Monday, March 5, 2018

Heil Honey I'm Home (1990)

Heil Honey I'm Home logo
"Heil Honey I'm Home" logo, which is an obvious takeoff on that of US television series "Married With Children."

And now, as they say, time for something completely different.

Heil Honey I'm Home Neil McCaul
Neil McCaul as Adolf.

This is the first entry on an occasional series on this site which will go under the general category of "modern reimaginings of World War II." It is a quick look back at "Heil Honey I'm Home," a 1990 British television series with a somewhat odd concept. It merges characters taken wholesale from the Third Reich and that period of history, slaps them into a supposedly unaired sitcom from the 1950s, and adds a pinch of irreverence from 1980s shows such as "Married With Children."

DeNica Fairman Heil Honey I'm Home
DeNica Fairman as Eva.

"Heil Honey I'm Home" is not exactly a famous show. In fact, it only aired for one episode, on 30 September 1990. It is what those in the business call "high concept." Adolf Hitler - yes, that Adolf Hitler, not some joker just called Adolf Hitler - is portrayed as a suburban apartment dweller in an unnamed English city.

Heil Honey I'm Home Neil McCaul
Hitler's uniform apparently resembled that of a Boy Scout.

Now, let's get something straight right off the bat: this is not some pro-Hitler thing or anything of the sort. In fact, the show's creator Geoff Atkinson goes to some pains to emphasize that most of the people involved with "Heil Honey I'm Home" are Jewish. Satellite television channel Galaxy, part of British Satellite Broadcasting (which later became part of BSkyB), commissioned the series from writer Atkinson (more known as a writer for "Don't Watch That, Watch This," "Going Forward" and other British television series). Let's just say that Atkinson must have put on a whale of a pitch when given the chance.

Neil McCaul DeNica Fairman Heil Honey I'm Home

Without going into too many details - well, there aren't that many details, considering the show only aired once and lasted for only 26 minutes - Hitler (who is identified in the credits only as "Adolf," but completely named within the programme itself) is a suburban apartment dweller. His neighbors are a world-weary Jewish couple trying to set up their niece Ruth with the interesting parade of people who grace Hitler's door. These have included Mussolini and (in the episode that actually aired) Neville Chamberlain.

Heil Honey I'm Home Neil McCaul
Hitler trying to figure out how to get out of signing Chamberlain's silly piece of paper.

Everything is played for laughs, but there are a lot of historically accurate flourishes that are bound to offend some people. For instance, barely two minutes into the show, Hitler's wife Eva has given Hitler the Hitler salute (Hitlergruß) not once, but twice. Incidentally, did you know that you can and will be arrested in Germany for doing that to this day? It's true. The series is set in 1938, not actually during the war.

Heil Honey I'm Home Neil McCaul Patrick Cargill
Hitler greeting Neville Chamberlain, played by Patrick Cargill, better known for starring in " Father, Dear Father" (and who served in the military during World War II, incidentally.

During the series, Hitler talks incessantly about invading Poland and the Rheinland and so on and so forth, and gets a call on the telly from his pal Joseph Goebbels. High points of the episode are when someone is told to "Grab hold of the Fuehrer's butt" (in a conga line) and Chamberlain trying to get Hitler to sign the "Peace in our Time" statement (which Hitler throws in the oven).

Heil Honey I'm Home Neil McCaul

Veteran television actor Neil McCaul plays Hitler in the style of  Jackie Gleason as Ralph Kramden, though he looks eerily like John Cleese (who, incidentally, shall feature in a future installment of my series on modern reimaginings of World War II). Canadian DeNica Fairman plays Eva Braun as a sort of Peg Bundy (from "Married With Children") knockoff (DeNica dropped out after the pilot for unexplained reasons, but we can hazard a guess or two).

