It Ain’t Half Hot Mum was a comedy series about a Royal Artillery concert party based in India during World War II.
It was a follow-up to David Croft and Jimmy Perry’s earlier smash hit, Dad’s Army, about the Home Guard during the war.
The action was set in a British army camp in Deolali, 100 miles away from Bombay. Attracting audiences of 15 million viewers, the sitcom ran for eight series from January 1974 to September 1981.
The series was set in 1945, before VE Day. Both scriptwriters had been out in India, fighting the Japanese, during World War II. Although the storylines were fictional, the writers had experienced military life in India at this time.
The humour centred around the concert party and the different personalities of each member – and how they rubbed along together. Having met in the armed forces, they would probably not have been friends in civilian life, but they had been thrown together because of the war.
As the credits rolled, the actors would sing a music hall song, when the viewers were invited to Meet the Gang. The concert party sang the famous words, “Meet the gang, ‘cos the boys are here, the boys to entertain you!”:
Dressed in bright red matching costumes, with a smattering of garish stage make-up, they would stand in a row, chorus line-style, while dancing and singing about the “music and laughter” which would “raise the rafters”.
The cast had to perform traditional old songs in every episode, as the action focused on their theatrical shows and also on antics behind the scenes, with lots of visual humour. The actors were multi-talented, having acting, comedy, singing and dancing skills.
Davies and Estelle
The most commanding character was Sgt Major Tudor Bryn Williams, the unit’s only professional soldier. Played by Windsor Davies, the character was continually angry and frustrated with most of the soldiers in the concert party, due to their lack of military discipline.
Davies was a former coal miner, who had done his National Service in Egypt and Libya with the East Surrey Regiment, before he decided to become an actor.
Sgt Major Williams was his most famous role and he became known for his catchphrases of, “Shut up!” (shouted military style), and the sarcastic retort, “Oh dear, how sad, never mind,” if a member of the squad had a problem.
He had a wonderful, comedy partnership with Don Estelle, who played Gunner Harold “Lofty” Sugden in the series. The duo had great comic timing and Estelle, at only 4ft 9ins tall, looked much smaller next to Davies’ large frame.
In 1975, they released a number one hit single together, a fun version of Whispering Grass.
The duo recorded the song in character and injected plenty of humour. Davies spoke his words in the voice of the sergeant major, but Estelle was a talented tenor singer with a melodic voice.
The leading members of the concert party included Bombardier “Gloria” Beaumont, played by Melvyn Hayes. He was a female impersonator, who would dress up as iconic Hollywood movie stars for the concerts. It wasn’t protocol to have a real female actress in the group and Gloria was the best they had.
Hayes, now 84, has enjoyed a long and distinguished career in theatre and television. The Wandsworth-born star has had roles in many TV series, including Quatermass II in 1955, Drop the Dead Donkey in 1998, EastEnders in 2005 and Benidorm in 2011.
George Layton played Bombardier “Solly” Solomons, who had been involved in show business before the war. He produced all of the concert party’s shows and also played the male lead. He had been a wily theatrical agent in London and was always plotting to avoid being posted.
He was in a continual battle of wits with the sergeant major, but was a lot more intelligent and devious than his arch-enemy and always won.
The show had its own strong man, Gunner “Atlas” Mackintosh (Stuart McGugan), while another speciality act was performed by Gunner “Nobby” Clark (Kenneth MacDonald) who did bird song impersonations.
Gunner Nigel “Parky” Parkins (Christopher Mitchell) is the youngest concert party member and is known for being very clumsy. He tries everything to become a leading member of the group, including being a singer, a comedian and a ventriloquist, but he isn’t very good at anything.
There were many other characters in the show, aside from the leading concert party members. Ironically, the controversy courted by one of the characters has led to the show being archived by the BBC. It’s unlikely it will ever be revived and shown on TV channels such as Gold.
The BBC controllers believed its characters were racial stereotypes and felt that they would be ethically unacceptable in the modern climate of political correctness.
The controversial character, Rangi Ram, was one of the main reasons why the show was shelved, as a white actor, the late Michael Bates, played the role, allegedly because the producers couldn’t find an Indian actor who was suitable. This simply wouldn’t happen today.
Bates was chosen for the role of the humble British Army standard bearer because he was born in India, served with the Gurkhas during World War II and spoke fluent Urdu.
Perry always denied the show was racist in any way. The writer, who died in 2016, aged 93, said their intention was never to be offensive, adding, “We just wanted to make people laugh.”
Answering criticisms that some of the characters were racial stereotypes, he said people who hadn’t been around in 1940s India wouldn’t have understood the era and the way that people behaved back then. In a newspaper interview, Perry maintained he and Croft had been out in India, understood what it was like and knew what they were writing about.
The BBC shelved the show in 1984 because it was considered too controversial, although in 2015, it was available briefly on the bbcstore.com service, where viewers could buy old TV programmes. However, after the service shut down in 2017, It Ain’t Half Hot Mum was again shelved and it is unlikely to be shown again.
Despite its controversy, the writers said the show helped younger people to understand this important part of British history and how the world began changing after the second world war.
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