Do mention the war

'Allo 'Allo may have featured predatory homo-Germans, idiotic French resistance fighters and posturing Italians, but it mocked we Brits, too.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Culture

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Good moaning. Now listen very carefully, I shall say this only once: the BBC wartime comedy ‘Allo ‘Allo is actually to be screened on German television for the first time. All eight series of the programme, which ran from 1982 to 1992, have this week been sold to the broadcaster ProSiebenSat1.

On the surface, this seems surprising. ‘Allo ‘Allo was to many people a comedy in the worst taste. It is set in a French town during the Second World War and depicts idiotic French resistance fighters, posturing Italians, imbecilic British fighter pilots, and clueless, hubristic, sex-maniac or homosexual Gestapo agents forever in search of the elusive painting ‘The Fallen Madonna With the Big Boobies’.

So why on earth would the Germans want to watch it now? After all, only 11 of the 12 episodes of the BBC comedy Fawlty Towers were aired in West Germany in the 1970s and 1980s. And you don’t have to be genius to figure out which one was omitted.

But the Germany of the 1970s was very different to Germany today. Fissured between east and west, and still coming to terms with the carnage it had unleashed across Europe some 30 years beforehand, it was culturally an unconfident country. West Germany may have taken pride in its economy, its mighty Deutschmark and its even finer football team; East Germany may have considered itself morally superior. But both had a lingering sense of shame, indeed confusion, about just what on earth allowed a country that gave the world some of the finest composers and philosophers also to give it Adolf Hitler. Thus, Basil Fawlty declaring ‘Who won the bloody war anyway?!’ was beyond the pale.

But, as shown by the masses of its people waving the national flag without shame at the 2006 football World Cup, Germany today is finally proud of itself. More at ease with their national identity, now Germans can be more at ease with ‘Allo ‘Allo.

Yet they needn’t have worried in the first place. True, we Brits tend to go on about The War in a rather embarrassing manner. But unlike on the football terraces, or in the cinema – where Germans are commonly caricatured as villainous Nazis – on television there has been a pervasive element of ambiguity and self-deprecation. Many British TV shows about Anglo-German animosity have been about taking the piss out of the British as much as they have been about making snide observations about the Germans.

Compare TV to film. In war films the Germans are either simply evil (Schindler’s List, The Great Escape, Boys from Brazil), cowardly and stupid (The Longest Day, Where Eagles Dare) or non-existent (The Battle of Britain, Dambusters). The English, and particularly the Americans, are always unremittingly heroic (and the Scots and the Irish are, peculiarly, nearly always psychopathically brave).

Yet on television, the story has been very different. Consider the 1960s and 1970s BBC comedy Dad’s Army, set during the Second World War. The entire conceit of this comedy was that the Home Guard consisted of ridiculous, self-important characters, Arthur Lowe’s Captain Mainwaring being the most obvious example – a pompous, lower middle-class bank manager with ideas above his station.

These absurd social-climbing types have always been a mainstay of British comedy. Rowan Atkinson in Blackadder Goes Forth, set in the First World War, in which the British are lampooned far more than the Germans, is another example. Surrounded by brainless upper-class toffs such as Stephen Fry’s Generel Melchett or Hugh Laurie’s Edwardian twit, Lieutenant George, and the underclass moron, Baldrick, Atkinson’s Blackadder is the typical everyman stuck in-between the two extremes of the British class system.

John Cleese’s Basil Fawlty was perhaps the epitome of the British comedic stereotype: always grovelling to those who he perceived to be Old Money, but contemptuous of ‘riff-raff’ – only because he was ashamed of his character’s rather modest background and his common wife, Sybil.

And that’s why the Fawlty Towers episode with the German sketch is so funny. It’s not deriving Schadenfreude from the Germans for losing the war. It’s having a go at pathetic people, who in the 1970s, when Britain was in perpetual economic crisis, and West Germany was going from strength to strength, harked back to the triumphs of the Second World War as a way of seeking solace in the fact that Britain had won the war, despite subsequently losing the peace.

Similarly, ‘Allo ‘Allo, although attacked for its flippancy, was a good example of British self-deprecation. Yes, we all remember the limping, monocled Nazi Herr Otto Flick, his bumbling, greedy associate colonel Kurt Von Strohm, and the predatory homosexual lieutenant Hubert Gruber, but the British characters were ridiculous as well. The two RAF officers always in hiding in René’s café were old-fashioned upper-class idiots, always compromising their safety, and that of their protectors.

And then there was the finest character, Officer Crabtree, a British spy posing as a French police officer, who had an appalling grasp of the French language that led to repetitious, but still amusing, mispronunciations, such as ‘I was pissing by the door when I heard two shats. You are holding in your hind a smoking goon. You are clearly the guilty potty’, he would say. ‘The troon carrying the sissage has been bummed by the RAF. There are little pissers all over the track.’ ‘That idiot British officer who thinks he can speak French’, the staff of René’s café would complain. ‘I admit my Fronch cod be butter’, the officer would reply.

This is why I’m glad the Germans are embracing ‘Allo ‘Allo, because it will help to dispel one national stereotype about us Brits – that we hate foreigners – and it will help to confirm another: that we are good at laughing at ourselves.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV reviewer and an obituary writer for The Times (London). Visit his blog here.

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