Archive fun: Bilko

Because I am currently suffering a quite debilitating bout of writer’s block – or is it writers’ block, as we all get it? – specifically, unable to write a decent page of script when I am currently trying to write a decent script, I find myself scanning my own written archive. Displacement activity, chiefly, although when the words won’t come, it’s useful to remind oneself that words did come. I woke up this morning, this morning being Monday, the first working day of the working week, in a bit of a panic, and once I opened my laptop, instead of opening the document I’m supposed to be writing, and writing in it, I idled around my blog archive. I read, in full, the piece I wrote about Quentin Letts and squirrels in July 2010, and thought it was pretty well written. You can still read it. (And in fact, some of you are, as it’s always somewhere in the Top 20 of most read blog posts, which is why I happened upon it this morning.)

It’s not going to help me write a script, as it isn’t in script form, but it at least reassures me at a sensitive, self-conscious time, that I can, if the stars are correctly aligned, string a sentence together. The killing joke is: nobody commissioned me to write about Quentin Letts, and I was not paid for writing it. You can’t make a living writing for nothing. But writing for nothing can set you free as a writer. Maybe I should imagine that the script I am writing, or not writing, is actually for this blog and that it doesn’t matter what it’s like. Maybe it’ll get written that way. (That said, a deadline is a surefire muse. Unfortunately, the script I am writing, or not writing, does not have a distinct deadline. The sooner I write and deliver it, though, the better.)

Anyway, before I do something useful towards my professional goal, having already written some words this morning – ie. that preamble – I was contacted by a man called Steve Everitt on Twitter last night asking me if I had the “clout” to get the BBC to show Bilko. (Steve really likes Bilko, only one season of which is even available on DVD, apparently. He is co-founder, writer and researcher at The British Phil Silvers Appreciation Society, launched in 1985 “with Mr Silvers’ full blessing” – it’s here.) I don’t have any such clout, sadly. But the brief Twitter exchange reminded me how much I used to love Bilko as a kid. I loved the characters, and without really knowing much about it, I guess I must have loved the scripts, without which my favourite characters would have been mute.

I felt sure I had written something about Bilko at one point, so I searched my entire writing archive, which goes all the way back to 1996 (anything to not have to write that script, or to not have to not be able to write that script), and I found this short, 650-word column.

It was written for Front Row on Radio 4 in September 2005, which means I will have read it out in a studio at Broadcasting House, and it will have been transmitted on Radio 4. I reprint it here, because otherwise, it will not exist outside of my swollen archive. I might reprint a few other things here, too. Why the hell not? Get them out there. This “column”, as they’re quaintly called in radio, is not a classic piece of writing, but it’s succinct, and, hey, it’s about great scriptwriting. So it might help.

BILKO by Andrew Collins

The first TV programme I ever saw in colour was the Hanna-Barbera cartoon Top Cat. For an eight-year-old, it was a near-hallucinogenic experience. Top Cat himself was yellow. Benny was blue. Choo Choo was pink! What a brave new world these cats represented.

But the move to colour was only partial. Many shows in the early 70s – made before the VHF-to-UHF revolution – remained black and white. One of them was the grown-up live-action sitcom The Phil Silvers Show, upon which Top Cat was unofficially modelled, and which nobody called The Phil Silvers Show, not even Phil Silvers. Bilko is what they called it.

The joy of growing up in that era is that in television terms there was no apartheid between black-and-white and colour. I didn’t care whether programmes were old or new, imported or homegrown. I only cared whether I liked them or not. Bilko was already about 15 years old when I first saw it, its 140-or-so episodes having been made between 1955 and 1959. I didn’t care. I liked them. I liked them, aged 8, because they were funny.

I like them today, aged 40, because they represent a golden age of US sitcom when the great stars of burlesque and vaudeville still dominated with their fast patter and their schtick, and when writers were all schooled in radio, where dialogue was king and, as the stage stars’ material was eaten up by the voracious new medium, they had to supply new stuff by the yard, making for a dynamic combination of comic timing and finely tuned scripts. I also like them because they’re funny.