Heil Honey I'm Home Neil McCaul

Gareth Marks and Caroline Gruber round out the regulars by playing Arny and Rosa Goldenstein, who are fun... ethnic stereotypes. The series (according to the few who have seen it or the scripts) develops into a plot by Hitler to kill the annoying Goldensteins, who keep spoiling his attempts to impress people like Mussolini, Chamberlain and Stalin.

Apparently, there were eight episodes completed of "Heil Honey I'm Home," and parts of others, but only one has been released in its entirety. I am informed that you can find all eight if you devote all your time and energy to doing so, but I haven't found them. Watch at your own risk, only you know if the idea of a funny yet homicidal Hitler is something you want to see.

Heil Honey I'm Home Neil McCaul

Anyway, below are some captures of the series, apparently from videotape. Note that it has been condemned by Jewish groups and others.

Heil Honey I'm Home
Geoff Atkinson of Vera Productions, the creator of "Heil Honey I'm Home."

Curious British Telly has a great page on "Heil Honey I'm Home," which you are invited to visit for more information on the series. Below is an interview they did with the show's creator, Geoff Atkinson.

CBT: Hello, Geoff, and many thanks for taking the time to chat to us. We’d like to start by hearing about your life prior to Heil Honey I’m Home. You spent most of the 80s writing for British greats such as The Two Ronnies, Rory Bremner and Spitting Image to name but a few, but how did your writing career start?

GA: Simple, luck. I wrote a sketch with a friend arrogantly assuming it would be read and sent it to Ronnie Barker at BBC for consideration for the Ronnies. Not only did he read it and consider it he got back with words of encouragement and an offer for me to send more. For six months he guided, sent back feedback, and gave me the confidence to think it was possible. First thing they eventually commissioned was a RB monologue, after that I sent off cold to radio and Punch, latter took a comedy article, former invited me in to meet John Lloyd and Douglas Adams. I was very very lucky.

The Galaxy channel – which aired Heil Honey – was relatively small compared to the powerhouses of BBC and ITV, so what led to you working with them? Were any other channels approached?

At the time BSB was a fledgling channel but they had an output deal with Noel Gay that was well funded, brave and innovative. Paul Jackson who I knew from other shows was running it along with the nicest bunch of producers you could meet. I produced a series for Nick Hancock and talk turned to sitcom and it just grew from there. One of those ‘what if’ moments. I suspect other channels may have struggled.

Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun live next door to Jewish couple Arny and Rosa Goldenstein. They’re the very epitome of each others neighbour from hell. Comedy is borne from conflict, but why did you choose this particular scenario over, say, a family of cats living next door to a family of dogs?

Well cats living next door to dogs could well have worked so it’s not really a choice thing. One thing to remember about Heil Honey is it was set in 1938, before the war, but the west had a good idea what Hitler was up to. Yet we appeased him. Maybe the thought of another war was too much. This is about that moment, what do you do when the guy next door is a thug and a bully but you can hardly report him. Sometimes you can destroy bullies by laughing at them. Sometimes you may not win if you laugh but at least you have the satisfaction of seeing them for the fool they are. This isn’t about denying what happened – how could you, it was wicked and inhumane – it’s about being human in the face of inhumanity.

Our favourite aspect of the show is the acting. It’s absolutely top draw with feisty, energetic performances from all the cast. Neil McCaul’s take on Adolf Hitler via Jackie Gleason, in particular, was a real highlight. What were you most pleased with regarding the show?

Yes like all shows you make you learn a lot from the first series that you can build from. The cast were great, Maria Freidman was a great Eva and Gareth Marks (his father Alfred was the first person I wrote for on radio) a very good Arny having just finished in the West End playing the Big Bopper. I’d always wanted it to be in B/w, shot three cameras, with canned laughter, a faithful pastiche of the 50’s show it was supposed to be. I think we could maybe have done that better. And the scripts again got slightly caught in 80’s pastiching the 50’s rather than true to era. I’d have allowed the satire on appeasement to come through more. Maybe another day.

