Tuesday, September 26, 2006
Fort Baxter Forever - Bilko at Fifty
It's 50 years since Phil Silvers introduced Master Sergeant Ernie Bilko to British TV. Paul Stump hails a deathless comic genius
In 1975, I saw Top Cat and The Phil Silvers Show within the space of an hour one Saturday morning in April. I loved the former, was bewildered by the latter, the gold from which Hanna Barbera created the base metal of TC (albeit the alleycat's derivative capers still have their own glister). This juxtaposition proved to me, many years hence, the preternatural sophistication of Bilko (now the demotic synonym for Silvers' vehicle).
To summon a comparison with Mozart is in this instance not to elevate the comic craft to art - but while W.A always leaves me emotionally cold his intellectual rigour astounds me. Similarly no sentient person, surely, could fail to acknowledge the sheer technical achievement of Nat Hiken and Phil Silvers' creation, even if it barely cracked them a smile.
Over-rehearsing the scenario of Bilko is superfluous; as the golden jubilee on British TV screens of this pop-cultural masterwork approaches, it's worth appreciating the subtler ways in which it has become a part of us. When it began in early 1957, there were roughly 3,000 televisions in the UK. Fifty years on, with more TVs on these islands than people, reproduced on videos and DVDs, home-pirated till the oxide's stripped, still pulls in audiences of nearly a million or more. Jack Benny, Lucille Ball and Sid Caesar were among the few US stars making it to the two British channels. None have enjoyed popularity or even recognition remotely comparable to Bilko.
Why? Here's why.
Bilko is probably the only classic sitcom known principally by a pseudonym; few outside the industry refer to Only Fools and Horses by its first three syllables.
It arrived at a time when cinemas were full of Kirk and John and Charlton sweatily tommy-gunning Japs; Saturday matinees were one ear-splitting babel of chattering bullet-belts and Oriental cries of 'aieeee!'. US newsreels were full of glinting hardware from Grumman and Lockheed, proving it was ring-a-ding-ding time for the Reds. Yet Bilko's motor pool men at the remote Fort Baxter in deepest Kansas hadn't a lantern jaw between them; these berks, fatsos, stringbeans, myopes and dupes were sitcom's first dysfunctional family, a buttondown slob assembly, from henpecked Jewish tailor Fender to resentfully runty Italian Paparelli to the tennis-ball-shaped Duane Doberman. Bilko was not a leader of men - he was a conman, a finagler, a bluffer, a cheat, a coward - only the deepest streak of loyalty and fellow-feeling redeemed him at the last (which wasn't often). The higher the authority, the more oafish the characters - Paul Ford's sublime portrayal of the decent but diffident and monumentally incompetent bumbler Colonel Hall (ostensibly Bilko's commanding officer, but for the most part his stuttering puppet) predates McLean Stephenson's Col Henry Blake in MASH (not to mention that programme's lampooning of US patriotism) by fourteen years and Werner Klemperer's slapstick Col Klink in Hogan's Heroes by ten. One of the scarcely believable facts about Bilko was that the Pentagon and the US Army cooperated fully with something that portrayed the American armed forces as less the defenders of the free world from commie Krushchev as a vaudeville troupe.
Apart from Bilko in his quest for profit and comfort, only the Pentagon top brass, fawningly wooed by Hall's upwardly-mobile rube, appear to have even the slightest grasp on reality. Bilko's fellow master sergeants are characters that border on those of low farce; Sowici, Grover, Pendleton and Ritzik would surely be drummed out of any army with medical grades of Z-6. The last, expertly played by Joe E. Ross, is a chef of minimal gifts and arrestingly low intelligence, who prefaces most sentences with a simian 'ooh! ooh!'
To a Britain who had dragged the horror of conscription through the double horror of austerity while the US boomed, these weren't the overpaid oversexed of recent memory - these were human beings to be laughed at and with. Interestingly, in the US of the era, militarised to the hilt, it was a hit with current and past servicemen.Was it sweetening the pill of service? We were still a decade away from My Lai and Tet and the Kurtzes of this world, after all. None of these questions have yet been answered.
