Set between 1959 and 1960 in Maplins, a fictional holiday camp, the show was written by Jimmy Perry and David Croft, who also wrote Dad’s Army and It Ain’t Half Hot Mum amongst other programmes. The title was the greeting the campers heard and in early episodes was written Hi de Hi. The series revolved around the lives of the camp’s entertainers, most of them struggling actors or has-beens.
The inspiration was the experience of Jimmy Perry, one of the writers. After being demobilised from the Army, he was a Redcoat at Butlins in Filey and Pwllheli during the holiday season.
The series gained large audiences and won a BAFTA as Best Comedy Series in 1984. In a 2008 poll on Channel 4, Hi-de-Hi! was voted the 35th most popular comedy catchphrase. In 2014, Jimmy Perry confirmed that Hi-de-Hi! would be repeated, and it began a rerun on 2 February 2015 on BBC Two as part of Afternoon Classics, alongside ‘Allo ‘Allo!, To the Manor Born and Open All Hours. It has started a re-run on 4 April 2018 on UKTV’s Drama Channel at 1.40pm and repeated again at 6pm
Hi-de-Hi! is set at a holiday camp in the fictional seaside town of Crimpton-on-Sea, Essex.
Loosely based on Butlins, Maplins is part of a holiday camp group owned by Joe Maplin, with Yellowcoats replacing Redcoats. Cambridge University Professor of Archaeology Jeffrey Fairbrother, who had become tired of academia, has been appointed the new entertainment manager. He is clearly unqualified for the position. This has annoyed the camp host, Ted Bovis, who had expected the post.
The job of camp comic is given to the naive but kind-hearted Spike Dixon, who wants an introduction to the world of show business. Many episodes involve Ted Bovis attempting to scam the campers as well as the well-meaning Fairbrother, who also has to avoid the romantic approaches of the chief Yellowcoat and sports organiser, Gladys Pugh.
The other main characters in the show are out-of-work actors, actresses and entertainers at the tail end of their careers. These include Fred Quilley, a disqualified jockey; Yvonne and Barry Stuart-Hargreaves, former ballroom champions; Mr Partridge, a music hall star reduced to performing Punch and Judy puppet shows, despite hating children; and Peggy Ollerenshaw, an eccentric but ambitious chalet maid who dreams of becoming a Yellowcoat.
Several underlying themes were apparent throughout the show’s run. For the characters, working at the camp was either a step up or step down the ladder of success in show-business. The younger staff (e.g. Spike Dixon and the Yellowcoats) were keen and enthusiastic about their jobs, which they saw as a lucky break at the start of their careers. For the older members of the staff (e.g. Yvonne, Barry and Mr Partridge), the camp was a step down from past glories. Caught in the middle were staff members close to middle age (e.g. Ted Bovis and Fred Quilley) who still believed they could achieve fame and fortune, and were reluctant to accept that working at a holiday camp was the best they would ever do.
The changing nature of British society was reflected in the series. The erosion of class boundaries that occurred in the post-war years, and attitudes to these changes, was illustrated in the character mix. Jeffrey Fairbrother’s determination to leave a promising career in academia for something “real” was met with horror by his upper-class family and incomprehension by the Dean of his college, who visited the camp to persuade him to return to Cambridge. Yvonne and Barry Stuart-Hargreaves looked down on almost everyone at the camp, save for Fairbrother – although they were disappointed in his insistence that they take part in “vulgar” games as part of the entertainment, believing he should stand up for people of “his own class”. Conversely, the societal changes were welcomed by other staff, particularly Ted and Spike, who believed that Peggy’s attempts at becoming a Yellowcoat were thwarted by prejudice against her working-class background, as the current Yellowcoats were middle-class and well-spoken.
The series was set at a time of change in the fashion of the so-called traditional British holiday. During the years after the Second World War, British holiday camps flourished, as people were celebrating with fun and laughter again after years of austerity and wartime hardship. The series was set towards the end of this period, when the original format of holiday camps was coming to an end. Despite the feeling amongst many staff that their brand of fun and entertainment for the whole family was a tradition that would endure, the emerging popularity at the time (late 1950s / early 1960s) for self-catering and holidaying abroad meant the camp was unlikely to survive in its original format. The closing storyline of the series was the camp undergoing drastic changes to modernise with the times, meaning that many of the staff would lose their jobs as their particular talents were no longer required.
The pilot episode was broadcast on 1 January 1980. Hi-de-Hi! ran for nine series totalling 60 episodes, between 26 February 1981 and 30 January 1988. Because of the programme’s popularity, the BBC decided to air series 3 and 4 back-to-back, the only time the BBC has ever done this with one of their own (first run) shows, which means that some sources refer to both series as series 3.
Hi-de-Hi! had a rock and roll style theme tune called “Holiday Rock”. Sung by Ken Barrie on the series opening titles, the song was later released as single with the main vocal part sung by Paul Shane and the Yellowcoats (it featured several members of the cast on backing vocals). It became a UK Top 40 hit in May 1981 and Shane and members of the cast performed the song on Top of the Pops that month.
Hi-de-Hi! was one of the first BBC shows to capitalise on the merchandise market, with products such as board games, albums, books, toys and T-shirts available to buy.
The location scenes of Hi-de-Hi! were filmed at a real holiday camp run by Warners in the town of Dovercourt near Harwich, Essex.
The pilot episode (1979) and first two series (1980–1981) were all filmed during early spring before the holiday camp was opened to the public for the summer. This is noticeable during outdoor scenes, because most of the trees on the camp site are bare. Since it was so cold during filming a lot of the outdoor scenes, the cast were continuously complaining about having to appear in summer clothing, and Jeffrey Holland was treated for hypothermia during the first series because his character spent most of the time in the swimming pool.
In keeping with a number of popular BBC comedy series, such as Croft and Perry’s previous hit Dad’s Army, as well as Steptoe and Son, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? and several others, in 1982 a series of BBC Radio adaptations of episodes was unofficially green lit. However, due to the changing demographics of various BBC Radio output in the early-mid 1980s, the plan was dropped.