Comedy Rewind

The Army Game on parade

The Army Game. Copyright: Granada Television

ITV has produced plenty of successful sitcoms over the years, from Love Thy Neighbour and Duty Free to The Gaffer and Holding The Fort among many, many others. But the show that started it all was The Army Game.

Creator Sid Colin began his career as a musician, playing acoustic guitar in an assortment of bands both before and during the Second World War, when he toured as part of ENSA, the Entertainments National Service Association. He became well known for cracking one-liners in the style of Groucho Marx between songs and began writing for BBC radio in 1938, contributing material for Sid Millward and his Nitwits.

Unwilling to switch to electric guitar and tired of touring, Colin eventually became a full-time writer, penning several shows for the corporation. These included working with Eric Sykes on the scripts for Peter Brough in Educating Archie, and two shows for comic Avril Angers - Friends And Neighbours and Dear Dotty. He also frequently worked with Talbot Rothwell, with whom he would contribute towards Terry-Thomas's How Do You View?, which is often cited as the first successful comedy series on British television, and wrote for Arthur Askey, Ted Ray and Jimmy Wheeler.

All this experience ultimately led to Colin creating The Army Game in 1957. Appearing on ITV just a few months after the BBC started showing The Phil Silvers Show, some critics accused him of hopping on the military bandwagon but Colin always credited the Boulting Brothers' 1956 film Private's Progress as his inspiration.

William Hartnell, who played a supporting role in that picture, was cast in one of the lead roles, playing Sgt Percy Bullimore. Hartnell was being typecast in roles as heavies and army sergeants at this point in his career, and he would be effectively poached from the series the following year by Carry On Sergeant, the first entry in what would become an iconic film series, playing yet another Sergeant Major. Bullimore is brutish and brusque, and much of the humour comes from the juxtaposition between his dour demeanour and the juvenile jokes bandied about by the lower orders. The character's DNA can be seen in subsequent sitcom authority figures like Mackay in Porridge and Sergeant Major Williams in It Ain't Half Hot Mum. Had it not been for the huge success of Doctor Who from 1963, in which he starred as the first titular Time Lord, Hartnell may well have continued playing such roles forevermore.

Members of the cast and crew pictured on set. Credit: Granada Television
Members of the cast and crew pictured on set. Credit: Granada Television

The Army Game focused on a dysfunctional gang of recalcitrant soldiers occupying Hut 29 at the Surplus Ordnance Depot in Staffordshire. Original underlings included Michael Medwin as Col. Springer who, aside from being the spiv who could seemingly acquire anything they needed for their schemes, was also ostensibly in charge. There was also Bernard Bresslaw's Popplewell, Alfie Bass's 'Excused Boots' Bisley, Bill Fraser as Sergeant Major Claude Snudge, Charles Hawtrey's 'Professor' Hatchett and Norman Rossington's 'Cupcake' Cook. They were a rag tag group who, in true sitcom fashion, were polar opposites in personality and demeanour, forever trying to get the better of Bullimore and Major Upshot-Bagley, played by prolific character actor Geoffrey Sumner.

The British television sitcom as an artform was still in its infancy at this stage. Rodney Hobson's Pinwright's Progress, sadly never recorded, is by common consensus the very first sitcom on British television, having been broadcast from late 1946. Galton & Simpson's Hancock's Half Hour popularised the form a decade later (radio from 1954, TV from 1956), as did Frank Muir and Denis Norden's Whack-O!. All of these were BBC productions, and ITV, launching in 1955, had yet to produce an equally successful show.

It is a common misconception that The Army Game was the very first ITV sitcom. While it may have been the first one to become popular, series such as The Adventures Of Aggie, Over To William and Arthur Askey vehicle Love And Kisses were broadcast on the network prior to The Army Game. All three shows are now lost.