Maybe that's because, over 143 episodes (then a record) Bilko flourished and lives on because it was, and is so pantwettingly funny. Silvers was a veteran of New York vaudeville; most of the gag-writers had by this time moved to TV, and were closeted in Tenth Avenue offices producing oneliners as fast and as prolifically as clouds of Lucky Strike smoke. Nat Hiken, another New York Jew, was a veteran comedic hired gun, with credits for Milton Berle, Fred Allen and Martha Raye. As Mark Lewisohn's definitive guide suggests, Hiken's secret in the first 70 or so Bilkos was to use Silvers' extraordinary verbal dexterity and timing (not to mention that of the other players) to cram in as many laughs as possible while creating a fast-moving, but adult 22 minutes of television. 'What distinguished his work,' Lewisohn comments, '... was his economy. what they would take sentences to express, Hiken could put across in just a few words... Hiken's Bilko scripts were... probably twice the length of any other US prime-time sitcom, so densely packed were the words and ideas.' Yet one never leaves a Bilko feeling exhausted or shouted at. Lewisohn also stresses that Hiken was able to maintain multiple plot strands within discrete episodes, and indeed was a pioneer of same, a virtuoso, a Horowitz or Heifetz. The words are relentlessly ironic, relentlessly clever. Silvers' peerless gift for improvisation is apparent also; most of the shows were recorded live, and some of Silvers's interventions beggar belief.
When, in an attempt to impress the Pentagon by inducting recruits in record time, Fort Baxter takes a performing monkey into the Army, the animal (on roller skates) strays out of shot and script in a fantastically surreal court-martial scene and begins meddling with a telephone. Silvers, acting as the monkey's 'defence' misses not a beat as he intones, 'wait, my client is phoning for another attorney' to a tornado of studio laughter.
Ford's hapless Col Hall delivers some of the finest lines. In that same inspired episode, 'The Court-Martial' he laments; 'will they remember me as an officer who won citations for bravery in two World Wars? No, they'll remember me as the man who opened the doors of the armed forces to the animal kingdom'. Or 'Bilko, I've reached a decision. I've decided to relieve you of the command of Fort Baxter and take over myself'.
Even when the scriptwriters, post-Hiken (nomenclaturally akin to a Tel Aviv phone directory and including talents like Arnold Auerbach, Harvey Orkin and a young Neil Simon) had to resort to fancy-dressing characters (always Doberman, with the fall-guy inevitability of Private Jones's escapades in the comparatively-anaemic Dad's Army), the results were drop-dead brilliant, both technically and in terms of guffaw-count. Yes, it's variety mugging instead of acting - jabbing fingers, punched palms, so that even deaf Aunt Emmeline at the back of the parlour in Skokie or Toledo or Portland can 'get it' - but the wordplay enables this to soar above so much US TV of any period.
Bilko's reactionary detractors (and there were many) simply had to indicate the place of its manufacture for the root of their objections to its portrayal of army life; Manhattan, in the pinko heart of that most-unAmerican, most faggy, most Jewish of cities. But the meteoric success of the programme (it was continually number-one rated sitcom throughout its run and won three consecutive Emmys) suggests that America actually wasn't quite as devoted to buzzcut militarism during the Cold War as one might imagine.
Naturally, Bilko didn't even attempt to engage with the sort of horrors catalogued in The Naked and the Dead, in Fussell's magnificent memoir The Boys' Crusade. But the fact that US servicemen like Heller's Yossarian and his picaresque buddies had scarcely entered the orbit of American popular culture until Bilko.
Within a decade Vietnam would consign the Greatest Generation and the era of illimitable swellness, Deco and fins and Burma shave signs to history. It may also explain why Bilko's star has waned in its country of origin since the 1960s, whereas its popularity survives here. Too many people saw too much to find the motor pool anything but an alien throwback; it might as well have been about the War of Independence for all the relevance of a Dobermanesque army life to minds shredded by gook mortars on the Mekong.
Silvers' genius illuminated US TV screens a few months before 'Heartbreak Hotel' gave Elvis his break. If comedy was ever the new rock'n'roll, Bilko was unarguably it.