Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: In honor of Netflix’s Special Correspondents, we’re honoring our favorite military-themed comedies.
‘Allo ‘Allo!, “The British Are Coming” (season one, episode one; originally aired 12/30/82)
There is so much about ‘Allo ‘Allo! that shouldn’t work. The 1980s BBC sitcom is an outrageous farce, set during World War II in Nazi-occupied France, about a licentious cafe owner forced to walk the tightrope between appeasing the German soldiers who frequent his establishment and helping his countrymen fight their oppressors. Few ideas are more ill-suited to comedy, but as written by Jeremy Lloyd and David Croft, the show went on to become a smash success and run for nine seasons.
In the hands of Lloyd and Croft—creators of the much-beloved Are You Being Served?—the show’s setting acts as an amplifier, ratcheting up the stakes of traditional class-based comedy. By adding the constant threat of death, the series is able to contort its characters into wilder and weirder situations as they get deeper into the mire of war. The comedic tone swings wildly between gallows humor and high camp, creating a uniquely demented world.
In the pilot we meet René Artois, the man at the center of it all. Played by veteran comic actor Gorden Kaye, René is a warm, avuncular man, slightly wall-eyed and full of an endearing shaggy-dog energy. He is first seen playing dutiful host to Nazi Colonel Von Strohm (the wonderfully wormy Richard Marner), pimping out his beautiful waitresses Yvette and Maria for access to butter, sugar, and paraffin. René is engaged in torrid affairs with both girls as well, always a half-step ahead of his cunning wife Edith (Carmen Silvera).
In short order René finds himself conscripted into aiding the French resistance by their no-nonsense leader Michelle DuBois, giving shelter to a nitwit pair of British airmen disguised as onion sellers, and nearly having his cover blown by an overly attentive (and affectionate) Nazi lieutenant fresh from the Russian Front.
In the span of a densely packed 35 minutes, the show has established most of the elements that carried it for nine seasons. This includes introducing its baker’s dozen of recurring characters, including the doddering old forger Leclerc who thinks himself a master of disguise; the bumbling Nazi officers bent on hoarding looted artworks; the icily perverted Otto Flick of the Gestapo; and the fierce women of the French resistance dressed like extras in a Robert Palmer video.
The show is a farce to its core. Characters are defined as much by their cartoonish accents as any other aspect of their personality, season-long labyrinthine plots brim over with sexual innuendo, and every episode is larded with the predictable repetition of catch phrases. At one point, a character stashes a priceless cuckoo clock in his pants to hide it from the Gestapo only to have it go off, giving him a rather noisy erection. On paper it sounds like the worst form of excess, of a piece with the attitudes which birthed Balki Bartokomous, Alf, and Stefan Urquelle. Yet all of the elements combine to make it a riotously funny affair, a show so suffused with camp that it transcends its base position.
As a product of its time, the show’s attitudes toward women and gays are rather retrograde, but the show seems to avoid any larger issue regarding this by simply being insensitive toward every single person on the show. Characters from every side, whether French, Italian, German, or British are all played by British (and one American) actors aping absurd Monty Python accents and playing their outsize characters to the rafters. It is little wonder the show made the transition from the small screen to the stage, where it is still being performed today. ‘Allo ‘Allo! manages a pretty impressive feat, flying in the face of what we have come to believe a comedy must be, and yet it works in spite of it. The material is hackneyed, the jokes are often seen coming from miles away, but it never lacks for moments of inspired hilarity. Life during wartime has never been funnier.