The Army Game. Image shows left to right: Pte 'Cass' Dooley (Harry Towb), Pte 'Chubby' Catchpole (Dick Emery). Credit: Granada Television, ITV
The Army Game. Image shows left to right: Pte 'Cass' Dooley (Harry Towb), Pte 'Chubby' Catchpole (Dick Emery). Credit: Granada Television, ITV

The first big cast shake up saw Rossington, Hartnell, Bresslaw and Hawtrey leave after the first series, with Ted Lune, Frank Williams and Harry Fowler joining the ranks as Pte Leonard Bone, Capt T. R. Pockett, Cpl 'Flogger' Hoskins. Dick Emery joined in the final series, playing Pte. "Chubby" Catchpole. These new characters were essentially the same in all but name as those they replaced, to allow the same group dynamic to continue.

While the humour of The Army Game was never especially lewd or lascivious, episodes were frequently written in the structure of a farce. Take Snudge's Budgie from Series 4, in which they acquire a budgie to replace Snudge's after Bootsie lets it escape. The gang use ventriloquism to make a tea shop owner believe her budgie has suddenly acquired a very foul mouth and offer to dispose of it for her, so that they can give it to Snudge. At the end of the episode, Snudge's real budgie is returned to him by a sailor who captured it, and has been trying to teach it to speak. The inevitable result is that it now swears like, well, a sailor.

Eventually, it was Bass and Fraser who came to the forefront. Their characters became so popular they headlined their own spin-off, Bootsie And Snudge. In many ways, they were the classic double act - Snudge often lords his superiority over Bootsie, who retaliates with putdowns and insults.

Quad poster design for I Only Arsked! (1958). Credit: Granada Television, Hammer Film Productions, Columbia Pictures, ITV
Quad poster design for I Only Arsked! (1958). Credit: Granada Television, Hammer Film Productions, Columbia Pictures, ITV

As was the case with a range of sitcoms from the era, its popularity also led to a feature film adaptation: I Only Arsked! arrived in cinemas in 1958, mid-way through Series 2. The majority of the cast reprised their roles except Hartnell: the Sergeant Major was instead played by David Lodge. As is the case with many sitcom to film adaptations, the action saw the characters relocated to a foreign country, in this case somewhere in the Middle East. Due to the breakout popularity of Bresslaw as Popplewell (at the height of the series' popularity he was reportedly receiving 200 letters a week from female fans), he played the lead in the film and lent his catchphrase to the title. Bresslaw became so closely associated with the character that he was typecast in similar roles, appearing in films like The Ugly Duckling alongside Jon Pertwee. In the same year, the show's theme tune turned into a minor pop hit, reaching number five in the charts.

In 1960, Bass, Fraser, Fowler and Williams partook in Bootserella, a short pantomime broadcast as part of Chelsea At Nine. It was directed by Gordon Flemyng, who was a regular director on The Army Game, helming twenty episodes. Carrying on the Doctor Who connection, Flemyng went on to direct Dr Who And The Daleks and Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150AD, the two big screen adventures adapted from stories in the William Hartnell era.

Sequel Bootsie And Snudge, meanwhile, saw the pair demobbed from their national service and subsequently employed at The Imperial, a gentlemen's club in Pall Mall run by irascible secretary Hesketh Pendleton, played by character actor Robert Dorning. Clive Dunn completed the cast as Henry Beerbohm Johnson. It was this part that established Dunn as an actor who could convincingly play characters much older than his actual age' something he would do for many years afterwards as Corporal Jones in Dad's Army. The cream of the comedy writing firmament penned scripts for the series, including noted dramatist Jack Rosenthal, Harry Driver, John Antrobus, Marty Feldman and Barry Took.

Bootsie And Snudge. Image shows left to right: 'Excused Boots' Bisley (Alfie Bass), Claude Snudge (Bill Fraser). Credit: Granada Television
Bootsie And Snudge. Image shows left to right: 'Excused Boots' Bisley (Alfie Bass), Claude Snudge (Bill Fraser). Credit: Granada Television

Initially running between 1960 and 1963 inclusive, the show was revived for a fourth run in 1974, this time in colour. Written by David Climie, Ronnie Cass and Lew Schwarz, it saw Bootsie win a million pounds on the football pools, with Snudge taking it upon himself to become his financial advisor.

