Having enthused about The Twilight Zone in a previous article, running a close competitor for my favourite piece of vintage TV running regularly on UK terrestrial channels in the early 80s had to be BBC2’s surprisingly comprehensive re-runs of a show that’s rarely referred to by it’s proper title. Originally dubbed ‘You’ll Never Get Rich’, appearing in its cartoon title sequence of ‘The Phil Silvers Show’, ubiquitously known simply as ‘Bilko’, this perfect slice of mid-50s US TV comedy popped up at a 6.30 time slot, maintained by the BBC religiously while they worked through the vast majority of the 142 episodes originally recorded. Designed as a vehicle for Silvers’ Broadway comic style, the show owes its genesis to creator Nat Hiken who insisted on recording it in New York, partly to capture the essence of the fast-paced Silvers’ patter, and not least to ensure that he and Silvers were never far away from lunch at Lindy’s restaurant and the city bookies.
For those unfamiliar (or tainted by the misfiring Steve Martin movie version), the premise is a simple one. Bilko is the wheeler-dealing sergeant in charge of the motor pool at Fort Baxter, a sleepy Army post just outside the fictional Kansas town of Roseville, presided over (nominally) by the bumbling but kindly Colonel John T Hall, but ruled by Bilko’s shenanigans. Willing foils are his two corporals, Rocco Barbella and Steve Henshaw, and frequent opponens, his fellow sergeants Sowicki, Ritzik (the latter a first appearance in family entertainment by vaudeville blue comic Joe E Ross) and Grover. The strength of the show, though, is the ensemble playing from the members of Bilko’s platoon – at once the victims of his low level chicanery and his flock to be protected by the predations of other even less scrupulous operators. Outstanding amongst these was Maurice Grosfield as Private Duane Doberman, uber slob and relied on to play self-knowing despondency and utter delusion with equal credibility. To complete the cast of regulars, and provide additional potential for plots was Elizabeth Fraser (not to be confused with British blonde contemporary Liz Fraser) as Sergeant Joan Hogan.
The plots for the episodes tended to fall into one of several themes: a new arrival on the camp presents a threat to Bilko’s dominance; one of the platoon is conned by an outsider and Bilko seeks to redress the situation; occasional forays away from the Fort Baxter and military setting; an Army initiative presents a new opportunity for a Bilko scheme. I think my favourite premise, though, is the arrival of the new platoon member with special talent to be exploited, which normally results in Bilko’s underlying sense of justice forcing him to stop short of success. The beauty of these is both in the reflection of wider US society in the 50s, from carnival sharpshooters to hoodlums, and in the range of guest appearances involved, from Dick Van Dyke as a hillbilly, Fred Gwynne making an early Nat Hiken debut before going on to star alongside Joe E Ross in Car 54 Where Are You and The Munsters, and a long pre-MASH Alan Alda. A absolute favourite for any big beat fan has to be ‘Rock’n’Roll Rookie’, in which teen star Elvin Pelvin, bearing a close resemblance to a certain RCA recording artist, is inducted and immediately sucked into a Bilko money-making scheme. One wonders what went through the mind of the real EP when this aired in March 1957, a year ahead of his eventual real induction.
Late in the run, and explained as part of an audacious Bilko plot, the action moved to Camp Fremont in California, reflecting a move of production to Hollywood which also gave better access to guest artists from the movie business. A show with such a large standing case, though, proved difficult to produce at a consistent profit and, after nearly four years on air, the final episode screened in June 1959 with one of Bilko’s scams finally backfiring on him and leaving him and his two corporals behind bars. In a parallel to The Twilight Zone, those involved seemed not to realize the potential for re-runs and CBS sold the rights to NBC. The show had its own legacies, too. Silvers consistently worked variations of the Bilko character into his stage and screen appearances (not least as a Foreign Legion NCO in the slightly out-of-kilter entry in the Carry On canon, ‘Follow That Camel’). Hiken went on to create ‘Car 54’, starring Fred Gwynne and Joe E Ross and featuring other members of the Bilko ensemble. The entire concept was translated in cartoon form to a New York alley, complete with Maurice Grosfield voicing a Doberman-esque Benny the Ball as a foil to the Silvers-inspired Top Cat. In a more surreal connection, a number of characters in The Manchurian Candidate book and film borrowed their names from Bilko characters. Closer to home, one of my friends even decided that the handle Lester Mendelsohn (from Bilko’s Black Magic) was far more interesting than his prosaic English name and not only adopted it, but also slipped it into the sleeve notes of an LP he was designing as one of the contributing artists.
Forty years on, it’s hard to imagine one of the primary BBC channels devoting half a hour a week at the same time to an almost complete re-run of a 30 year-old black and white series; having checked off the episodes I faithfully videotaped each week, the only ones that are missing appear to be those that revolved around a guest star of sufficient magnitude to create licensing issues. Fortunately, as with the The Twilight Zone, there has at last appeared a comprehensive DVD box set to replace my ageing tapes and make up for the odd episode that started late and so got cut off by the timer in mid-flow. There have also been some good books on the series to complement the issue of Primetime magazine that was my first source of episode listings. First off the stocks in 1985 was ‘Bilko – The Fort Baxter Story’ by a couple of British Bilko nerds, David Thomas and Ian Irvine (why is it always the Brits who have the compulsion to document US popular culture?).Then in 1980 appeared a behind the scenes insight by Mickey Freeman, aka Private Zimmerman, in ‘Bilko: Behind the Lines with Phil Silvers’. Both books included a comprehensive episode guide. The most recent addition to the ‘Bilkography’ has been David Everitt’s biography of Nat Hiken, ‘King of the Half Hour’.
But there’s no substitute for firing up the TV, sitting back and immersing yourself in 25 minutes of pure mid-century comedy gold.