Freelance Writer and Editor
Partwork series for GE Fabbri Ltd
THE BRITISH ARE COMING
In the town of Nouvion, somewhere in France, René and Edith Artois run a busy café. René has a nice arrangement whereby Colonel von Strohm and Captain Hans Geering supply him with butter and paraffin, and René supplies them with Yvette and Maria, the waitresses from the café.
All is calm until the arrival of Michelle of the Resisitance, who press gangs René into helping two British airmen to escape from France. For this, they will need to house an ex-con, Monsieur Leclerc, to forge the papers. Then Herr Flick of the Gestapo arrives, to recover the priceless painting of the Fallen Madonna with the Big Boobies, which has gone missing from the Chateau Fontenac.
After the success of their previous collaboration, Are You Being Served? , writers Jeremy Lloyd and David Croft were eager to create their next sitcom. Despite several concepts, nothing was hitting the mark, until Jeremy suggested they try a pastiche of the many World War II films. In three days, the first script for ’ Allo! ’Allo! was born.
When the pilot episode was first aired on BBC One on 30th December 1982, everyone involved knew it was very special. But some doubted whether they would get the go-ahead for a series, on the grounds of taste. Little did they know that it would soon become one of the most popular comedy shows on British television.
Most of the characters in the pilot were written with the intention of featuring them in the later series. But Lieutenant Gruber was created for that one scene in which René asks for a light, and inadvertantly gives the code word, leading René to mistake him for the forger. This offered the perfect opening for René to ask: ‘Are you one of them?’ and for Gruber to reply, almost apologetically: ‘Well, it was very lonely on the Russian Front.’
The scene was played with such skill and polish by the actor, Guy Siner, that David and Jeremy decided to include Gruber as a regular in the show, thus introducing the camp character that seems to feature in most of David’s programmes. Gruber was to become the first openly gay character in a British sitcom.
Location filming took place in August 1982, with the majority of shoots in Suffolk – conveniently close to David Croft’s home.
Both the exterior scene, in which Leclerc (played by Jack Haig) is sprung from jail, was recorded at Wapping sports centre, east London. If you look carefully, you will notice that the cell window looks small from the inside, and has only two bars. Seen from the outside, it seems to have got bigger, and now has five bars. This is because, while the exterior was filmed in Wapping, the interior was shot in the studio, and was designed before the final location was chosen.
GORDEN WITH AN ‘E’
Rene Artois is truly one of life’s survivors. He has to work at it, though, because if he doesn’t keep the Germans happy, they will shoot him. If he doesn’t keep the Resistance happy, they will shoot him. If he doesn’t keep his wife happy, she will shoot him – and if she finds out that he is carrying on with the waitresses in his café, she will not be happy, and she will shoot him twice.
The part of René Artois, the put-upon French café owner who is pivotal to the events of ’Allo! ’Allo! , was written especially for Gorden Kaye. Having used the little-known actor in a number of his earlier shows, including Are You Being Served?, David Croft recognised Kaye’s talents, and was determined to create a series around him.
A FACE FOR COMEDY
Gorden tempered the British stereotype of the self-centred, unprincipled Frenchman with a charm and vulnerability that has made him an enduring favourite with audiences in more than 50 countries around the world.
‘I loved René from the start – this cowardly, cunning, randy man who makes you laugh at things you shouldn’t,’ says Kaye in his autobiography, René and Me. ‘But René is quite reliable in a way, I think, which is something people like about him.’
It is clear that René has little interest in the aims of the Resistance or the German soldiers. Instead, he would prefer a quiet life, running his café and fooling around with his waitresses – or any other woman who will catch his roving eye. Anything to distract him from his nagging wfie, Edith, and the demands of her bed-ridden mother.
So, what of the man behind this endearing performance? The detail that goes into creating a character such as René doesn’t come without effort and, as Kaye himself admits: ‘One of my major faults is that I am pedantic about my work, and there are times when I am a bit of a bossy boots.’
Gorden Fitzgerald Kaye was born in Huddersfield, Yorkshire, and was, by his own admission, a ‘miracle baby’. His mother, Gracie, married late, and was 42 years old by the time her child was born on 7th April 1941.
