Celebrating 40 years since much loved sitcom ‘Allo, Allo’ hit screens
Rich in innuendo and slapstick, ’Allo ’Allo! was much criticised for its alleged bad taste, although it always claimed to be poking fun at over the top wartime dramas and not at the cruelty of war itself.
Nonetheless, it was a sitcom that ran for nine series across ten years, still fondly remembered by its legions of fans.
Now, 40 years after the show debuted, Steve Cain celebrates one of the nation’s favourite sitcoms.
Famed for the use of stereotypical accents to convey the different nationalities of its characters, who cannot recall French Resistance leader Michelle Dubois hissing “Leesten very carefully, I shall say this only wance” or café-owner René Artois exasperatedly admonishing his wife “You stupid woman!”
‘Allo ‘Allo! ran from 1982 to '92 and a total of 85 episodes were made, including two 45-minute Christmas specials.
Set in occupied France during the Second World War, the story focused on René, a reluctant member of the town’s resistance cell, and his misadventures.
René struggled through the war, treading a dangerous line between the French Resistance, the Communist Resistance and the occupying German forces, in order to keep his business afloat and himself out of a coffin.
Not to mention keeping his affairs with each of his two waitresses hidden from the other – and, certainly, from his wife!
The sitcom was the brainchild of Jeremy Lloyd and David Croft, the concept parodying BBC wartime drama Secret Army. Ironically, some actors from Secret Army, including Richard Marner, Guy Siner, John D Collins and Hilary Minster, also played characters in 'Allo 'Allo!
Much the same as previous sitcoms penned by Croft and Lloyd, the programme utilised notable elements such as memorable catchphrases, cultural clichés, physical humour and visual gags.
However, ‘Allo ‘Allo! differed from other Croft sitcoms, such as Are You Being Served?, Hi-de-Hi! and You Rang, M’Lord? by featuring overarching plot lines rather than simple stand-alone stories.
This meant that viewers were often required to follow the series episode by episode in order to fully understand the plot.
Consequently, it was felt necessary to include a comical “As you may remember …” device at the opening of each episode. This would involve René breaking the fourth wall to provide the viewer with a brief summary of previous events.
Although ‘Allo ‘Allo! was the third sitcom in David Croft’s Second World War trilogy, which also included Dad’s Army and It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, he was not on board for the entire run.
After series six, he decided to hand over writing duties, Lloyd subsequently teaming up with little-known writer Paul Adam for series seven to nine.
One of the hallmarks of 'Allo 'Allo! was its fine ensemble cast, the show making celebrities of the actors who appeared in it. One such actor was Kim Hartman, who played the formidable Private Helga Geerhart.
Famed for plaits piled high upon her head, bright red lipstick, penchant for saucy lingerie and her unrequited passion for Herr Otto Flick, Helga was one of the most popular characters in the much-loved sitcom.
“To play such a funny and iconic character as Helga was just the best,” said Kim. “I could hardly have had a better part than that.”
She remembers her time in the show with great affection.
“It was just the best job ever,” she recalled. “When we started, we had no idea that we would end up working together for ten years. Originally, we hoped we’d get one or two series out of it, but it just ran and ran.”
The cast, which also included Gorden Kaye, Carmen Silvera, Vicki Michelle and Sue Hodge, formed close friendships over the years.
“We all got on so well and became such good friends that it really was a delight to go to work each day. From that point of view, being involved in something for such a long time was a big treat,” said Kim.
The sitcom gained such respectable ratings during its run that it led to several stage show reproductions which toured the UK, Australia and New Zealand. It was also a sell-out at two London theatres for two years.
However, when a new touring version of the show was produced in 2008, Kim was unable to reprise the role of Helga, the part played by Nell Jerram.
“It was impossible for me to go and see it because I was working on something else at the time but I couldn’t actually imagine sitting there watching and listening to the stage show again, having performed it so much myself. I know every line back to front and inside out, so I’d probably have been reciting all the lines with them!”
Kim wasn't the only character to be performed by a different actor in the 2008 touring production. Jeffrey Holland played René, Judy Buxton was Michelle and James Rossman performed the role of Herr Flick.
The only original cast member to appear was Vicki Michelle, who reprised her role of sultry waitress Yvette Carte-Blanche.
Since 'Allo 'Allo! ended in 1992, it has enjoyed regular repeat runs on cable channels and a boxed DVD set of the entire series was released in the UK in 2007 to mark the 25th anniversary of the show.
It was first shown on French television in 1989 but one country that initially resisted its charms – perhaps unsurprisingly – was Germany, whose television executives had shown some interest whilst the show was running in the UK but were reluctant to broadcast it due to the subject matter.
As time passed, the show’s enduring appeal eased any concerns and it was finally shown on German television in 2008, 16 years after the doors of René’s café had closed for good.
Whilst never a favourite with the critics, the show was hugely popular at home and abroad and, having been sold to 56 countries worldwide, was quite simply one of the most successful BBC comedies ever made.
It even polled at number 13 in a survey of Britain’s 100 Best Sitcoms.
In September 2009 a blue plaque was unveiled at Lynford Hall, Mundford, near Thetford in Norfolk. The courtyard of the hall had been transformed into a Nouvion town square where exteriors of Café René were filmed. The event saw many of the original cast reunited.
British Comedy Society director Aaron Brown, who unveiled the plaque, said: “It was a huge hit in Britain and internationally. It ran for ten years – almost twice as long as the war itself.”