‘Allo ‘Allo! is a BBC television British sitcom that was first broadcast on BBC One from 1982 to 1992, comprising 85 episodes. The story is set in a small-town café in German-occupied France during the Second World War. It is a parody of another BBC programme, the wartime drama Secret Army. ‘Allo, ‘Allo! was created by David Croft, who also wrote the theme music, and Jeremy Lloyd. Lloyd and Croft wrote the first six series. The remaining series were written by Lloyd and Paul Adam.
Set during the Second World War, ‘Allo ‘Allo! tells the fictitious story of René Artois (Gorden Kaye), a café owner in the town of Nouvion, France. Military from the Axis powers have occupied the town and stolen all of its valuable artefacts. These include a painting of The Fallen Madonna by fictional artist van Klomp (usually referred to as The Fallen Madonna with the Big Boobies). Two officers, Colonel Kurt von Strohm (Richard Marner) and Captain Hans Geering (Sam Kelly), have decided to keep the paintings for themselves after the war, and they coerce René into hiding the paintings in his café. Hitler also wants the paintings, and sends Herr Flick (Richard Gibson) of the Gestapo to the town to find them. Flick, in turn, conspires to keep them. The paintings are duplicated by a forger, get mixed up, lost and found, are put in knackwurst sausages and are hidden in the cellar of Café René.
At the same time, the café is being used as a safe house for two brave but clueless British airmen, Fairfax (John D. Collins) and Carstairs (Nicholas Frankau). René is forced to work with the French Resistance, led by the fearsome Michelle Dubois (Kirsten Cooke). The far-fetched plans of the Resistance to get the airmen back to Britain repeatedly fail. These are some of the main running gags of the series.
As part of these plans, the Resistance have placed a radio in the bedroom of René’s mother-in-law, Madame Fanny La Fan (Rose Hill), as this is the only room nobody enters unless they have to. This secret device for communication between London and the Resistance (codename “Nighthawk”) is hidden under the bed, and incoming messages are signaled by light bulbs concealed in the bed-knobs – leading the mother-in-law to cry “Ze flashing knobs!”. René answers with “‘Allo, ‘allo, zis is Night’awk, are you receiving me?”, hence the title of the show (“allô” is the normal French way of greeting someone over a remote communication system).
The Resistance is also “helped” by Officer Crabtree (Arthur Bostrom), a British spy posing as a French policeman, sent to France because he can speak French. However, he does not speak it very well, especially the vowels, resulting in frequent malapropisms. For example, whenever he says “Good morning”, it comes out as “Good moaning”.
René is also trying to keep his affairs with his waitresses secret from his wife, Edith (Carmen Silvera), who regularly sings in the café. But she is such an appallingly bad singer (which she does not realise herself) that visitors to her café often put cheese in their ears to block the sound. In addition, the communist resistance is plotting against René for serving Germans and for working with the Gaullist Resistance. However, the communist resistance only blow things up for money. The only reason they do not shoot René is that their leader, Denise Laroque (Moira Foot), is in love with him, a fact he has to hide from both his wife and the waitresses, Yvette Carte-Blanche (Vicki Michelle), Maria Recamier (Francesca Gonshaw; series 1 to 3) and Mimi Labonq (Sue Hodge; series 4 to 9). Furthermore, the seemingly gay German Lieutenant Gruber (Guy Siner) is also continually flirting with René and finding him in embarrassing situations.
These situations are more humorous because René is not stereotypically attractive, is not considered a hero, and is often forced (against his will) by his wife to undertake missions and secret operations. Once, Edith memorably points a gun at René to stop him running away to hide with his cousin; when interrupted by the five German officers, he explains that his wife had been proposing to him.
In one early episode, René is arrested for blowing up a railway line and shot by a German firing squad on the orders of General Erich von Klinkerhoffen (Hilary Minster), a ruthless general from Berlin, but the German officers put dummy bullets in the firing squad’s rifles. Although René survives, he has to spend the entire series posing as his own twin brother, who is also called René. René’s will bequeaths the café to Edith; so to get Café René back – or put “his fingers back in his own till”, as he puts it – René tries to convince Edith to marry him again. Meanwhile, Edith is wooed by the Italian Captain Bertorelli (Gavin Richards, later Roger Kitter) and by Monsieur Alfonse (Kenneth Connor), the undertaker who is torn between his love for Edith and his admiration for René, whom he considers a true hero of France.
These few plot devices provide the basic storyline throughout the entire series, upon which are hung classic farce set-ups, physical comedy and visual gags, ridiculous fake accents, a large amount of sexual innuendo, and a fast-paced running string of broad cultural clichés. Each episode builds on previous ones, requiring viewers to follow the series to understand the plot fully.
The series revolved around individual story arcs spread across several episodes, where typically a far-fetched scheme by the Resistance to repatriate the British airmen would become intertwined with the Gestapo’s attempts to recover the missing paintings and the German officers’ corrupt activities, which would culminate with the three groups’ plans frustrating one another and leaving them in an even worse situation than before. At the start of each subsequent episode, René summarises the plot to date for the audience (breaking the fourth wall); a gag based on the “As you remember …” device commonly used in serials. In reruns, some local TV stations have shuffled the episodes, making these plot synopses useful.
