Spike Milligan (Jim Dale) is a trumpet player in a dance band, but the year is 1939 and the Second World War is brewing so he fears he will be conscripted into the British Army before long, no matter that he denies his country will go to war and ignores the letters the government keeps sending him. He lives with his father (Spike Milligan), mother (Pat Coombs) and younger brother, and does not like the idea of leaving them behind, but there is a greater good to contend with, so one night when he is performing the town hall manager interrupts them and announces the bad news...
It's safe to say the War had a lasting effect on Spike Milligan, as it did countless others, but in his case it sparked both his comic genius and his crushing mental health problems. This didn't stop him working completely, and some thirty years after he had been called up he published a series of memoirs about his time in the forces which for many fans (and he did have a lot, starting with his work on classic radio series The Goon Show in the fifties) was one of the finest works he had ever written. The first volume detailed his training leading up to his posting abroad, and was very popular thanks to his irreverent sense of humour mixed with tall stories of the services and a measure of humanity.
You just had to see Milligan's television comedy series well into the decade this film came out and even after that he had become obsessed with the War years, as it seemed not an episode would go by without him dressing up as Adolf Hitler for comedic effect, but after quite some time doing this you had to wonder if it was really healthy. No such worries for this film version of his concerns, brought to the screen by Norman Cohen who was best known for kicking off the Confessions of a Window Cleaner series, though this was far less bawdy aside from a couple of scenes, odd when you consider how unfettered by politeness the source had been, though an accurate translation would likely not have been released.
Overage Dale wasn't a bad stand-in for Milligan, but inevitably had audiences comparing this to the Carry On franchise which didn't especially help in its perception as its own entity, with the author approaching his comedy from a different angle to the saucy seaside postcard stylings of that series. The script took a few anecdotes direct from the page, but rather than coming across as sprightly bits of sillness, when you actually saw them acted out they seemed laborious and heavy-footed: as flat as the feet in the flat feet setpiece, in fact. Certainly there were a collection of solid character performers to bring this to some semblance of life, with Arthur Lowe apparently cast to make comparisons with his sitcom Dad's Army and Bill Maynard as the no-nonsense sergeant major among others.
But for all their good intentions, there was a lack of a unifying tone to bring this together successfully, with some additions to the text standing out like a sore thumb. One invention was where Spike and his fellow conscripts witness a dogfight in the sky, then the German plane crashes, killing the pilots. The sergeant major orders them over to salvage what they can, but the guard left behind is killed when the plane explodes - it's supposed to be a shocking moment, but it's far too contrived for sobering the audience up and making them contemplate the horrors of war, no wonder it doesn't ring true whatever its intentions when it was made up. In the book, Milligan was never so thumpingly obvious, there the overriding sense was of how amazed he was that he and his motley crew of soldiers were able to beat the Nazis at all, mixed with a regret that it had to happen in the first place, hence the huge grudge against Hitler. Apparently that was too subtle for the film, alas, leaving a mild service comedy with serious bits. Music by Wilfred Burns.