His father, an engineer in a tractor factory, was born in the reign of Queen Victoria, and typically for a man of that background at that time, was loving but strict.
With no prospect of siblings to share his parents’ affection, Gorden feels he may have been a little over-protected. Noticing the differences in age between his mum and dad and the parents of his classmates at King James Grammar School in Almondbury, the young Gorden sometimes feared that he would return from school to discover that they had expired from old age.
He felt awkward about his appearance. ‘I was a plain kid, you see, and a bit podgy; quite a lot podgy, in fact. And I was painfully aware of how I looked, of my size, of my clumsiness, and of this dodgy left eye which pointed the wrong way all the time.’
This had gone out of kilter at the age of three when he took a puff of his mother’s cigarette and choked so violently that the already weak eye rolled to the side and stayed there. His poor mother gave up smoking soon afterwards…
‘Being terribly introverted stayed with me until I was grown up,’ he says. ‘Not only did I feel that the whole world was conspiring to embarrass me, but I also reckoned that I was always making a prat of myself.’
But Gorden, with his robust instinct for survival, found a way to deflect any teasing that might have come his way by developing a quick wit – which has continued to serve him well in his professional life. Making a speech for Richard Branson, he once said of Virgin Airlines: ‘Why anyone wants to fly with an airline that is not prepared to go all the way I cannot understand!’
His first step into acting came while he was working in the sales office of a textile mill, and a friend who was a student at a local technical college invited him along to the college drama group. Gorden’s plans at that point had extended only as far as helping with curtains and props, but one day, the shy young man with no acting ambitions arrived at rehearsals to hear his friend announce that he would be unable to do the play, and that his friend Gorden Kaye would play the part instead.
After the initial shock, Gorden began to relax.
‘A funny thing happened,’ he says. ‘The hall was more or less empty, but I honestly began to feel something stir inside me. It seemed as if I was meant to stand there, high above the floor, delivering lines. I began to enjoy it. I began to feel that I had found the place I was meant to be.’
It was not long before an opportunity came to join the Bolton Repertory Company as a professional, which Gorden seized eagerly. His career between that time and becoming René was busy and varied, with its share of highs and lows, like those of all actors. He had been a member of the prestigious theatre company Cheek by Jowl and the Royal National Theatre, and had acted in prestige TV dramas such as Born and Bred and Mansfield Park. But nothing in the Huddersfield Technical College drama group days could have prepared him for the thunderous reception that greeted the cast of 'Allo! 'Allo! when the show took to the road at the beginning of a tour that was to travel all over the country, to Australia and New Zealand, and run in three West End theatres, including the London Palladium.
And of all the news stories that ’Allo! ’Allo! generated in those years, none had quite as astonshing an impact as the events of Thursday January 25, 1990. That morning, one of the most ferocious storms ever recorded in Europe blew up. Gorden was sitting in his car, slowly moving out of a car park, when a stake of wood that had been holding up an advertising sign shot like a javelin through the windscreen of his car, and into the front of his head, just above the right eye. For several minutes, he quipped and joked with the ambulance crew before slipping into a coma that lasted several months.
Many other people were injured, 56 people lost their lives, trees crashed down on cars, buildings were wrecked and the damage was estimated at £76m. But the story that dominated all the media coverage was of the injured ’Allo! ’Allo! star.
The following day, Mr Stuart Bell, the MP for Middlesborough, speaking in the Commons about pay rises for ambulance staff, quoted Gorden on his way to hospital, saying to one of the rescue crew: ‘You are worth more than 10 per cent.’
One member of the cast with an unusually grim sense of humour was heard to observe that not many other people could upstage a force 12 hurricane – not even Jack Haig (Monsieur Leclerc).
Men from Yorkshire have a reputation for robustness, and Gorden Kaye is no exception. Standing at over six feet tall, and built as solidly as a granite mill, he proved the legend once again, by making a complete recovery, and returning to make a new series the following Autumn.
Since the close of the series, Gorden has continued to make television appearances, in the sketch show, Revolver, The Return of ’Allo! ’Allo! and others, and numerous theatre productions. But if he chose never stepped on to a stage or in front of a camera ever again, Gorden Kaye from Huddersfield would be remembered for all time as René Artois from Nouvion.