It could have been tricky to represent to the audience the (perhaps) four different languages (French, German, Italian and English) spoken by the characters. The programme uses the device of representing each language with English spoken in a theatrical foreign accent.
For example, an exchange between French-speaking characters, conducted in English with a French accent, is totally incomprehensible to the British airmen until Michelle (the only French character who speaks English) switches to Bertie Wooster-esque “top hole, old chap” style banter in an upper-class English accent. The British undercover officer Crabtree, in the permanent disguise of a French-speaking gendarme, speaks abominable French. His (presumed) mangling of French vowels is represented by similarly distorted English, most famously his customary greeting catchphrase of “Good moaning“; many of his distortions come out as innuendoes, such as “I was pissing by the door, and I thought I would drip in“.
The Germans, generally, speak in a more guttural way than the French. Bertorelli, the Italian captain, speaks in a nasal tone, generally adding an “-a” at the end of certain words: for instance in his catchphrase, “What a mistake-a to make-a!“. Other examples included “We drop-a the bolls“, “I kiss-a your hand-a“. In spite of the difficulties in communicating with the British characters, the French, Germans, and Italians all understand each other perfectly, the implication apparently being that they all understand French (and Bertorelli understands German spoken when no French are present) which they use when talking to one another, but in which their own accents remain evident.
When one particular plan calls for Herr Flick and von Smallhausen to impersonate British airmen, a gramophone record is used to learn the ‘nuances’ of English. This essentially consists of the non-word sounds suitably voiced with the signature ‘upper-class English accent’ employed in the programme.
In one episode, René is actually forced to speak German. His voice is noticeably more high-pitched, which may be a gag concerning the way the Germans talk.
The last few series introduced a new gag, where Colonel von Strohm and Lieutenant Gruber are put in situations where they have to speak in a strange manner. In one episode the two try to learn Spanish, which is basically “German” with high-pitched voices and mangled consonants. In another they are forced to wear “suicide teeth”, large bulky dentures containing poison, making them garble their speech to avoid releasing the poison. In yet another, von Strohm and Gruber are posing as Frenchmen, and are forced to speak French. This comes out as another set of non-words sounding like “Woffel woffel, woffel woffel”. A further episode features a Swedish art dealer inspecting The Fallen Madonna, who pronounces “Heil Hitler!” as “Oil Jesus!”
After the pilot aired in December 1982, a full-length first series of seven episodes was commissioned and aired from September 1984 onwards. Series two, three and four followed annually, with six episodes each.
Series five was commissioned with a view to syndicating the show in America. As a result, it aired as a single long series of twenty-six episodes between September 1988 and February 1989. The attempts to air the show in America failed (although the series later became popular on PBS), and so series six had only eight episodes commissioned, which aired from September 1989 onwards.
On 25 January 1990, Gorden Kaye suffered serious head injuries in a car crash brought on by gale-force winds. This delayed the start of the seventh series, which consisted of ten episodes airing from January 1991 onwards. Series 8 (7 episodes) followed in January 1992, and the ninth and final series of six episodes aired later that year from September onwards.
Two Christmas specials were also made. The first was a 45-minute episode, which followed Series 2 in 1985, and the second was also a 45-minute episode, screened at Christmas 1991, preceding Series 8.
In 1994, two years after the series ended, the BBC broadcast The Best of ‘Allo ‘Allo!, a compilation of clips from the series, linked by new scenes featuring Gorden Kaye and Carmen Silvera, in which René and Edith reminisce about the events of the war.
On 22 March 2007, a one-off special episode entitled The Return of ‘Allo ‘Allo! was filmed in Manchester, and was broadcast on 28 April 2007 at 9 pm on BBC 2. The storyline involves René writing his memoirs after the war, and the events from the final episode in 1992 have been overlooked. The new scenes were interspersed with clips from the original series and new interviews. The actors who reprised their roles were: Gorden Kaye, Vicki Michelle, Sue Hodge, Kirsten Cooke, Arthur Bostrom, Guy Siner, Robin Parkinson, John D. Collins and Nicholas Frankau. In addition, Richard Gibson and Sam Kelly are interviewed, although they are not reprising their respective roles. The only main characters who did not appear in the reunion at all (where the actor or actress who played the character originally was then alive) were Private Helga Geerhart (played by Kim Hartman) and Herr Engelbert von Smallhausen (played by John Louis Mansi). Jeremy Lloyd wrote the new material.
At the end of each show, in common with Dad’s Army, Are You Being Served?, It Ain’t Half Hot Mum and Hi-de-Hi!, the end credits begin with the caption “You have been watching (in order of appearance)”, followed by a short vignette shot of each of the main characters with the actor’s name displayed below. The shots are not always actual clips from the episode but usually re-enactments of a specific shot or action for each character from that episode. Being an ensemble show, the actor credits are given in the order of their first spoken line for that particular episode. Because every episode begins with René recapping the plot to camera thus far, Gorden Kaye is always first (even if he is not the first seen on screen, such as the start of episode 26 “The Sausages in the Trousers” where Mimi and Edith are first seen, but René has the first line). Kaye did not receive first billing on only one occasion, where Kaye is credited second behind Carmen Silvera.
