ICYMI: Richard Hanrahan on Hi-de-Hi!
Each month, we ask one of Scotland's finest alternative comedians to delve into the world of 'classic comedy telly' – this month, Richard Hanrahan says hello to holiday camp sitcom Hi-de-Hi!
Now felt about right for me to unearth Hi-de-Hi! Though not exactly a hidden gem, I simply hadn’t thought the show would interest me – but while researching my latest character, it fit the bill.
Jimmy Whobblers is an old stand-up long past his sell-by date from the working men’s club scene. More Les Dawson than Bernard Manning, Whobblers never got his big break – though he did present a tiddlywink gameshow called Can’t Wink, Won’t Wink, where contestants would be paired with behemoths from the competitive tiddlywink scene, while Jimmy asked questions with his co-host, a tiny bird called Winky Woo, perched lazily on his shoulder. Biographically, Jimmy was raised in holiday camps, as his father, a butcher in the trenches of the First World War, plied his trade at Butlins throughout the land, until two children were murdered and his former moniker as 'The Butcher of Butlins' garnered notoriety.
This world is depicted in Hi-de-Hi!’s fictional holiday camp, Maplins. Following its entertainment team workers, there’s an element of North Korea about proceedings, as the resort insists everyone responds to “Hi-de-Hi” with a cheery “Ho-di-Ho”, and ensures everyone must have fun at all times, even designating Thursdays as 'Sunshine Smile Day' (made additionally comic with characteristically British gap-toothed gurns and grins).
Given the specificity of setting and characters, each brimming with potential status conflict, it is strange how quickly narrative goes off-piste. Initial episodes focus on controversial beauty contests and the like (sexism thinly disguised as “sauciness”) but by episode four the resident jockey is hiding in a fencing costume from the mob in fear of molotov cocktails.
Upfront, the emphasis on physical, colourful turns is pleasing, with plenty of costumes and accents on show – people are constantly dressing up as 'orses'. Given the situation, a ridiculous costume makes sense, providing a strangely grounded surrealism – like a kitchen sink drama with custard pies. There’s a tragedy to it all, as beneath the surface this is a troupe of alcoholics and sex addicts forced to run a family holiday camp while basically on the grift. They’re each bleakly trapped in a life by the choices they’ve made, though still unfathomably horny. An image of a pantomime donkey having to ride a real horse stands out, reminiscent of Werner Herzog’s nihilistic oeuvre.
Aside from being culturally oblivious, the show is let down for me by its credit sequences – I hate the theme tune. I’m so sorry. Where it should be endearing, hummable and make you feel safe, Hi-de-Hi!’s rock'n'roll theme feels uninspired. Meanwhile, the end credits host an imaginary curtain call – you know the thing, each actor does a cheeky wink, or a sip of tea and a posed laugh. It’s like they want to make it clear that, unlike Maplins, you’re free to leave. After this initial exposure, I can’t say I’m hooked but I’ve found enough appreciation to stick with it. At the end of the day, it’s (mostly) good (mostly) clean (mostly) fun, a bit like the camps themselves. Hi-de-Hi!
Previously on ICYMI...
- "If I'm honest, it's a bit much at times" – Mara Joy (Spontaneous Potter) on Toast of London
- "Like a comedy Kinder Bueno: nutty observational humour wrapped inside delicious absurdist craziness" – Amelia Bayler on The Young Ones