Our initial reaction to the show’s concept was “WHAT?! REALLY?!”. However, after watching the pilot episode we didn’t find it that controversial. Sure, you’re putting a famous monster from history in the limelight, but the humour seems to lie in the ineptitude of those who could stop him. Nonetheless, there are a lot of reactionary types out there who live to be offended. Prior to the pilot screening, did you have any concerns there could be a backlash?

It was always going to be a controversial piece. That wasn’t the reason for making it but equally wasn’t a reason not to. The reaction when it came was interesting – there seemed to be two strong views. It was insensitive, or it was absolutely legitimate territory. The cast – three quarters Jewish – were in the latter camp and had no problem and a lot of others were in there too. My feeling is with time we could have won the doubters round, most of the reaction was to the idea without seeing it. It is a subtle mix, wrapped around a less subtle idea. Something you glimpse, react to, glimpse a bit more, and find yourself drawn to for a slew of reasons. It’s partly about setting out something an audience may not immediately think they’re going to like and watch them come round.

It seems that, over the years, every man and his dog has given an opinion on Heil Honey. The number of people subscribed to the Galaxy channel, however, was relatively small. What, therefore, was the public’s reaction to the show in 1990?

I’d say mixed, but again, as above, a lot was a reaction to a reaction rather than those viewing it. Vowed I’d never mention The Producers – best film ever – but what appealed so much was the slow turn around in the audience when they realised they could laugh their way through taste barrier. Maybe maybe.

Shortly after the pilot episode aired, the Galaxy channel’s parent company British Satellite Broadcasting was merged with Sky. Galaxy continued on for a while, but eventually ceased transmitting in December 1990. Is this what led to the cancellation of Heil Honey or were other factors at play?

I suspect it was one reason. Not sure this was where their heart lay then. Now of course Sky have poured money and talent into comedy but back then giving airtime to the Nazis was probably less of a priority than building up Andy Grey and Richard Keys. How times have changed. Premise was this was a show made thirty years ago which has remained on the shelf, twenty years later it’s odd how it’s playing out its own premise.

Do you feel that, in this post-Sachsgate era, it would still be possible to pitch a show such as Heil Honey and get it commissioned?

I’d hope so. Tastes do change – one of the reasons for setting Heil Honey as a fifties sitcom was to reflect on the way different periods accept or deny certain things. It’s curious how this sometimes throws up anomalies and occasionally the fear is that rather than open up, we shut down. I suspect Till Death Us Do Part would be a hard pitch today. Comedy isn’t always about creating role models, characters are often flawed, damaged, or unreconstructed. We laugh at them not because we share their views but because we see through them. But there are no rights in this, writers and producers just have to bang on the door, back their convictions, and hope those making the decisions haven’t got one eye on their pension.

There are several accounts online of people attending recording sessions for unaired episodes of Heil Honey. Gareth Marks, also, has included a few clips from unaired episodes in his Comedy Showreel. This begs the question as to what happened to the unaired episodes. Were they burnt in a remote field by anxious executives? Or are they collecting dust on your shelf? If so, are they ever likely to see the light of day?

Well I do have a set of VHS’s gathering dust, yes. There’s a bit of me that would like them to play, the other bit feels with time to reflect on it all, and the inevitable holes you spot, the thing I’d like most was to return to the front line and do it again, a bit better, a bit sharper, a bit more audacious. In other words, the second series that never was.

Finally, is there anything else you would like to say regarding Heil Honey I’m Home?

Well there’s unbroadcast scripts for a series, we can make it on a tight budget, and 75 years after his death, what better way to deal with Hitler’s dark past than debunking all he stood for and laughing at him.  Paul Jackson recently told me that when he travels people always want to talk about it and where there was reluctance there’s now enthusiasm. Maybe twenty years on it’s time to try again. Any takers?

Geoff, it's been an absolute pleasure. Thank you for your time.


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