Karno's barmy army
Wed, 05 Feb 2020
Fred Karno's best comedians were in America when war broke out. Karno had hoped to break the American theatre market, but inadvertently sent over the finest silent comedians in the world just as era of the film was dawning in America, an industry crying out for the silent comedians Karno had produced in order to avoid censorship laws. Hollywood beckoned just as the King was asking for volunteers to die for him and the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel chose fame and fortune over death and misery in the trenches.
Not all of Karno's comedians had gone to America, he kept a company to play the home theatres and when war broke out they were conscripted, not for them world fame, they faced the front line and the same bloody horror as the rest of us.
One of Karno's comedians in this position was Hilarity Harris, who found himself in our company, not performing to packed houses in Grimsby and Scarborough, instead sitting in muddy trenches being shot at and bombed by unseen Germans. "This is worse than the Glasgow Empire," he said after his first bombardment. "You might get bottled, but they never shot at yer."
Hilarity Harris was well named, for even among the blood and horror of army life he managed to raise a laugh. Just as Chaplin had his tramp, so Harris has his Tommy, a damn fool soldier we all recognised, mainly because he was built from all of us, our tics, our foibles, our reality; the way he mimed choking of a gas attack whenever Albert Tatler let one off, or the way he sat there, biding his time, ticking away the seconds as we all did when it was quiet, all casual glances for signs of a bomb or bullet while doing a nothing task like cleaning his nails, or checking his boots for the unseen leak, he had the hunched shoulders of the war weary, the nervous stillness or a man who has learnt to his cost, or his comrades' cost at least, that unnecessary movement costs lives.
You never saw this comedy on the movie screens, maybe because the people making the movies weren't here, had no idea what was going on. If Harris had made it onto the screen, if Karno had put in a word for him, "Hey Charlie, I've got a guy, a real funny guy, currently being shot at by the Germans for two bob a day, any chance of your giving him a break?", he'd have been a star overnight, for every soldier back home on leave would have loved him, would have known him, for he was us, he was the hopeless idiot being shot at by people he didn't know for no reason at all.
But it wasn't to be.
Harris went home on leave that second winter and never returned. We heard eventually that he'd been made a minister in his local church, one of the few jobs that would excuse you active service. With the dearth of men to apply for the vacancy, and experience of playing amusing vicars with Karno, he got the job.
One of the lads went to visit him and reported that his sermons were as funny as anything he'd performed for us, albeit he was all talk now, though the movements were there: God shaking with anger at the Sodomites, Moses waving the waters aside, Jesus divvying up the fish to feed the five thousand, but I never took the chance to go see.
For me Harris will always be the helpless Tommy, out of his depth in a war he couldn't make sense of. For Harris wasn't just one of us, he was all of us. We were Fred Karno's barmy army, every single one of us.