R Pockett