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.

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