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Tuesday, August 27, 2013

'Stalag Luft:' Must Own Absurdist British Comedy

Stalag Luft DVD
The welcome challenge regarding reviewing the perfect British made-for-TV film "Stalag Luft" is conveying its off-the-chart awesomeness without ruining the twists that earn that praise. "Stalag" is a rare production that combines a hilarious concept, 90 minutes of perfect visual gags and wry one-liners, and an ideal cast.

It is also nice that this review is the 150th post for Unreal TV. For whatever this milestone is worth, praising an excellent British production is a nice way to mark it.

The following clip, courtesy of YouTube, of the amusing one-episode 1990 Britcom "Heil Honey I'm Home" about the domestic life of Adolph Hitler and Eva Braun is being provided as a consolation for not revealing more about "Stalag." The plot revolves around the annoying Jewish neighbors interfering with a dinner party for British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain.

On the surface, "Stalag" is the story of a group of (mostly British) prisoners in a WWII-era German prisoner of war camp. Watching the hilarity begin ensuing within minutes prompts thoughts of the scene in the 2002 Bob Crane biopic "Auto  Focus" in which US network executives express concern regarding setting the classic US sitcom "Hogan's Heroes" in German POW camp Stalag 13.

"Stalag" also prompts thoughts of US sitcom "Sports Night" creator Aaron Sorkin trying to convince the viewing public that that show is a great comedy that just happens to be set behind-the-scenes at an "ESPN Sports Center" style show.

A personal confession is that the "Sports Center" aspect of "Sports Night" prevented watching it during its network run; it was only reviewed on a prior site only as a favor to a friend who wanted the DVDs. That set now will make the cut if life leads to being stranded on a desert island. "Stalag" will be right next to it in the duffel bag. (My friend had to buy his own set.)

Both "Hogan" itself and the DVD set of that program are other personal favorites, but "Stalag" makes that incredible show look like "Who's The Boss."

Elements of "Hogan" in "Stalag" include a network of  even more cleverly concealed tunnels in the camp, a dim-witted older barracks guard who gifts of chocolate can manipulate, and a camp commandant who respects the senior POW and practically begs for his friendship and regard. "Stalag" even his its own Colonel Crittendon, played by "Bewitched's Bernard Fox, from "Hogan."

Like Crittendon, senior POW RAF Officer James "Big F" Forrester has arrogance that his abilities do not justify. Both he and Crittendon have made several failed escape attempts from POW camps.

Legendary British comedian Stephen Fry plays Forrester. Fry is best known for being part of the comedy team of Fry and Laurie with future "House" star Hugh Laurie.

Fry also starred in many classic British programs that include "Kingdom," which Unreal TV is reviewing in a few weeks, and "Jeeves and Wooster." His roles in American television include a recurring part in "Bones." (Fry's self-composed IMDb profile is a must-read.)

Nicholas Lyndhurst of the very long-running classic "Only Fools and Horses," who is a personal favorite due to Britcoms "Good Night Sweetheat" and "After You've Gone," plays Forrester's sidekick "Chump" Cosgrove. Like many good second bananas, Cosgrove is much brighter and more competent than his "superior."

Geoffrey Palmer from "As Time Goes By" and countless other productions plays the genial and largely lenient camp commandant. Unlike "Hogan's" Commandant Klink, Palmer's character knows the score and realistically views the situation at the camp.

Both "Stalag" and "Hogan" obtain their inspired inspiration from the real-life escape attempts of allied POWs and classic films, such as "Stalag 17" and "The Great Escape" regarding such valiant efforts. "Stalag" also brought to mind both classic versions of the farce "To Be or Not to Be."

Saying anything about "Stalag's" plot beyond that it begins with Forrester and Cosgrove planning a massive escape attempt would ruin "Stalag." Like any good farce, a relatively routine event simply takes wonderfully absurd turns.

In the tradition of Monty Python and other classic British comedy, a common sense observation drives much of the humor. A particular homage to Python includes a featured role for a parrot.

In addition to expertly mocking numerous neuroses that include widespread international prejudices based on one's nationality and the severity of the German psyche during WWII, "Stalag" makes great fun of the pop psychology college experiments that place students in opposing positions. An example is having one group of collegiates playing teacher to another group who portray unruly students.

One particularly amusing and cute subplot involves two prisoners having a loving homosexual affair. That pair holding hands during roll call and otherwise showing G-rated affection is sweet, and Forrester's reaction on learning of the relationship is hilarious. His referring to not expecting that behavior of rear gunners is one of many great lines in the film.

The final debriefing regarding "Stalag" is that faith is requested regarding the promise that it is as special as depicted. Additionally, you will be glad that the surprises have remained undisclosed.

Anyone with questions or comments about "Stalag" or "Hogan" is welcome to email me. You can also communicate via @tvdvdguy on Twitter.