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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows. Until things return to normal we review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.

No Time For Sergeants
US Television 1955 and YouTube   September 2021

It began as a 1954 comic novel by Mac Hyman, followed within a year by this one-hour television version written by Ira Levin, which was expanded in 1956 into a hit Broadway play and in 1958 into a movie.

(There was a short-lived TV sitcom version about a decade later, and it was obviously the inspiration for the more successful sitcom Gomer Pyle USMC.)

As in all its manifestations No Time For Sergeants is the tale of a dim-witted but irrepressibly amiable good ol' country boy drafted into the military, much to the dismay of the military.

Will Stockdale, played in all three 1950s versions by Andy Griffith, is so dumb that when he hears that a particularly annoying fellow recruit has had ROTC (i.e. some military classes in college) he assumes that's a disease like TB and feels sorry for the guy. Assigned latrine clean-up duty, he takes it as a special honour, and when some hazing soldiers try to get him drunk the boy weaned on moonshine drinks them under the table.

That's pretty much the level of the humour, and if you're cringing now you might as well give up. Hyman's novel and Levin's script are really just a string of sketches, with Will blithely and blindly confounding and enraging officers, doctors and would-be foes, most particularly the repeatedly frustrated sergeant played here by Harry Clark.

Actor-comedian Andy Griffith gives essentially the same performance here that he would continue to give in a string of television roles throughout his long career (with the notable exception of the very different film A Face In The Crowd) and he continued to do it because it worked, as it does here.

Will Stockdale is the most simple-minded version of the stock Griffith character, with no hint of the self-awareness and conscious use of the innocent mask to manipulate others that Griffith would slip into later roles.

But Griffith also blocks out any hints of a mental limitation that might generate confusing and mood-spoiling pathos, as his Will travels through life uninterruptedly happy and always winning.

Those who know the stage play and film might miss some of their favourite bits, most notably the scene in which Will proudly rigs all the latrine's toilet seats to rise to Attention when an officer enters for inspection. In the 1950s American television was not ready to acknowledge that toilets existed, however polished and drilled they might be.

I regret the absence of Will's frantic attempt to follow instructions to fill out some form 'last name first, first name middle name last.'

You'll get more chuckles and perhaps full laughs out of this show than a typical hour of TV sitcoms, which is either faint praise or a major recommendation.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of No Time For Sergeants 1955 - YouTube 2021