However, even this isn't the end of the story, as Bootsie And Snudge had itself received a sequel spin-off in the form of Foreign Affairs in 1964. It followed as the pair left the Imperial, joining the diplomatic arm of the Civil Service and posted to a British Embassy somewhere in Europe. The power play here revolved around Snudge believing he is destined to become an ambassador, while Bootsie works as a security officer. Peter Jones served as script editor and lead writer, with other episodes penned by Barry Took, Richard Harris and, in yet another Doctor Who connection, Dennis Spooner, who served as script editor and writer during the concurrent William Hartnell era. Sadly, Foreign Affairs lasted for just one series of eight episodes and was wiped, no longer existing in the archives.

This post-war period proved particularly fruitful for mining comedy from the armed services. The maritime merriment of The Navy Lark filled the airwaves for almost two decades from 1959 to 1977. ITV even attempted to mirror its own success with another sitcom about the services, but despite considerable scriptwriting pedigree in the form of Dixon of Dock Green creator Ted Willis, Tell It To The Marines only ran for a single series from 1959 to 1960. Likewise, HMS Paradise, written by The Navy Lark's Lawrie Wyman, was effectively a remake of his BBC radio hit, but also sustained just a single - albeit extended, 26-episode - run, in 1964 and 5.

Sid Colin

After The Army Game, Colin took a much needed sabbatical. He would go on to pen Carry On Spying (1964), and later became Head of Light Entertainment at Yorkshire Television, commissioning Sez Les, amongst much else, which made Les Dawson a household name. With Rothwell, he wrote several screenplays for Frankie Howerd, including Up Pompeii!, before rounding out his career writing for the likes of Sunday Night At The London Palladium and Love Thy Neighbour. He died just before Christmas 1989, at the age of 74.

There is a seemingly endless font of humour to draw from when it comes to military life, and The Army Game's proverbial fingerprints can be seen through a myriad of services sitcoms that followed, from Dad's Army to Get Some In!, It Ain't Half Hot Mum and Yanks Go Home right up to date with Bluestone 42 and Gary: Tank Commander. Even without its spin-offs counted, the series totalled more than 150 episodes, still standing as the second longest-running British sitcom by episode count, after only Last Of The Summer Wine. The majority of the cast from the first series went on to feature heavily in the enduringly popular Carry On series, and while the humour of The Army Game was not quite as salacious and innuendo-laden, it is a wonderful snapshot of the era in which it was produced.


Where to start?

The Army Game. Credit: Granada Television, ITV

Series 4, Episode 1 - Return Of The Pig

Unfortunately, only 54 of the 150+ episodes still exist. A good place to start, therefore, is the first episode of the fourth series, which sees the return of both William Hartnell as the stern Sgt Percy Bullimore and Geoffrey Sumner as Major Upshot-Bagley. The plot sees Upshot-Bagley worried about his prize pig, while Bullimore attempts to block a plan to extract secrets from Catchpole, played by Dick Emery.

The Army Game Collection

The Army Game was a sitcom giant of its time, and one of ITV's most popular shows. Created by Sid Colin, it pre-dated the more famous Dad's Army by eleven years.

A group of men serving out time as conscripts in the army are determined to dodge duty and derive maximum fun out of a situation they'd rather not be in.

Because WWII was only 12 years past and national service was very much a reality, many viewers found they could identify with the characters and the situation they found themselves in.

50 surviving episodes of the highly successful and influential sitcom are included, complete and uncut, over the 6 discs in this set.

First released: Sunday 24th August 2008

  • Distributor: Network
  • Region: 2
  • Discs: 6
  • Minutes: 1,250
  • Catalogue: 7952869

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Not in the UK?

