A boatload of amusingly crummy German, Italian, French, and British-masquerading-as-French accents adorn ‘Allo ‘Allo!, a gem of classic British comedy. Dating from the early ‘80s and running for nearly a decade, this BBC series depicts the trials and tribulations of René Artois (Gorden Kaye), a small town café owner in occupied France during World War II.
Between kowtowing to the local German officers who frequent his café, and helping the French Resistance try to smuggle a couple of downed British airmen out of the country, there is no end to the adventure centering around René‘s occupied life.
His exploits appear less glamorous, however, when the comedy of errors style of action keeps him risking his life through a complex series of mishaps involving a stolen painting of a rather well-endowed Madonna, safeguarding a radio and codebook of absurd phrases used to contact Allied forces (stowed under his protesting mother-in-law’s attic bedstead) and endless attempts to smuggle the Brits out of his café using ridiculous disguises and escape mechanisms that always fail. Does a hot air balloon constructed from 50 pairs of silk French knickers sound bulletproof to you?
If it weren’t enough that René has to deal with the Gestapo, his grouchy ear trumpet-wielding mother-in-law, and two daft British airmen hidden in various closets, cow suits, and crawl spaces, he also has to balance his affairs with the two sexy barmaids who work for him, inventing constant excuses to his wife when he is found in one compromising position or another.
A constant gag in the series are the accents which identify which nationality a character is meant to belong to – though they are all actually speaking English, the French with their breathy French-accented English cannot understand a word that the Brits speak, though they converse easily with the Germans around town. Michelle (Kristen Cooke), the Resistance contact who is constantly popping out from behind drapes or doorways as they shut behind someone, switches easily between her confidential whispering of French-English as she imparts the next stage of a plot, and a cheerful public school “Alright, chaps?!” British English that delights the airmen as she informs them of the plan.
The situations are so complex by the third episode or so that René takes to explaining the status of things at the start of each. “You may wonder”, he might begin, “why I am sitting in the storage cupboard with the Brie. Well, let me tell you…” Or, “You may be wondering,” he says as he looks into the camera, “why I am hiding in the hen house, out of sight of the village undertaker.” For every bizarre scenario there is a perfectly sound explanation, which René summarizes just in time for the action to start up again.
René is quick on his feet, which probably explains how he has been able to keep operating his café during a time of war, as well as keep his roving hands out of his jealous wife’s sight. There is a consistent sense of great comic timing in ‘Allo ‘Allo!, and even when the gags are obvious, the actors carry them off time after time. Michelle’s classic line, “Leessen very carefully, Ah shall say theese only once!” gets laugh after laugh as the other characters fail to hear her the first time.
Though they are supposed to be serious and threatening, the Germans provide some of the most comic moments in the series. Colonel von Strohm (Richard Marner) and his bumbling sidekick the Captain (Sam Kelly) try to keep control of the town as the occupying force. The Captain has a voice like a muppet, and the common sense of a child at times, matching the “Heil, Hitler!” of other Germans with a “meep!” that spoils the seriousness of the greeting.
The Colonel also has a secretary, Helga (Kim Hartman), with tightly coiled blond braids, snappy red lipstick, and the ability to withstand the interrogation of the resident member of the Gestapo, even while keeping all the mixed-up plots that ensnare René straight in her head. Helga maintains her loyalty to the Colonel, as well as appreciating all that René has gone through to help the Germans try to smuggle out some of the spoils of war to set up retirement funds.
Meanwhile, she can’t resist the anal retentive charms of the Gestapo’s Herr Flick, and they plan to run away together after the war, dysfunctional relationship and all. One might even suppose she enjoys being interrogated by Herr Flick while keeping the Colonel’s secrets; she certainly prefers it to going out to the movies.
Herr Flick, played by Richard Gibson, is a stern-faced, limping Gestapo officer who provides a consistent straight man to the series. With his perfectly slicked-back hair, impeccable black leather trench coat, and sound-proofed basement dungeon, the writers find another way to garner laughs by treating Herr Flick to mishaps just like the rest of the characters – the difference being that the Gestapo man tries to keep his upper lip as stiff as a steel rod. Watching an explosion from afar, Herr Flick observes a large clod of earth conk Helga in the head next to him. “That was very amusing,” he says with a perfectly straight face and a snide German accent. A moment later, he is also hit by a chunk of dirt square on the head. With the same straight tone of voice he remarks, “That was not so amusing.”
René manages to make the best of rationing and deprivation by supplying the German officers with access to the two barmaids, in return for goods like paraffin and sugar. The upper hand keeps switching however, as the Colonel and René struggle to outmaneuver each other even while the Colonel threatens to have René shot each time. (There is one point where René really does face a firing squad, and though he makes it out alive, he has to pretend to be his own twin brother. Also named René. More hijinks ensue.)
For any fan of classic British humor, this set is a treat. For viewers who enjoy comedy of the likes of Blackadder, with its historical settings and ridiculous plots, ‘Allo ‘Allo! is just waiting to be discovered.
The complete series boxed set has 19 discs, and extra material is included with each season. From interviews with the actors originally aired on British television during the show’s run, to reasonably extensive cast biographies, to footage from a taping of the cast singing in character for a children’s charity, the packaging does a good job of putting this show in the context of its time. It was a big hit with a huge following in the UK; nine seasons testifies to that. And the whole thing centers around Gorden Kaye, who has put in the performance of a lifetime as René Artois, the most abused café owner in occupied France.