Stanley Windrush (Ian Carmichael) is an undergraduate at university when he receives his call up papers from the Army, and as the year is 1942 with the Second World War raging, his country expects everyone to do their bit for the good of humanity. The trouble with that is, not everyone is entirely capable, and as the now Private Windrush arrives at the Gravestone Army base, his worst fears are soon realised: he may make a fine academic, but he will make a hopeless soldier. He has been given advice by his uncle, Brigadier Tracepurcel (Dennis Price), to contact him in the War Office when he can, but it's looking doubtful Windrush will even get that far...
The British satire boom of the nineteen-sixties did not appear out of nowhere, fully formed and ready to send up the establishment, because it had its roots in the previous decade. The fifties had seen the previous deference to authority engendered by the attitudes of the Second World War begin to crumble as the younger generations began to question it, and nowhere was that more obvious in cinematic terms at least than in the films of the Boulting Brothers. I'm All Right, Jack may have been the twins' most lasting achievement, and their heyday did not last long before they were overtaken by other talents, but they decidedly started something.
Private's Progress was the answer to all those incredibly laudatory war movies that this era offered the public, something which could be seen as not only celebratory of a victory, but self-congratulatory during a period when British power around the world was slipping away. As if recognising this, the Boultings created a send up of all those bulldog spirit stories where it was not some daring raid on the Nazis we were watching, but an endeavour designed to line the pockets of some rather less than noble military types who saw the war as an opportunity to make some serious money. The fact that the film sees them do so well at this under the noses of those at the top - and disguised as Nazis - was pretty scathing for 1956.
It might not seem so abrasive now, but then all these years later we are used to seeing comedy born of making fun of the powers that be, even if we accept that they still hold most of the cards, or perhaps especially because of that. So if Private's Progress could be mild viewing in the modern day, there were still good reasons to watch, and much of that was in the performances of actors who knew of which they spake, having been through the war or at least National Service, and better suited to the task in hand than many would be today. That they were broadcasting this humour to an audience who had had the same experiences ironically offered up a "We're all in it together" tone which was much of the appeal.
Everybody back then would have known a Private Windrush, that hopeless recruit who tried his best but simply was not up to the job, and the film got quite some mileage out of his antics whether it be accidentally sabotaging a tent-raising exercise or finding his slight headache is a nightmare of red tape when he brings it up as an excuse to take it easier that morning. Carmichael was a past master at this sort of polite, well-meaning but rather useless type, and there remain parts of this which can raise a laugh thanks to his expert delivery: the bit of business where he cluelessly resorts to speaking Japanese to a German officer is very funny. He had plenty of help, with Terry-Thomas finding a catchphrase when his officer character deigns anyone who doesn't meet his standards as "an absolute shower", Richard Attenborough as a spiv to all intents and purposes, and a wealth of valuable supporting actors. So began a more critical public mindset that would really get a foothold over the next few years, for better or worse, bringing us from lampooning to outright cynicism. Music by John Addison.