Regularly attracting audiences of 15 million viewers, the 1970s BBC television sitcom, It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, set during the final months of World War II in India and Burma, was a massive hit.
It ran for eight series from January 1974 to September 1981 and focused on the adventures of a group of soldiers in the Royal Artillery Concert Party.
The series was set in 1945, before VE Day, when the concert party was stationed at the fictional Deolali Royal Artillery Depot in India – although they were transferred to Tin Min in Burma later in the series.
Created and written by Jimmy Perry and David Croft, the writing team responsible for many of the great sitcoms in the 1970s and ’80s including Dad’s Army and Hi-de-Hi, both Croft and Perry had spoken of how they were out in India fighting the Japanese during World War II.
Although the plots of It Ain’t Half Hot Mum were fictional, Perry said in an interview that they understood what life was like there during the war, adding, “We knew what we were writing about.”
Unlike many popular sitcoms from the 1970s, It Ain’t Half Hot Mum has never been revived and shown on television on channels such as Gold. This was reportedly because BBC controllers felt its characters included racial stereotypes, making the show unacceptable in the politically correct modern climate.
Perry, who died in 2016, aged 93, always denied any accusations of racism. In an interview in 2013, he said the intention had never been to offend. “We just wanted to make people laugh,” he said. He accused the show’s critics of failing to understand the era they were writing about and the way people behaved differently back in the 1940s.
One of the main stumbling blocks to screening the show for modern audiences was the controversial casting of a white actor, the late Michael Bates, in the role of an Indian character, Rangi Ram – something which wouldn’t happen today. The producers reportedly wanted to cast an Indian actor, but couldn’t find anyone suited to the role.
Bates was cast in the role because he was born in India, spoke fluent Urdu and served with the Gurkhas during World War II. However, according to a newspaper report in 2012, the show was considered too controversial to be screened again.
In 2015, it was made available on the now defunct bbcstore.com (a new service at the time, where viewers could buy their favourite programmes) but the online store closed down in November 2017, again leaving It Ain’t Half Hot Mum consigned to the archives.
Plot and characters
As It Ain’t Half Hot Mum was a comedy about a concert party, the actors performed many old music hall and traditional songs in each episode. The action revolved around the theatrical shows and also the relationships and conflict between the characters, with plenty of visual humour.
One of the most famous characters was Sergeant Major Tudor Bryn Williams, played by Windsor Davies. As the only professional soldier in the outfit, he barked out orders to the mish-mash of decidedly unprofessional soldiers who made up the concert party.
His sidekick was the diminutive Gunner Harold “Lofty” Sugden, played by Don Estelle. They bounced off each other, providing plenty of humour with impeccable comic timing.
One of their best scenes occurred when the company lined up to listen to the moving Last Post, played spectacularly badly by the bugler, Lofty.
As Sgt Major Williams began to salute and the rest of the company stood to attention, Lofty put the bugle to his lips and emitted a sound resembling a cat in very great pain.
The duo’s comic relationship continued outside It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, when they recorded a song together, Whispering Grass, in 1975. Although they were in character and Davies played it for laughs, Estelle was an excellent singer and the novelty record topped the UK singles chart.
The other members of the concert party included Bombardier “Gloria” Beaumont (Melvyn Hayes), a female impersonator who habitually dressed up as famous Hollywood film stars for the shows, as it wasn’t possible to have an actual female actress in the company.
Bombardier “Solly” Solomons (George Layton) was involved in show business before the war and always produces the shows and plays the male leads. He is very devious and intelligent and always outwits the sergeant major in a battle of wits.
Gunner “Atlas” Mackintosh (Stuart McGugan) has his own strong man act and his speciality is tearing the telephone directory in half, while Gunner “Nobby” Clark (Kenneth MacDonald) performs a whistling act, doing bird impersonations.
The action was set against the stifling hot backdrop of the Indian climate, hence the show’s title. The company get into all kinds of scrapes, including being challenged by a bandit while guarding a payroll, while Lofty finds he has a new friend in the shape of an elephant that keeps following him.
In an episode called Monsoon Madness, unbearable heat signals the beginning of monsoon season, making the company’s life even tougher. Deolali has a tropical climate, with an average temperature of around 24.9°C, so for most of the concert party, who were unused to such heat, it was almost intolerable.
Although the show has had its fair share of controversy, the writers always said it helped people to understand an important part of British history and the changes that came about after the war.
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