On various occasions, particularly in later seasons, actors or actresses were credited out of order, or credited even when not appearing in the episode. Series 5 episode “The Big Flush” credits actors Kim Hartman, Richard Gibson, John Louis Mansi and Gavin Richards as having appeared, when they had not, and a series 7 episode credits Vicki Michelle as one of the last characters introduced, when she appeared in the first scene.
The show’s premise was not to make fun of the war but to spoof war-based film and TV dramas, and in particular a BBC1 drama Secret Army, which ran from 1977 to 1979 and dealt with the activities of a Belgian “escape line” that returned allied pilots to Britain, working from a Brussels café and later restaurant. Many of the elements and characters are directly taken from Secret Army, such as the café owner having an affair in the restaurant under the nose of his wife, a bed-ridden woman in a room above who knocks on the floor for attention, a pianist who is also the forger, and the enmity between the Gestapo and the German military. Many storylines for ‘Allo ‘Allo also derive directly from episodes of Secret Army, such as the valuable paintings and the accompanying forgeries, which both the Germans and the Resistance are seeking to obtain in the Secret Army second series episode “Weekend”. Some actors from Secret Army also appear in ‘Allo ‘Allo!: Richard Marner, Guy Siner, John D. Collins, Hilary Minster and David Beckett. Inspiration was also drawn from patriotic black-and-white British melodramas of the 1940s.
The French village setting is reminiscent of 1972’s Clochemerle, whilst Rene’s intermediary role between the Germans and the Resistance reflects a comic version of Rick from Casablanca (as well as directly matching the proprietor of the café in Secret Army).
Two of the BBC’s earlier wartime-based comedies – Dad’s Army and It Ain’t Half Hot Mum – were also written by David Croft in partnership with Jimmy Perry. Several actors from ‘Allo ‘Allo! also appeared in these series: Carmen Silvera, Rose Hill, Jack Haig, Joy Allen, Michael Stainton, Robert Aldous, John Leeson, John D. Collins and Robin Parkinson in Dad’s Army, and Robin Parkinson, Gorden Kaye, John D. Collins, Iain Rattray and Eric Dodson in It Ain’t Half Hot Mum.
The Shelburne Escape and Evasion Line (Operation Bonaparte) of the Second World War (Comet Line) has some similarities to this series. More than 300 airmen and agents escaped through this line.
Having a café cabaret in the plot, music was often performed on the show. This usually took place with Madame Edith singing, and either Lt. Gruber or LeClerc at the piano. Occasionally, Gruber sang and played piano at the same time. Characters could also be seen whistling or humming tunes at certain points.
The title is London Calling, but according to Guy Siner the first lyrics are:
‘Allo ‘Allo, we meet again,
And just as before …
Carmen Silvera sang the full song and it was released on LP in the 1980s.
The café cabaret music usually took the form of 1930s film and show tunes – reminiscent of the way period songs were also used in Secret Army.
Most popular was “Louise” from the film Innocents in Paris (1953), which featured a number of times and was even sung in the “broken-French” language of Crabtree, who pronounced the title “Loo-woes”. Gruber sang a number such as “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” from Show Boat or “(I Got a Woman Crazy for Me) She’s Funny That Way” by Neil Monet and Richard A. Whiting. He gazed at René in a slightly lustful manner, replacing lyrics such as “woman” and “she” with “boy” and “he”. He caused a particular sensation with his straight version of Noël Coward‘s “Mad About the Boy“.
Naturally the “La Marseillaise” and the German National Anthem “Deutschlandlied” featured from time to time, for example where several French peasants sang La Marsellaise to celebrate the expected bombing of the Germans, but the singers flawlessly and without hesitation switch to Das Lied der Deutschen when the Germans come past. Helga also sometimes stripped to a rather raunchy version of the latter tune.
In 1986, Gorden Kaye and Vicki Michelle released a version of the hit song Je t’aime … moi non plus. The characters of Yvette and René could be heard talking and canoodling in a comic manner whilst the familiar musical Je t′aime melody played in the background. The song got to number fifty-seven in the UK Singles Chart.
In 1985 Gordon Kaye and Carmen Silvera appeared on the Royal Variety Performance in character as Rene and Edith and sang I Remember It Well.
From 1982–1987 all interior scenes were filmed in front of a live studio audience at the BBC Television Centre studios in London. From 1988 production moved to BBC Elstree Centre in Studio D. With hopes for a US syndication deal the BBC planned to make 26 new episodes of the sitcom and so bigger space was needed for the production. Even though the US syndication deal did not go ahead as planned, production remained at BBC Elstree Centre for the remaining episodes of the show which ended in 1992. With more space to play with, the outside set of Café Rene became a semi-permanent structure in the former ATV Garage building.