How Hi-de-Hi! embraced British nostalgia and triumphed over 1980s alternative comedy

Ruth Madoc in Hi-de-Hi! - Shutterstock/Rex
Ruth Madoc in Hi-de-Hi! - Shutterstock/Rex

Bawdy, unsophisticated and nostalgic, Hi-de-Hi! was a comedy anomaly when it hit the airwaves on January 1, 1980. This chirpy love letter to the holiday camps of the Fifties and Sixties is today regarded as a sitcom classic and news of the death of Ruth Madoc – aka flinty Maplins Yellowcoat Gladys Pugh – has prompted an outpouring of emotion. But when Pugh said her first “Hello campers!” 42 years ago, Hi-de-Hi! was swimming against the comedic currents. And in that determination to do its own thing and be proudly old-fashioned lay the secret to its charm and longevity.

Comedy in the 1980s was all about anarchy and sticking up two fingers to the establishment. The Young Ones, Blackadder, even the quietly incandescent Yes, Minister (which debuted a month after Hi-de-Hi! in February 1980), revelled in their rebelliousness and in tearing down sitcom conventions that had sustained beloved hits such as Dad’s Army and Are You Being Served? This was the genre’s punk-rock phase. And in the middle, gobbling up the ratings, was comedy’s very own Cliff Richard, in Hi-de-Hi!

Hi-de-Hi! creators Jimmy Perry and David Croft had impeccable pedigree. Between them they had brought to the screens Dad’s Army, Are You Being Served? and It Ain’t Half Hot Mum. They were, in other words, comedy fuddy-duddies of the first rank. If there was such a thing in Britain in 1980 as a sitcom establishment against which the alternative comedy scene could rebel, Perry and Croft were it.

But if enfants terribles such as Ben Elton and Blackadder creator Richard Curtis were fuelled by anger and indignation, the sensibility running through Hi-de-Hi! was a big-hearted nostalgia. Set in the fictional Essex seaside town of Crimpton-on-Sea, Hi-de-Hi! opens in 1959, when the post-war holiday camp boom was at its peak.

Those camps were in decline by 1980, replaced by cheap package holidays to Spain and Portugal. Much like its humour, the series is a tribute to a golden era that, by the dawn of the 1980s, had already lost its shine.

What hadn’t lost its twinkle was Perry and Croft’s talent for gags as solid as a mahogany wardrobe. Hi-de-Hi! was too big-hearted to be snide or preachy: the humour was instead down-to-earth, with occasional flashes of slapstick.

One episode revolved around hapless camp comic Spike Dixon (Jeffrey Holland) entertaining the punters dressed as a giant octopus; in another, roguish Maplins camp host Ted Bovis (Paul Shane) plots to screen a pornographic movie in the bar after hours – only for Spike, learning of a planned police raid, to swap in a Laurel and Hardy film at the last minute. Hi-de-Hi! also has a wide streak of humanity courtesy of Su Pollard as the effervescent Peggy Ollerenshaw – the chalet maid whose dearest dream is to be a Maplins Yellowcoat.

Su Pollard, Simon Cadell, Michael Knowles and Ruth Madoc on the ser of Hi-de-Hi! in 1984 - PA
Su Pollard, Simon Cadell, Michael Knowles and Ruth Madoc on the ser of Hi-de-Hi! in 1984 - PA

Between the constant panting of Madoc’s Gladys – Maplins radio announcer and sports organiser – over entertainment manager Jeffrey Fairbrother, and Ted and his blue movies nights, it was all a bit ooh-matron. Still, audiences – not always in the mood for Blackadder’s wheezes about primogeniture and the Plantagenets – lapped it up. Ratings were stellar; so much so that the BBC broadcast seasons three and four back-to-back – the only time it has done so with a “first-run” series.

Hi-de-Hi! was careful not to preach or condescend. It wasn’t the first comedy set in a holiday camp. But it didn’t try to be clever or to look down on Butlins and their ilk as misbegotten places where the lower-middle-classes went to forget their woes. Quite the opposite: despite the constant shenanigans of Ted, Spike and other camp regulars, it was always made clear that the holidaymakers loved every moment at the fictional Maplins (for which Jimmy Perry drew on his experiences as a Butlins Redcoat after he left the army).

“Nearly everyone threw up their hands in horror! ‘That old thing’s been done so many times’ was the comment,” said Perry. “But all the others who’d made shows about holiday camps had got it the wrong way round – they were full of jokes about guards on the gates, barbed wire and escape tunnels. From the start, our premise was that campers had a wonderful time, which was the truth, and the humour would come from the entertainment staff.”

Hi-de-Hi! also touched gently on class and privilege. Fairbrother (Simon Cadell), the unwitting object of Glady’s affections, was a Cambridge professor who had horrified his family by taking a job at Maplins, where he hoped to gain an insight into “everyday” people. And there was constant tension between the scheming Ted and dance teacher Yvonne Stuart-Hargreaves (Diane Holland) who – as per her double-barrel name – regarded Maplins as “dreadful and commonplace”.

That view was seemingly shared by Butlins which, by the 1980w, was trying to reinvent itself and move beyond the naff image that Hi-de-Hi! celebrated. It refused permission for the production to film at any of its camps. Hi-de-Hi! was instead made at Warners Holiday Camp at Dovercourt, near Frinton-on-Sea, Essex (opened in 1937 and today a housing estate). Warners was only available out of season and so production took place through autumn and winter, with cast and crew boarding in freezing holiday homes.

“It was October and, for budget reasons, we hired the chalets. They were designed for summer occupation, so there was no heating,” recalled Croft. “The cast bore it all with great fortitude and as many blankets as we could muster. I was particularly worried about Leslie Dwyer [aka Mr Partridge, the Punch and Judy man], who was elderly – to put it mildly – but to our relief he didn’t get pneumonia!”

Never fashionable to begin with, Hi-de-Hi! has held up remarkably well. Watched today, “edgy” Eighties comedies such as the Young Ones feel centuries old. Yet in Hi-de-Hi! quaintness was always part of the package. And so it has weathered the years, like an old postcard gone a bit faded at the edges but retaining its essential lustre.

“It’s very colourful and has all kinds of different characters – young people, old people,” Holland told the Sunday Post in 2020.

“The older generation remember those days in the Fifties – I do. I went to Butlins with my parents several times. I recall the regimentation of the holiday camps. Children love the wonderful characters, such as Peggy and silly Spike. Then there are all the daft costumes, the unrequited love of Gladys and Jeffrey – it’s all there. Life is in there.”