Monday, January 25, 2016

Fort Baxter Memories



Let's go campers. It's 10am. Time to start the day.

And so a brief diversion from the torrid affairs of our island home to another place and time entirely. One of the fondest of television viewing memories for many British people over the age of forty lies with a late Fifties American comedy which ran for four lengthy seasons on CBS Television and won seven Primetime Emmy Awards. The show ended while still highly successful -  in terms of popularity and viewing figures alike - and never actually made it through to the Sixties in this specific format.

The Phil Silvers Show - originally titled You'll Never Get Rich - and commonly known as Bilko or Sgt Bilko was shown over 143 episodes between September of 1955 and September of 1959 and revolved around the money-making scams and general mischief making of the Mess Sergeant and his platoon of eejits at military bases in Roseville Kansas and then in California.

It was transmitted in Britain from April 1957 onwards on BBC Television through to the show's cancellation - it would then be repeated on both national channels during the Sixties. During the following two decades however Bilko became a mainstay of late night programming on the BBC though I recall it being shown on the weekday early evening slots on BBC2 which often used to show familiar Laurel and Hardy three-reelers of the ilk of Below Zero, Brats, Any Old Port and Beau Hunks. Around the mid-Seventies in turn I clearly recall Bilko being lodged in the middle of summertime schoolkids' programming in amongst the likes of The Banana Splits, Camp Runamuck, Zorro and Why Don't You.

The profile of the programme has risen of late with the long overdue 2015 release of all four seasons on DVD and the ongoing work of the British Phil Silvers Appreciation Society.  Personally, I hold Bilko in the same regard as I do Elvis Presley's final recordings prior to his own army service in West Germany  - the tracks  A Fool Such as I, I Need Your Love Tonight, Ain't That Loving You Baby, A Big Hunk Of Love and I Got Stung which he cut on June 10th-11th 1958 in RCA Studios Nashville. Utterly timeless, driven, passionate and perfectly crafted echoes from a decade which feels like several lifetimes away today in terms of female style and the buzz of big city life alone. Interestingly one episode of the comedy saw the arrival of the rocker Elvin Pelvin on the base to Bilko's undisguised delight.

Bilko fits into classic comedy archetypes of a frustrated man out of time - Basil Fawlty the misanthrope being lodged in a daily interface with the phlistine public in Fawlty Towers, Sales Rep Tim Canterbury's purgatorial weeks on a Slough trading estate in The Office or Father Ted Crilly's substitution of what should have been a long and happy family life for that of the Catholic church in Father Ted. Bilko basically should have been in political charge of the whole of the USA instead of organising poker games in what is by far the greatest situation comedy in television history.

The popularity of the programme inspired a run of DC comics,  advertising for Camel cigarettes and later the cartoon Top Cat.  Silvers himself would star in the fourteenth Carry On film Follow That Camel in 1967. This Sahara-set movie was filmed at Camber Sands in Kent - which Squeeze sang of on the wonderful Pulling Mussels From A Shell. Silvers' relationship with co-star Kenneth Williams was apparently chilly at first alike the snow that fell on the beach and held up filming. The movie also starred the legendary Charles Hawtrey - referenced by John Lennon in Twickenham Studio dialogue preceding the last great Beatles song Two of Us on the Let It Be album - and the beautiful Anita Harris whose 1965 Bacharach and David London Life single captured the world's greatest city before its long irreversible decline into spiritual comatosity.

When George Best died in 2005 the Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson acclaimed the  Belfast star for the million memories he had left behind - all of which were good. Bilko was and IS   that good today - reflective too of times when Britain sailed so close culturally to America in comparison to any European pull and when the affection was often thoroughly mutual.

So as January 2016 limps to closure in Britain take some time out from permanent austerity and cultural marxism to check out daily life at Fort Baxter and Camp Fremont if you haven't already. You will not be disappointed. It is heartwarming to think that in some parallel universe Bilko and his motor pool buddies are still creating havoc, fleecing the naive and chasing women - either way, with the exception of Terry Carter who played Private Sugie Sugarman, literally every person you will see on that black and white screen today  is sadly now dead.

Permission to speak freely Sarge.
Permission? What, are we in Russia? Say anything you want.

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