Without the whole ‘World War II’ thing going on, René Artois (played by Gordon Kaye) would have had a pretty good life. He ran a prosperous café in the quiet town of Nouvion, France – and despite resembling a moustachioed human Weeble, he still managed to have his fair share of fun with the waitresses that worked for him. Then came the attentions of some German generals, the French Resistance and the Nazis, all wanting René to do their bidding, and all threatening nasty outcomes for him if he didn’t. Suddenly, life was a little more dangerous (and if the canned laughter played over each episode was to be believed, hysterically funny too) for the proprietor of Café René.
The first series actually was fairly amusing; there was a new situation with new characters, the jokes and catchphrases were fresh and let’s face it, it was still a time when everybody liked a good laugh at another nationality’s expense wasn’t it? But, like many a programme over the years the concept was overplayed to a huge extent; each episode was pretty much the same (slightly stupider plot every time but essentially the same) and the more often somebody walked on set and uttered their tired old line you got slightly closer to putting your fist through the television set. Unfortunately it was one of those shows where the catchphrases stuck – every family had somebody who thought it was hilarious to enter the room and say ‘Leesen carefully, I shall zay zis only werrrnce…’ every time they had something to say.
So, to put things in context: René was happily running his hotbed of passion, sorry – I mean ‘café’ when war broke out, and the Germans took over Nouvion. In doing so, they decided to ransack the town of anything of value, including a couple of paintings: The Vase with the Twelve Sunflowers by Van Gogh and The Fallen Madonna by Van Klomp. The German army officers resident in Nouvion then decided that they didn’t want to hand those particular artworks over to their superiors so asked (for ‘asked’ read ‘demanded’) that René kept them hidden in his café until the war was over.
Unfortunately for them - and for René - Hitler (who was talked about frequently but never seen) decided that he would like to locate the paintings as well, and sent a member of his Gestapo to track them down. Just to add another strand of farce to the situation, Herr Flick (ha ha - geddit? ‘Hair Flick?’ Ha ha) took a fancy to the pictures too. And what really got the laughs were the names that the characters gave to the paintings: the Van Gogh was nicknamed The Cracked Vase with the Big Daisies and the Van Klomp (steady yourselves for this one…) was referred to as The Fallen Madonna with the Big Boobies. See? Hilarious.
The main focus of ‘Allo ‘Allo was the various lengths that the characters went to for the paintings. René had forgeries made of The Fallen Madonna (yes, with the boobies – ha ha again) with the intention of trying to keep both the German army officials and Herr Flick happy; obviously this led to confusion over which was the real one, and the paintings variously got lost, stuffed inside sausages (well why wouldn’t they?) and then hidden in René’s cellar. At the same time as this René was also trying to keep from getting shot; the French Resistance, led by Michelle Dubois (Kirsten Cooke), were angry at him for serving Germans in his café (obviously she didn’t know about the link between René, the Germans and the hidden paintings) and roped him in to help two British airmen (we knew they were British not only because they were referred to as such but also because they had the most upper class British accents it was possible to have) who were stranded in the town. Michelle installed them upstairs at the café, and spent each episode coming up with more and more ludicrous escape plans for the pair, all starting with ‘Leesten carefully,’ and all of which failed. This plotline also gave rise to the title of the show: the Resistance hid a radio in the bedroom of René’s bedridden mother-in-law, and when the Resistance’s London contact called, René answered with the phrase ‘Allo, ‘allo, this is Nighthawk’ – ‘allo’ being the word that the French used to greet people over the air waves.
On top of this (and the many other minor sub-plots that interweaved through the show) René was hiding his many waitress affairs (how he found time to romance Yvette, Maria and Mimi whilst all this subterfuge was going on was anybody’s guess) from his wife Edith (Carmen Silvera) who was highly suspicious of his infidelity and yet at the same time willing to believe the most outlandish lies that slipped from René’s lips whenever she caught him in flagrante. René always started his explanations for these with ‘You stupid woman!’ to make her feel stupid for doubting him. Camp café regular Lieutenant Gruber (Guy Siner) also had a crush on René – Nouvion must have had a severe lack of eligible bachelors.
Oh yes, and just to add to the mahem: after the accidental blowing up of a railway line René is ordered to face a German firing squad by Major-General Von Klinkerhoffen (a heartless German commander played by Hilary Minster). Luckily René was so useful to the corrupt Colonel Von Strohm (Richard Marner) who wanted the paintings that he ensured the real bullets were swapped for dummy ones and René’s death was faked and he returned to the town as his own twin brother. René’s will stated that in the event of his death the café would become Edith’s, and so René was then forced, as his twin brother, to try and persuade her to remarry him so he could get it back. Clear as mud.
To ensure we knew which nationality was which without having to resort to subtitling each language, each character spoke English with the appropriate accent, so two French characters would speak English with a French accent. If a character of another nationality, say German, was in the scene with them, he would not understand what was being said unless it was translated for him (i.e. spoken to him in English but with a German accent). Office Crabtree (Arthur Bostrom) was a British secret agent who was masquerading as a French policeman; he got his undercover role due to his supposed ability to be able to speak fluent French. In reality he had no ability to pronounce French words correctly, and what got the laughs was him spending most of his time on screen saying things like ‘Good moaning’ instead of ‘Good morning’. Again, ‘I was just pissing by’ was funny the first few times it was heard. By the 85th episode – not so much.
Devised by Jeremy Lloyd and David Croft (who were already responsible for Are You Being Served?) as a parody to the 1977 drama Secret Army, the ‘Allo ‘Allo pilot went out on 30 December 1982 with the first full series following in 1984. Another 8 series came after this, with Lloyd and Croft writing the first six series, and Lloyd joining with Paul Adams for the last three. Two Christmas specials (1985 and 1991) were also made, and after the show ended The Best of ‘Allo ‘Allo and The Return of ‘Allo ‘Allo were screened in 1994 and 2007 respectively. The former was a compilation of clips interspersed with new film of René and Edith talking, and the latter was a new episode filmed by a large number of the original cast.
The humour of ‘Allo ‘Allo was based on innuendos and physical farce. The characters themselves had little or no depth to them, relying on much repeated catchphrases and situations for laughs, but it was an immensely popular show for the ten years it was broadcast on the BBC. This may have been due, in part to a constantly unfolding story line, with each episode of the show built on the last; i.e. you had to have followed the story for it to all make sense. This was pretty unique for a sitcom in the 1980s, and made the audience more likely to stay watching it.
I’d tell you more, but my lips are soiled. (See? Really not funny anymore.)