The Army Game

1957 | United Kingdom

Hugely successful series from Granada TV that started in 1957 as a fortnightly live sitcom, which was moved to a weekly spot when it became so popular. Loosely based on the 1956 movie Private's Progress, the series followed the (mis)fortunes of a mixed bag of army conscripts in residence at Hut 29 of the Surplus Ordnance Depot at Nether Hopping in remote Staffordshire. At the forefront of this gang of misfits was Pte 'Excused Boots' Bisley played by diminutive comedian Alfie Bass, Pte 'Cupcake' Cook (Norman Rossington), Pte Hatchett (Charles Hawtrey who would become a 'Carry On' film regular), Pte 'Popeye' Popplewell (East End born comedian Bernard Bresslaw, another 'Carry On' regular) and future Doctor Who William Hartnell as bellowing Sgt Major Bullimore. Popplewell's catchphrase "I only arsked" became a national catch phrase and became the title for a 1958 feature film based on the series. 

The Army Game debuted on 19th June 1957 (two months after the BBC began screening The Phil Silver's Show) sandwiched comfortably between two of ITV's top rated midweek shows -Criss-Cross Quiz and Play of the Week and alternated every other Wednesday with The Caroll Levis Variety Show. By the end of the first series The Army Game had become the nation's favourite sitcom and was switched to a Friday night slot - there was a break of just two weeks between series one and two with the former ending on 4 December and the latter commencing on 20 December 1957. 

The series was created by Sid Colin who had served in the RAF during the Second World War and it certainly struck the right note with the men of Britain who had been affected by the National Service Act (of) 1948 which ordered every man over the age of eighteen to serve in the armed forces for eighteen months (this had been extended to two years by the time the series hit the screens). Some young men went willingly, some went reluctantly and it was the latter group that The Army Game concentrated on as they presented far more opportunity for comedy. Even with Colin's experience, Granada drafted in a military advisor in the form of Major John Foley. Even so, the appointment of a military man was not enough to appease the Army itself who were livid not just at the irreverence of the conscripted men also (perhaps more so) at the incompetence in the way that Commanding Officers were portrayed. Indeed, many CO's banned their men from watching the show, as they believed it had a corrupting influence and would undermine their authority. 

A number of cast changes from 1958 onwards affected the show's popularity and ultimately led to its demise. The first to leave were Hawtrey, Bresslaw and Hartnell (although the latter returned for the final series). Hartnell's place was taken by Bill Fraser as Sgt Claude Snudge, a character that proved popular enough for a spin-off series Bootsie and Snudge in 1960. 

The series is notable for launching the career of many British actor/comedians including Harry Fowler and Dick Emery (who appeared as 'Chubby' Catchpole), and amongst its writers boasted the likes of Barry Took, John Antrobus, Talbot Rothwell and Marty Feldman. Selected episodes were paraded once more by the now defunct Granada Plus in 2002. National Service officially ended on 31 December 1960 and both it, and the series itself soon became a distant memory. 

Published on November 27th, 2018. Written by Laurence Marcus for Television Heaven.

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