A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I first saw an episode of The Phil Silvers Show, Nat Hiken’s 1950s army comedy, twenty years ago when it was still shown regularly on BBC Two. The episode was Cherokee Ernie, in which Phil Silvers’ scheming Sgt. Bilko sets out to play poker in Tulsa and ends up in a legal stramash of such magnitude that Oklahoma is very nearly returned to the Native Americans. I don’t need to tell you that it’s a difficult episode in lots of ways. But it was the start of a love affair that’s still going. I watched the rest of Bilko just as the BBC intended—in the wrong order and on a loop—and then on VHS, with a great box of tapes which I lugged with me to University and back. And then the BBC stopped showing it, and VHS became obsolete, and it was a long time until I could see anything of Bilko beyond the far-too-selective “best of” DVD released by CBS in 2006.
And then, in the winter of 2014, the box set arrived. Oh joy! Irrationally, I find myself watching it in short bursts far apart, as if it’s going to run out—which I suppose it will, in the sense that I won’t get to watch the whole thing in broadcast order for the first time ever again. Call me sentimental, because I am.
What is it about Bilko? On the face of it, it’s a ridiculous setup. In an obscure camp in a tiny town in Kansas, an unscrupulous motor pool sergeant is trying to get rich. He has every possible advantage in this. Ernie Bilko is a devious, inventive creature, by far the intellectual superior of the majority of those around him. His commanding officer, Paul Ford’s wonderful Col. Hall, is a soft-hearted bumbler whose victories are only ever fleeting. His two henchmen (Cpls Henshaw and Barbella, played by Allan Melvin and Harvey Lembeck) are devoted in the extreme, acting as his conspirators, enforcers and emotional punchbags; it’s the greatest codependent three-way bromance in the whole of television. He has a platoon full of broken-down men whose wants and weaknesses can always be exploited, despite their simmering resentment of him. He has a reliable stooge in Maurice Gosfield’s Pvt. Doberman, with his plaintive cry of “Why does it always have to be me?” His fellow sergeants are extremely stupid, and only too willing to lose at poker. Even his on-again off-again love interest, the superb Sgt. Joan Hogan (Elizabeth Fraser)—perhaps the only character in the whole thing who’s consistently smarter than Bilko—too often suffers from the classic supervillain’s failure to shoot straight.
And Bilko has opportunities. Boy, does he: every television producer, every gullible journalist, every master criminal passes through Roseville. There are endless competitions and tournaments and recruitment drives; disputed wills, imperilled engagements, family fall-outs, all ripe for profit-making. Every new recruit has a marketable talent: baseball, boxing, bandleading, a perfect memory for birds. Once the camp moves to California in Series 4, there are movie stars and socialites to exploit. Bilko ought to be a supremely wealthy man. He ought to be out of the motor pool and living on Park Avenue by the end of Series 1. But it never happens—the law will catch up with him before Dame Fortune does. Because Ernie Bilko has three weaknesses: bad luck, awful timing, and a deep, unpredictable vein of sentiment. If one doesn’t stop him, the others will.
Two factors make this scenario enthralling. One is Nat Hiken’s writing. Hiken retained a tight creative control over Bilko, and it shows. The multi-layered humour, the pathos, the self-awareness that’s just the right side of knowing—all this is pure Hiken, and it’s the very antithesis of the usual gag-driven sitcoms written by committee. And there are some fantastically dark moments: such as Bilko Goes South, in which Bilko leaps on a chance to winter in Florida and ends up, with his platoon, as the unwitting subjects of potentially fatal tests in a secret facility. I think that is my favourite episode.
The other factor is the cast: not just Silvers, who inhabits Bilko’s skin with charismatic ease, but the whole of the cast. This is an ensemble piece: the performances of character actors like Herbie Faye (Pvt. Fender), Joe E. Ross (Sgt. Ritzik) and Billy Sands (Pvt. Paparelli) are not incidental to the main action. They are the action. And they mean that a rewatch is always rewarding: there is always some new detail to see and appreciate.
In other words, this is a situation comedy, but it’s not the situation that makes it truly funny. This was proven to disastrous effect by Steve Martin’s awful 1996 remake. Without Hiken, without Silvers, without Ford and Gosfield and Fraser and the rest, Ernie Bilko is just an empty dressing-gown and a lack of scruples. But with them, he’s unbeatable… even if his luck never does come in.
The complete boxset of the Phil Silvers Show is available from all the usual outlets. You can also buy it from Sgt. Bilko’s Vintage Emporium, located in the Phil Silvers Archival Museum, Fargo Village, Coventry.