Fear not! Many items can still be ordered. Amazon in the UK delivers to many international territories, whilst their Australia, USA and Canada stores also supply many equivalent or imported items.

If you are in the North America, look out for US/Canadian flag icons on popular product listings for direct links.

If you order from a UK store, please note that the UK is in Region 2 and B, respectively, for DVDs and Blu-rays - check your player's compatibility, or look for multi-region products if you are located in another region.

If you are in Australia or New Zealand (DVD Region 4), note that almost all DVDs distributed in the UK by the BBC and 2entertain are encoded for both Region 2 and Region 4. The UK and Australasia are in the same Blu-ray region (B).

Bootsie And Snudge - The Complete First Series

Spinning off from Granada's phenomenally successful sitcom The Army Game, Bootsie And Snudge charts the Civvy Street misadventures of former National Serviceman 'Excused Boots' Bisley and his bullying sergeant, Claude Snudge, now employed within the august environs of a gentlemen's club. Alfie Bass and Bill Fraser reprise their Army Game roles, along with Clive Dunn as decrepit barman Henry Beerbohm Old Johnson and Robert Dorning as the irascible Rt. Hon. Sec. Hesketh Pendleton.

Written by Barry Took and Marty Feldman, this release includes every episode from Bootsie And Snudge Series 1, over five discs.

First released: Sunday 20th September 2009

  • Distributor: Network
  • Region: 2
  • Discs: 5
  • Catalogue: 7953178

Buy and sell old and new items
Search for this product on eBay

BCG may earn commission on sales generated through the links above.

Not in the UK?

Fear not! Many items can still be ordered. Amazon in the UK delivers to many international territories, whilst their Australia, USA and Canada stores also supply many equivalent or imported items.

If you are in the North America, look out for US/Canadian flag icons on popular product listings for direct links.

If you order from a UK store, please note that the UK is in Region 2 and B, respectively, for DVDs and Blu-rays - check your player's compatibility, or look for multi-region products if you are located in another region.

If you are in Australia or New Zealand (DVD Region 4), note that almost all DVDs distributed in the UK by the BBC and 2entertain are encoded for both Region 2 and Region 4. The UK and Australasia are in the same Blu-ray region (B).

Bootsie And Snudge - The Complete Second Series

Spinning off from Granada's phenomenally successful sitcom The Army Game, Bootsie And Snudge charts the Civvy Street misadventures of former National Serviceman 'Excused Boots' Bisley and his bullying sergeant, Claude Snudge, now employed within the august environs of a gentlemen's club in London.

Alfie Bass and Bill Fraser reprise their Army Game roles, with Clive Dunn as decrepit dogsbody Old Johnson, and Robert Dorning as irascible Rt. Hon. Sec. Hesketh Pendleton.

A much-loved series largely penned by the Round The Horne team of Barry Took and Marty Feldman, Bootsie And Snudge was originally screened between 1960 and 1963, with a sequel series in 1974. This release contains all 29 episodes of Series 2.

First released: Sunday 21st July 2013

  • Distributor: Network
  • Region: 2
  • Discs: 4
  • Catalogue: 7953909

Buy and sell old and new items
Search for this product on eBay

BCG may earn commission on sales generated through the links above.

Not in the UK?

Fear not! Many items can still be ordered. Amazon in the UK delivers to many international territories, whilst their Australia, USA and Canada stores also supply many equivalent or imported items.

If you are in the North America, look out for US/Canadian flag icons on popular product listings for direct links.

If you order from a UK store, please note that the UK is in Region 2 and B, respectively, for DVDs and Blu-rays - check your player's compatibility, or look for multi-region products if you are located in another region.

If you are in Australia or New Zealand (DVD Region 4), note that almost all DVDs distributed in the UK by the BBC and 2entertain are encoded for both Region 2 and Region 4. The UK and Australasia are in the same Blu-ray region (B).

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