“We’re SADUSEA, and on the other hand we’re glad you see, we’ve got together in this equatorial latitude to chase your blues away and change your attitude…”
What do you get when you take one gay man’s autobiographical reminiscences of his time in the Forces, mixed with biting political comment, slapstick comedy, bloody violence, tragedy, high camp, and peppered with some wonderful song and dance pastiches?
You could get a bloody mess, that’s for certain. But thankfully, Michael Blakemore’s big-screen adaptation of Peter Nichols’ (probably best known for A Day in the Death of Joe Egg) now-legendary revue is anything but. Somehow managing to combine elements of all the above into a cohesive whole without losing focus, as if it were the most natural thing in the world for one to witness a humorous exchange about stolen cars followed by the sobering sight of a disgraced ex-policeman beating his partner with a stick, or a vaudeville stand-up act curtailed by a savage act of machine-gun violence. Then again, I suppose, such are the realities of war- even when, as in this case, the protagonists still largely believe themselves to be living in a time of relative peace.
Nichols’ character manifests itself onscreen in the form of the decidedly heterosexual but undoubtedly naïve and inexperienced Private Steven Flowers (Patrick Pearson) newly arrived at transit camp in Malaya to join a theatrical regiment of the Army, Song And Dance Unit South East Asia, in 1948. Fresh faced and sporting a broad West Country accent, the general inference is that he’s probably never been outside the UK before, let alone to war, and in no way is he prepared for what awaits him- namely an environment which the sinister Sergeant Reg Drummond (Michael Elphick) describes as “the Queens’ own, the Middle Sex regiment”
Here, with the guidance of so-called “Captain” Terri Dennis (Dennis Quilley) a kindly and outrageously gay female impersonator who addresses all men by the female equivalent of their name, even our Lord (“Jessica Christ”) and describes his rank as “of no service in particular, but at the service of you all”, and with a little help from foul-mouthed, bisexual Brummie Corporal Len Bonnie (Joe Melia) he will become accustomed to the lifestyle of the garrison theatre, entertaining the troops nightly with a variety of wonderfully acute tributes ranging from Anne Shelton/Vera Lynn (“All The Little Things We Used To Do”) through Marlene Deitrich (“DankeSchon”) – both featuring Quilley in incredible drag- to Fred and Ginger (“Better Far Than Sitting This Life Out”) where Perason himself gets the chance to shine, accompanied by Drummond’s former paramour, Anglo-Indian temptress Lieutenant Sylvia Morgan (Nicola Pagett) These musical numbers, composed by Nichols and Dennis King (with the exception of “Black Velvet”, a genuine bawdy barrack anthem my own father recalls singing during the Indonesian Emergency in the 1960s), showcase one of Privates’ major strengths: even if the rest of the picture were dreadful, they are so brilliantly executed that you’d still come away humming them. Luckily, the rest is not dreadful- in fact, the complete opposite, with new, commendable levels of excellence coming to light on each repeated viewing.
Cinematically we’re never in any danger of witnessing great technical artistry at work, save for some skilfully executed jungle tracking shots and painstakingly accurate lighting, but such things are not the point of this kind of “movie”- which is not so much a movie as a document, a slice of life. What we thus have, thanks to Nichols’ excellent adaptation of his own screenplay, is a combination of sparkling, witty dialogue, strong characterization, adept interplay, often multi-layered (witness, for instance, the slapstick comedy backstage between three cast members during Quilley’s Shelton routine) and, for a film so steeped in (and based upon) the traditions of “theatricality”, admirable restraint. It would be so easy, for example, for straight actors like Quilley, Melia and David Bamber (in the role of the troupe’s other openly gay character, Sergeant Charlie Bishop) to play their parts as one-dimensional caricatures, but each is so multi-dimensional, layered, textured and full of warmth and humanity that this is never the case.
True, Bishop is a confirmed wimp, a fragile flower who faints when commanding officer Major Giles Flack (John Cleese, excelling in a role that calls for some Pythonesque touches but is essentially his first foray into “proper” acting), a man so set in the old ways of British life that he fails to even realize what alternative sexualities are, let alone that his unit is populated by them, informs him of the months’ worth of intense combative training that awaits: a subsequent montage shows him unable to climb a wall, cross a river on a log beam, crawl under barbed wire without becoming caught, or even march in unison with his oppos, thus placing him firmly in the stereotypical “big girl’s blouse” category. Yet under his lily-livered exterior dwells a man with a complex religious background, a skilled medical training, a wicked sense of humour and an innate kindness of spirit. None of the above should go together on the surface, but of course, in everyday life, such seemingly disparate elements are exactly what create people. Likewise, his relationship with Melia seems unlikely on the surface, but the two love each other in a way that, maybe surprisingly given the film’s late 1940s setting, is not only accepted but encouraged, and is therefore both progressive and touching.
