Simon Hoggart

Past perfect

Last week I had the pleasure of lunching with Michael Medwin, who is the only surviving member of the cast of The Army Game (ITV, 1957–61).

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Last week I had the pleasure of lunching with Michael Medwin, who is the only surviving member of the cast of The Army Game (ITV, 1957–61).

Last week I had the pleasure of lunching with Michael Medwin, who is the only surviving member of the cast of The Army Game (ITV, 1957–61). He is 86 now, but amazingly sharp and chipper, still an active and successful impresario. He is anxious that the show is not forgotten, because in its day — shortly after the start of ITV — it was the most popular programme on television. But it has inevitably faded from memory; the first few series were broadcast live, which meant there were no recordings (and they’d probably have been destroyed anyway — the tapes of two later series made by Medwin were simply binned by Associated-Rediffusion. And later the BBC unforgivably destroyed nearly all episodes of Cook and Moore’s brilliant Not Only, But Also, while, for some reason, keeping every Trooping the Colour. ‘And now, another chance to see 1962, when it rained.’ In those days television was as disposable as a paper tissue).

The Army Game began just two years after ITV started. The set was basic — a hut, and to one side the CO’s office. They had to hit the ‘natural break’ and the ending on time, or else they’d have been faded, even if it meant losing a punchline. The show soon kept people in on Friday nights, though there were still middle-class families who refused to watch commercial television. But it was performed in Chelsea, and Medwin recalls women from Belgravia phoning to ask if nanny could bring the children. One general thought it was a documentary, and complained to the War Office. Medwin, who played Cpl Springer, and Norman Rossington (‘Cupcake’) realised how huge it was when they were on their way to Blackpool and stopped for a cup of tea. ‘Suddenly the street outside was thronged with people. We wondered what the big event was, and then realised it was us.’

Was it as funny as modern comedies? That’s like asking whether Stanley Matthews was as good as Ronaldo; probably not, but they were the best in their day. Now, when half-decent television instantly becomes a part of our communal memory to be watched over and over, it would be a shame if it vanished altogether.

Back to the present day, and I don’t think Mastercrafts (BBC2, Friday) will make a DVD box set any time soon. I really wanted to like it. Monty Don is a terrific presenter, who never preens himself. The idea is, at a time when modern institutions are collapsing around us, to get people back in touch with ancient crafts, and who can argue with that? It’s just that watching people sit in a copse slicing wood for an hour is extremely dull, like Big Brother with only one boring task. They tried to perk things up by including Sarah, who is as bad at woodwork as I was at school. She was endlessly put down. Looking at her work, Guy, the patronising teacher, said, ‘It is less skilled. That doesn’t make it better, or worse, just different.’ Eh?

There was much excitement in the woods when we heard that Mike Abbott, ‘the country’s leading greenwood expert’, was due. They made it sound as if Alfred Brendel was coming to give your piano lesson. Mike turned out to be a gnome-like person in a woolly hat who looked as if he might live in a tree. He judged the contestants’ chairs. One was terrible, one not bad and the other just a batch of slats. You know a show is likely to fail when the grand climax is a man in a woolly hat looking at a pile of sticks.

Silent Witness (BBC1, Thursday and Friday) spares its viewers nothing. Last week Nikki and Harry were in South Africa, uncovering murder, people trafficking and child prostitution. Watch a teenage girl being ‘necklaced’ and you know for a fact her charred and twisted cadaver will be dissected on our screens, very soon. Interestingly, the post-apartheid whites were all goodies (even the boorish white detective had a heart of gold) and all the baddies — they were really bad baddies — were black. Was this unfair, or was the BBC showing it’s prepared to ignore a liberal, PC agenda? I don’t know. But apparently bookings for the World Cup this year have been slow, and I imagine this would help make them screech to a halt.