DVD REVIEW: SGT BILKO - THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW: THE COMPLETE SERIES / DIRECTORS: AL DE CAPRIO, AARON RUBEN, NAT HIKEN / SCREENPLAY: VARIOUS / STARRING: PHIL SILVERS, PAUL FORD, HARVEY LEMBECK, ALLAN MELVIN / RELEASED: SEPTEMBER 22ND
It’s easy to see how a comedy about a wily career-sergeant hustling his way through army life would be a hit with American audiences of 1955. Many had seen recent active service so this was common ground for humour. What’s slightly harder to fathom is why a British audience too young to remember military service of any kind (American or otherwise) should remember the show with such fondness and, perhaps, even more nostalgia. Because, as many of you will remember, Sergeant Bilko (or The Phil Silvers Show or even, in its early days, You’ll Never Get Rich) was shown on late-night British TV for fifty years until 2004 and very popular it was too. The complete series has been strangely absent from DVD until now so it’s with some trepidation that we sit down to watch the beloved M/Sgt Ernest G. Bilko after all these years. It’s always going to be interesting to the cultural historian but nostalgia can be so, so unreliable. Will it still be funny?
Oddly enough, the canned laughter comes as a surprise. No idea why; after all it’s not even “canned”; this was filmed before a studio audience so it must have always been there. Overcoming this initial jolt we’re in with the motor pool and those familiar characters. Ernie needs money to keep a card gaming going and the platoon move as one, like frightened birds. The comic timing is on the button and we start to smile: a smile that sticks. Very soon we’re laughing out loud at as Ernie schmoozes, flatters and deceives his way through an endless supply of ultimately doomed scams. Yep, it’s still funny and this apparently amoral operator has still got a heart of gold. Don’t you even think of ripping his boys off; that’s his job.
Basically, Sergeant Bilko will always be funny. Ingenious yet simple plots combine with aced comic performances from a huge cast of regular characters whose comedy value increased with familiarity. Barbella, Henshaw, Doberman, Papparelli, Zimmerman, Grover, Ritzik and even Joan Hogan; they’re all here like old friends. Paul Ford is still wonderful as Colonel John T. Hall; his paranoid bewilderment making him the perfectly outmatched foil to the ruthless sergeant, his performances actually enhanced by his inability to remember the script. Ernie is occasionally off-camp and these are the only times that it gets a teensy-bit stale; he is simply funnier when surrounded by his regular stooges. Ultimately, it was this enormous cast that was the show’s downfall; its costs were unsustainable and it was cancelled while it was still as popular as ever.
The full box set features about two hours of extras and there’s even some commentary from the late Allan Melvin (Corporal Henshaw). The picture quality varies a bit from episode to episode (they seem to from a variety of sources) but they’re all pretty good. In short, you probably need this. It’s nearly Christmas...
Extras: The Lost Footage, Phil Silvers' last interview with Sonny Fox, Silvers on the Paul Ryan Show, BBC Documentary, Bilko in Colour!, Audio Commentaries, Lost Audition Show, Original Network Opening and Commercials, Lucy and the Efficiency Expert, Silvers on the Dick Cavett Show, 32 Page Booklet, and more.