Here’s why those ‘Army’ sets are so realistic

The designers behind Granada’s hit situation comedy

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From the TVTimes for week commencing 20 October 1957

IT started as a polite excuse for “taking the mickey” out of Army life. It has become one of television’s most rib-tickling comedies. The Army Game, originally intended to last only for the summer, has now been given an indefinite run. And with every fortnightly instalment it is building up new battalions of viewers.

What is the secret of its success? One very important reason could well be the judicious way in which each programme contains a carefully balanced mixture of the real and the imaginary.

The characters are the kind of men you would rarely meet in real life. The situations are all highly improbable. But although these are entirely fictional goings-on, every possible effort is made to see that they happen in surroundings that are true to life.

The man responsible for what we see of Nether Hopping is Granada designer Stanley Mills. The lifelike transit and surplus ordnance depot, with its huts and offices and parade ground, grows up from sketches on his drawing board.

Nether Hopping did not, however, start as just a figment of his imagination. It is made up of hundreds of different features which he has borrowed during visits to several Army camps, big and small, in various parts of the country.

A man with a sketchbook
Watch that water tower… Designer Stanley Mills is sketching it at an Army camp. And (below) there it is again through the window, correct in every detail, in a set from The Army Game

I joined Stanley Mills and his sketchbook for a visit to a hutted camp “somewhere in Cheshire.” Never have I seen an artist with such an eye for detail.

He walked around the grounds noting the positions of stirrup pumps. In one of the huts he got out his steel measure and noted the dimensions of beds, lockers and wall brackets.

He was about to leave the hut when he noticed the door. He stopped and stared. But it was the turn of the off-duty troops in the hut to stop and stare when they heard him enthusing about that simple door.

“Just what I have been looking for,” he murmured, as out came the sketchbook and down went every little feature of the door, from type of knob to the size of the padlock and the shape of the panels.

Said Mills later: “Most of the ideas for the sets used in The Army Game have come from visits I have made to five camps, all of them different.

“One was a Guards training and transit camp, a permanent place that must be one of the biggest in the country. It had polished floors and central heating in each hut. It was very pleasant, and laid out in a most efficient way. But it was more like a garden city, and was much too nice for our purpose.

“Then, completely different, was a munitions dump. It was hidden away in a forest, and there was only a handful of men on the site. When I arrived — even though I had a War Office permit — they rushed around covering up all their maps and plans. A funny thing about that place is that the OC actually keeps pigs — just like our Major Upshot-Bagley.

“What we wanted was something between the Guards camp and the munitions dump. I think that in Nether Hopping we have succeeded.”

The huts used in The Army Game have been built by Granada carpenters from Stanley Mills’ designs. But the equipment that goes into them is all genuine Army issue — on loan.

From Ladysmith Barracks, headquarters of the Manchester Regiment at Ashton under-Lyne, have come beds, lockers and other barrack-room furniture — and a welfare radio set. Certain items of military equipment have been borrowed, too.

“Spud” Taylor, head of Granada’s property department, told me that only two things had to be specially made for the programme. One was a mock bomb which had a little charge in the tail. When a button was pressed it released a sheet of flame. The other was an illicit gin still which, as “Spud” rightly remarked, was not likely to be found in any ordinary Army camp.

In the early days of The Army Game, dummy rifles were used. But now, thanks to Ladysmith Barracks, they have the real things, even if they are unserviceable. Whether they work or not, however, Granada has to have licences for them. And when they occasionally borrow light machine-guns and other small arms, they have to take out separate licences and War Office permits.

Hartnell and Sumner stand by a window. A backdrop with a water tower in it can be seen through the panes.

The property department once failed to satisfy the programme’s requirements. That was when the script called for a pig. Two were tried. The smaller one was too noisy, and the bigger one turned out to be not much of an actor; he refused to go on when he was cued. Result: no more pigs.

I was in the studio just before this pig episode was rehearsed, and I remember the outburst of Geoffrey Sumner (who besides playing the pig-loving OC is a pig-keeper himself) when he caught sight of one of the porkers.

“I am quite devastated,” he told me. “I asked them to provide me with the kind pf pig I’ve been used to myself — a lop-eared Welsh. But this is a prick-eared Blue pig, which is a cross between a Wessex saddleback and a Large White.

“I made a special point of telling them what I wanted, because a lop-eared pig is much easier to handle than a prick-eared pig. It will be a feat of acting for me to fall in love with this mongrel.”

Fortunately, as it turned out, Geoffrey didn’t have to.

Only once have the people behind The Army Game had to search for something that was not authentic — and that was to work out unidentifiable regimental names.

After a lot of research it was decided that the commanding officer and the company sergeant-major should belong to the “Loamshires,” while the men were all to be in the “QRSBs.”

What does that stand for? Well, “QR” obviously means “Queen’s Royal,” but the rest is anybody’s guess.

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