This month, the Welsh actor Windsor Davies, 88, most famous for playing the very shouty Battery Sgt Major Williams in the now unthinkably un-PC – and apparently unrepeatable – 1970s BBC TV comedy series Ain’t Half Hot Mum, was summoned to the CO’s office in the sky.
AHHM was written by Jimmy Perry and David Croft, the duo behind the other smash hit 1970s BBC sitcom Dad’s Army. Croft was also behind Are You Being Served?, thus he and Perry dominated my childhood viewing, making them essentially the architects of my terrible sense of humour.
Set in India in the dying days of both the Second World War and the British Empire, AHHM told the travails of a concert party of misfit men – or ‘boys’ as they refer to themselves in their theme song – that just want to survive the war and have a bit of a giggle amidst the relentless boredom and heat and put on a show to entertain the men. (Perry was drawing on his own experience: during the war he had served in a Royal Artillery Concert Party in Burma.)
Their old school, barrel-chested, ramrod-backed, racist, homophobic ‘SHUUUUT-TUUUUP!!’ BSM would have scoffed at the new, Mister lah-dee-dah Gunner Graham American Psychological Association guidelines for men and boys. Clearly a fervent believer in the now officially pathologized ‘traditional masculinity ideology’ – though he would just call it ‘backbone’ – he is forever trying, and failing, to turn the ‘effeminate poofs’ in the concert party into ‘proper men’ and save the British Empire from decadence.
Everyone else though – the squaddies they entertain, the local Indians working for the British Army, and especially the pipe-smoking Colonel – love the ‘boys’ of the concert party and their degenerate, painted poofery, and can’t wait for post-war, post-imperial dissipation.
There was also a regular hint that this mustachioed scourge of poofdom who sees poofery everywhere has latent ‘omosexual tendencies himself – or is at least ‘guilty’ of behaving like an ‘omo. Williams dotes on Gunner ‘Parky’ Parkin, one of the hunkier (by dismal 1970s standards) young soldiers in the concert party: “Shoulders back, lovely boy, you’ve got a fine pair of shoulders on you. Show ’em orf! Show ’em orf!” He sings his (non-existent) praises to the officers and covers up his failures.
He thinks the lad is his illegitimate son: he is showing paternal pride and affection for his own virility. But we and the concert party know he isn’t Parky’s daddy, so the joke is that he’s unwittingly displaying something else. Freud should have had a writing credit for this sitcom: he saw a father’s love for his son, and the ‘male bonding’ of all-male groups, as a sublimated, socially acceptable outlet for universal homoerotics.
The BSM also sometimes appears to be wearing eyeliner, though I’m sure this is just a 1970s TV camera pickup issue.
The reason BSM Williams was such a fondly regarded prime-time act in the 1970s was down to Davies’ great comedic performance (and it was a performance of course – apparently, he was a very kind and gentle chap). It wasn’t just about the virtuoso shouting – it was also about those baby blue eyes in silent close-up: so expressive when reacting to/mocking other people’s lines
And because even forty years ago, the bristling Sgt Major represented for most UK viewers under 50 an already outmoded, comically inappropriate imperial masculinity. If one that was still vividly recognisable, especially to a male generation that had, like Davies, done National Service (it ended in 1960)
For anyone under 50 today, probably the most recognisable part is the waxed Edwardian moustache – but only because it’s been recycled on the ironic upper lip of hipsters and Movemberists.
Only one of the concert party ‘poofs’ seems intended to be taken for an actual poof: ‘Gloria’, played by Melvyn Hayes – who was the cross-dressing star of both the concert party and, alongside Davies, the sitcom itself. Yes, judged by today’s standards it was racist and homophobic: I’m sure plenty of 1970s viewers enjoyed seeing the bloody campers getting a beasting from the Sgt Major – I know I did.
But he was the cartoon baddie, and the past. Annoying and ridiculous as they are often presented, the ‘poofs’ were the sympathetic characters, and the present.
While many civilians pay good money to be shouted at like that.