Master Sergeant Ernie G Bilko, skiving leader of the motor-pool platoon at Fort Baxter in Roseville, Kansas, is not just one of the greatest creations of TV comedy, he’s one of the greatest creations of TV. All bluff and bluster, c’mon-c’mon and hut-hut-hut, his one aim in life is to skew the graph between income and effort – despite the show being originally called You’ll Never Get Rich. He disproves this mainly by playing poker; gambling on, say, how many times a visiting lecturer will twitch during a lecture; and conning people, using not just sleight of hand but sleight of personality.

While the great characters of British sitcom – Hancock, Mainwaring, Steptoe, Fawlty, Trotter, Brent – are losers or at best middle managers, Bilko is a winner. He is the confidence of the “no second class citizens” Eisenhower era on legs. In the course of a typical episode, he starts in the middle, aims for the top, falls to the bottom, then claws his way back to just above the middle. Like his doppelganger Top Cat, [sings] he’s the indisputable leader of the gang – he’s the boss, he’s the VIP, he’s a championship – anyway …

Bilko would, of course, be nothing without two men. Phil Silvers, whose charismatic, spin-bowling performance is the engine of the show. You may have your favourite supporting characters – Doberman, Paparrelli, even Colonel Hall – but they’re just cogs without the lubricant applied by creator Nat Hiken, who wrote or co-wrote the first 71 episodes before bailing out, knackered. They say his scripts were twice as long as the average sitcom, so fast was the delivery. His command of multiple storylines makes him the father of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm.

The highest compliment to Bilko came in 1956, when the Pentagon stepped in and forced CBS to alter the “fruit salad” of medals on Bilko’s conniving breast. They urged the removal of two Purple Hearts and three World War 2 Victory ribbons.

But even stripped of his gongs, beaten to 32nd place in Channel 4’s 100 Greatest TV Characters by Miss Piggy, and criminally unavailable here on DVD, he’s the chief, he’s the king, but above everything, he’s the most tip top, top cat.


Join our club

I have been reading and reviewing the splendid new coffee table book BBC VFX by Mat Irvine and Mike Tucker (Aurum, £30), and found my old Airfix Modellers Club membership card (circa 1977) while doing so – the two things are inextricably linked, as I used to envy Irvine whenever he appeared on Swap Shop or Model World, showing how he’d made the Liberator for Blake’s 7 using turrets and doors and other bits from Airfix kits. Anyway, during the same bout of research, I found the following piece which I wrote for the Times in February 2005 about clubs [including mention of the ELO Fan Club, circa 1978, pictured], and I reprint it here in case you are, or were, also an inveterate joiner. (Unless you are a Times subscriber you won’t be able to access my review of BBC VFX when it appears on Saturday – needless to say, it’s me telling you that I really like the book in 1,500 words.)


If I should ever drown, I’m convinced my life will flash before my eyes as a series of laminated membership cards, affiliation certificates and enamel badges. That’s because I am an inveterate joiner. Quite unlike Groucho Marx, I’m happy to be a member of any club that will have me as a member.

Ever since boyhood I have had an urge to join. I can write my own autobiography in clubs and societies, each one pinpointing a different need and a distinct life-phase. First, there was the Tufty Club, founded by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents in 1961, but with a membership of two million at its peak in 1973. Based around a stiffly-animated but sensible squirrel, I dimly remember watching some road safety films in a church hall and having a badge, but little else. I was under five, the club’s target age.

More significantly came the Warlord Secret Agent Club, a covert society run from the pages of the boys’ war comic (home of Union Jack Jackson and unreconstructed dialogue like “Take that, my slant-eyed friend!”). For a 20p postal order you got a wallet, badge and code-breaker. Ideal accessories for the combat games my brother and I played around the fields and building sites of suburban Northampton.

I simultaneously joined the school choir, getting in touch with my inner softy, and the Airfix Modellers Club (membership no. 106339). There was also the Dennis The Menace Fang Club, whose black plastic wallet contained top secret passwords D.I.N.G. and D.O.N.G. (which stood for Dennis Is Never Good and Dennis Owns Naughty Gnasher). In 1978, when I reached upper school, I flirted with the Weston Favell Bird-Watching Club and notched up just the one field trip before self-consciously letting my membership lapse. The shifting musical tastes of a teenager are mapped by the ELO Fan Club (a certificate and five bent Walkerprints, 1979) followed by the 999 International Information Service (late discovery of punk rock, 1981; a few Xeroxed newsletters).

