Many of the best sitcoms feature a disparate group of people who, for one reason or another, are trapped together. Porridge is an obvious example, but it’s a theme that also runs through the work of Jimmy Perry and David Croft.
Dad’s Army and It Ain’t Half Hot Mum both had a diverse set of people thrown together by WW2 and in Hi-de-Hi! the characters are bound together because of their job. It amounts to pretty much the same thing though – as we see people of different attitudes, ages and classes all forced to work with each other.
If there’s one thing that’s notable about most of Perry and Croft’s sitcoms (and also the ones that Croft wrote with other people) it’s the fact they tended to go on far too long. When something is successful, the obvious thing to do is to continue – few writers are able (like John Cleese and Connie Booth with Fawlty Towers) to decide early on that all the comic potential has been mined from a certain idea.
But for now, let’s take a look at the first episode of He-de-Hi!, transmitted on the 1st of January 1980. It has an extended running time of forty minutes and is probably best seen as a pilot – since it would be more than a year before the first series proper began.
What’s interesting is the feeling of melancholy that hangs over many of the characters. Whilst all of them are professional with the holidaymakers, behind the scenes there’s a sense that for many, Maplin’s Holiday Camp is something of a prison for their thwarted dreams and ambitions.
For example, Fred Quilley (Felix Bowness) was a jockey who, it’s implied, threw races – so he’s washed up at Maplin’s, teaching holidaymakers to ride a selection of clapped-out nags. And Mr Partridge (Leslie Dwyer) is a Punch and Judy man who has an intense dislike of children, something of a handicap in his job. Dwyer was a veteran actor with a list of credits stretching back to the 1930’s (In Which We Serve and The Way Ahead were two notable early film appearances). He’s rarely a central figure in the stories, but his pithy bad temper were always worth watching out for.
Perhaps the most dismissive of the whole Maplin’s environment are Yvonne and Barry Stewart-Hargreaves (Diane Holland and Barry Howard) and Yvonne’s disdain for the common holidaymakers is never far from the surface. Their marriage is also intriguing, since Barry acts so incredibly camp it’s possible to wonder whether theirs is a marriage of convenience. There’s this exchange, for example.
BARRY: You’ve got your weight on the wrong foot, you silly cow. It’s like dancing with an all-in wrestler.
YVONNE: Well you’ve more experience with that kind of thing that I’d have.
There are some positive people though. Spike (Jeffrey Holland) is young, keen and eager to please. But it’s possible to wonder if Ted Bovis (Paul Shane) is the sort of person that Spike will become in twenty five years if the breaks don’t come his way. In the little world of Maplin’s, Ted is King – although the fact he’s still stuck in the holiday camps after all this time implies that his big break never materialised.
Given how Peggy (Su Pollard) came to define the series, it’s surprising that she hasn’t got her face in the opening credits. Peggy is the most positive person of all, desperate to become a yellowcoat and eager to do anything that will advance her cause.
The person charged with bringing order to this group of misfits is the new Entertainments Manager Jeffrey Fairbrother (Simon Cadell). Jeffrey is the real fish-out-of-water – formally a professor at Cambidge, he’s thrown that up because, as he tells his mother, “I’m in a rut. My wife’s left me because I’m boring, my students fall asleep at lectures because I bore them. And worst of all, I’m boring myself”.
Cadell is perfect as the indecisive, diffident, but decent man who’s completely out of his depth. This is highlighted when he meets Gladys Pugh (Ruth Madoc) for the first time. For Gladys, it’s clearly love at first sight. For Jeffrey (whilst he’d have to be blind not to see the signs she’s giving off) there’s little more than exquisite embarrassment.
This opening episode has done enough to suggest that the differences between the characters will provide plenty of comic potential in the years to come. And towards the end Jeffrey is visited by a couple who are about to leave. The old man’s words help to explicitly state the series’ agenda – whilst the employees of Maplin’s might sometimes be at each others throats, ensuring that the holidaymakers enjoy themselves is something they can all take pride in.
It was wonderful. Just sheer fun, and we haven’t had a lot of that in our lifetime. It’s grand being daft and forgetting all your troubles for a little while. I was telling Doris here, I said if the whole country could be run like a holiday camp then we’d be alright. We’d have Joe Maplin as prime minister and never mind that Harold Macmillan. He’s always telling us we’ve never had it so good. We’ve never had it. We’ve had a grand holiday and you were marvelous. You joined in the fun, supervising in your own quiet way and you didn’t make a lot of palaver. You just did it and we’d like to thank you, young man.
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