Being in a “theatre of war” of course, any relationships within SADUSEA, be they gay, straight (Pearson and Pagett’s romance soon turns sour when he becomes suspicious of her true intentions, and, having been promoted to Sergeant-Major by Cleese, is encouraged to snub her) bi or otherwise inclined, are, if not doomed, then invested with a certain amount of prevailing tragedy. Initially ebullient, optimistic and cheerful Cockney conscript Sergeant Kevin Cartwright (Bruce Payne) returns from his tour (both of duty and of theatres) minus his genitalia, Quilley ends up hobbling around on crutches, and the woefully inept if well-meaning Eric Young-Love (Simon Jones) loses an eye, yet none of this would have happened had it not been for the nefarious clandestine activities of Elphick and Captain Sholto Savery (John Standing) both secretly paying off their gambling debts by selling ammo to the Chinese Communist enemy. Pretending they are clueless as to this “bewildering series of losses”, they, with the full approval of Cleese (who believes that World War 3 has started, and it is God’s, and therefore Britain’s, mission to avert it), devise a scheme by which ammo can be delivered to troops on the frontline in jungle territories (and therefore ambushed and raided) in the concert party’s tour bus, the shows acting as a cover- the only problem being that no-one has been kind enough to tell the theatricals or their accompanying Gurkhas that they’re effectively being sent out as decoy cannon fodder.
This taken into account, it is easy to divide the film into two distinct halves – the first based more on openly comedic traits, but halted by the alleged deaths of Standing and Elphick on a “hush hush mission”, the second of a much darker nature as the troupe progress away from the roar of the greasepaint and the joy of large theatres towards a succession of hospitals, NAFI huts, mess halls and sparsely attended makeshift camps where, even under the watchful aegis of Cleese, danger edges ever closer- although some wonderful moments of mirth still arise from such circumstances, mainly from Quilley (referring to the Camp On Malam as “Tampon Cotex” when disillusioned at another badly attended performance, or asking a local Gurkha who “does his hair”) and Jones, who is prone to threatening anyone with a “bunch of fives” when they question his rampant heterosexuality or call him “Erica”, but is later revealed to be a virgin whose fiancée has left him for his best mate.
This clearly visible shift in the film’s content, almost directly halfway in, has invited its fair share of unkind comment, particularly from a certain kind of critic (or fan) who like their “cinema”, such as they perceive it, to remain static in emotion throughout, and seem to have great difficulty understanding anything that moves with the free flow and uncertain nature of human experience. Accusations of “over-theatricality” which have also been levelled are similarly irrelevant- it is, after all, a film of a play about a military theatre unit, and onstage is divided into two quite distinct acts with differing atmospheres. But, as I suggested earlier, perhaps the true joy of Privates On Parade is to be found in repeated viewings, where textural depths, hidden subplots and previously oblique references not only reveal, but explain, themselves in greater detail. And yes, as has been pointed out, it is very similar, in theme if not content, to the fondly-remembered sitcom It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, in which Windsor Davies played, like Cleese, an ostensibly intelligent yet clueless CO guiding a vulnerable platoon of camp entertainers through the rigours of battle- but again, this is a pointless comparison when you remember that both productions are based on the real lives of their writers, and most playwrights of the 1960s and 70s had begun their careers in the Services: indeed, Nichols’ own regimental ENSA section also featured such colourful alumni as Kenneth Williams and Stanley Baker. What differed, one supposes, were the postings, and thus the experiences engendered.
The end result, for those lucky enough to see it (despite being produced by George Harrison’s Handmade Films, who seemed to be keeping British cinema alive single-handed in the 80s, its theatrical run was small, its televisual screenings infrequent, and its DVD release undeservedly obscure) is a strikingly accurate display of a whole range of human emotion, as felt by people whose lives had already been torn apart by (depending on their age) either one or two wars, and found themselves trapped not only in an inhospitable, Government-fudged hinterland between battle and peace, but also on the cusp of two very different eras, with the stiff upper lips of the 40s soon to give way to the gyrating hips of the 50s. It was an uncertain world then, and an even more uncertain one now: hence, every confusion, strife, sadness, joy, happiness, thrill, exultation and ice-cold fear felt by the members of SADUSEA is shared by you the viewer, and while the ending may be deemed unsatisfactory by some insofar as that it leaves several ends untied, well, without wishing to repeat myself, that’s real life, isn’t it?
Privates On Parade may be a musical, but only in terms of, like Cabaret before it, having some songs in it, which all occur in environments where such activities would be expected (theatres, clubs, rehearsal rooms) . Reality isn’t a song and dance, even if that’s what you do for a living. Nor is it a comedy, even if you get to see Cleese pull some fantastic faces, slip in the odd silly voice here (“velly solly, no more clicket arrowed”) and there and, perhaps inevitably, indulge himself in a funny walk. But, with the inclusion of such elements in our lives, via the medium of cinema, television, radio, music or indeed live theatre, we get through, and when some resonance is felt, however abstract, the power is irresistible- which is why, after a succession of acts that fall squarely flat, even a whole platoon of non-English speaking Gurkhas find themselves enraptured by Bamber and Melia’s bittersweet Flanagan And Allen homage “Home Sweet Home”, and they’re not the only ones either. And, if Melia’s assertion that “you can come in here as a concert fucking pianist and end up shovelling shit” is an accurate synonym for our day to day existence, then 100 minutes spent every now and then in the company of SADUSEA may render your own personal wars and battles just that little bit easier to face.