My coming of age is marked by membership cards for the Nene College Film Society, the NUS and the AA, whose motto in 1984 was “It’s great to know you belong.” Then it’s The Whale And Dolphin Conservation Society (waking up to environmental issues in the late 80s), The Labour Party (lapsed after general election defeat, 1992), the NUJ (first job in journalism, plus first strike), Canons Health Club (mid-90s, didn’t we all?), the Soil Association (hardcore organic lifestyle badge of honour), RSPCA, PDSA (you get a Certificate Of Friendship), IFAW, WWF, CPL (once you’re on one acronymic animal charity’s mailing list …).

These days I belong to a whole portfolio of pointless online clubs which require no more effort than checking your email inbox. Even though I don’t especially like her, last year I joined the Pat Benatar Fan Club. Why? Well, I was feeling insecure, having turned 39 and moved to Surrey. And the name caught my eye when I typed “fan club” into a search engine. I could have joined the Hans Zimmer Fan Club or Baseline, the Andre Agassi Fan Club. I chose Pat’s because I could only name one of her hits, Love Is A Battlefield, and she seemed a very 80s person to have an ongoing fan club. I wanted to join and find out more.

On the same day I signed up for Benatar-News, “the Pat Benatar Fan Club News listserver”; the On The Buses Fan Club, whose first newsletter would inform me when the 70s sitcom was next repeated, provide the answer to a previous competition (“Mum used green stamps instead of money to buy her fun wig”) and sign off with a heart-warming “Ding ding!”; and Jane’s, the defence organisation, for free access to Jane’s News Briefs, Sentinel Risk Pointers and Defence Glossary (“a database containing over 20,000 defence-related acronyms and abbreviations”).

It goes without saying that signing up online is too easy. What, no postal order? No agonising wait for your SAE, bulging with documentation, badge and perhaps money-off vouchers? All you get these days is a login and a password. Who would want to join a club that’s so easy to join? At least when Groucho famously resigned from the exclusive Friar’s Club in New York with the words, “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member,” he did so by telegram.

Proper club-joining should involve some physical effort and a field trip. Hence my recent application to MENSA. “Do you want to meet like-minded people?” asked the brochure. “Are you looking for intellectual stimulation? Take the first step to membership – NOW!”

Anyone can take the MENSA Home Test. I did, and excitedly sent off my answers. I scored 143, putting me in the “top three percentile” and earning me the chance to do the Supervised IQ Test for £9.95 at University College London with 29 other hopefuls, all at least half my age, and one bright spark aged 10. “People in MENSA are a bit mad,” said the bearded adjudicator. “Cleverness complicates rather than simplifies life.”

I’ll never know. I scored 138 and 106 on the two papers and was barred entry (“Under the rules of membership you are not allowed to retake this test for 12 months,” wrote Ms H Oliver, Testing & Admissions Coordinator).

The Tony Hancock Appreciation Society (est. 1976) required no such aggravation, just a tenner. As well as The Missing Page magazine and access to the archive library, joining offered me the chance to attend my first annual Reunion Dinner, along with 86 like-minded members (mostly older chaps whose wives stayed at home) at the Quality Hotel, Bournemouth, where Hancock lived as a boy. We swapped memorabilia, entered a “fun quiz” (41 out of 45), watched episodes and queued halfway round the dining room to get our menu cards autographed by special guest June Whitfield. I returned to Surrey satisfied that it really is great to know you belong.

And there was a copy of The Teapot Times waiting for me on the mat. Worth joining the Clipper Tea Club too.

It all seems so long ago now – living in Surrey, being 39 – I was actually in the process of working up a new non-fiction book about clubs and joining when I signed up for Pat Benatar, Tony Hancock and took the MENSA test. But my publisher convinced me instead to write the third part of my memoirs, which I did. They were never very keen for me to do anything but write memoirs, which is why I am no longer with them. Still, at least I got a piece in the Times out of it,