x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

'Ello 'Ello serves up a sitcom for supper in Dubai

Restaurant show in Dubai brings the classic British television show 'Allo 'Allo back to life.

Actors and diners take part in 'Ello 'Ello: The Dinner Show at the Courtyard by Marriott hotel in Dubai.
Actors and diners take part in 'Ello 'Ello: The Dinner Show at the Courtyard by Marriott hotel in Dubai.

"Listen very carefully ... I will say this only once."

If these words, when spoken in a mock French accent, raise a smile, or even a wince, then you're obviously aware of the huge hit that was 'Allo 'Allo.

Conceived by renowned comic writer David Croft as a parody of Second World War dramas, the British television sitcom centred on a small town cafe and René Artois, its perpetually flustered French proprietor.

While the Nazi's brutal occupation of France might not seem an obvious source of humour, 'Allo 'Allo was a mainstay of the BBC's Saturday evening TV schedule throughout the 1980s, when millions tuned in to watch the farcical goings-on in René's eatery.

Despite being generally blasted by critics for its smutty, earthy humour and xenophobic portrayal of foreigners, the viewing public adored it, and it clocked up 85 episodes in its 10-year run. Meanwhile, catchphrases from the show - such as the aforementioned "listen carefully" and "good moaning" - became common parlance. Surprisingly, the show was equally loved overseas, with the BBC selling transmission rights in more than 40 countries.

Some might say its kitsch, slapstick-style, double entendre-based comedy has not aged well, but it retains a dedicated fan base even now. Evidence of this comes from the small but enthusiastic audience who've turned up at the Cucina Italian restaurant at the Courtyard by Marriott hotel in Dubai for an event based on the original show.

'Ello 'Ello: The Dinner Show - the change of vowel is required to avoid a costly lawsuit from the BBC - is similar to the Faulty Towers dining experience that played in Dubai last November. It has been brought to the Emirates by Dolphin Creative, the same event organisers behind the show based around the classic John Cleese sitcom, although 'Ello 'Ello is the work of Treason Productions, a different theatre company.

However, both share a common formula. Guests sit down for a three-course meal, while a cast of actors dress up as the sitcom's stars and go through a script loosely based on scenes from the programme.

So, we find the hapless René (or Renaux as he's been renamed) learning from the Gestapo that his establishment is to host a visit from Adolf Hitler, who wishes to experience the homely delights of a rustic Gallic eatery.

The French resistance hear of this and, in a wink to Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, coerce René to blow up his beloved cafe to kill the Führer.

Alongside our French onion soup, coq au vin and creme brûlée, we're treated to an ongoing farce with Renaux attempting to keep his trysts with the cafe's attractive waitresses secret, as well as German army officers forcing him to stash their hordes of stolen loot and the Gestapo continually threatening him with execution.

All the time, the audience is asked to partake in the silliness, whether it's to help assemble a secret radio or be invited on stage to join in.

As with the original, tonight's escapades draw in an international crowd consisting of Europeans, Indians, Americans, Emiratis and Filipinos.

The man behind all this mayhem is Mark Brailsford, who penned the script, is director of Treason Productions, and also takes on a number of roles in the performance.

Before setting up his own company, Brailsford was a jobbing actor who counts bit parts in Pink Floyd The Wall, as well as appearances in Casualty and Eastenders on his CV. Although the production company usually specialises in satirical comedies, when asked by a hotel in his hometown to create a sitcom-based dining show, the chance proved impossible to resist.

He explains: "The Thistle Hotel in Brighton had just hosted the Faulty Towers show and it was a huge success, so they approached us and wondered if we had any thoughts about doing something sitcom-based.

"Somebody had beaten me to Fawlty Towers, so I had a long think and I thought 'Allo 'Allo would be perfect ... I know it's unashamedly populist, but sometimes you can't argue with what people like."

Last summer, the show completed an eight-week run in Brighton, and, just like the original TV series, it attracted a cosmopolitan crowd.

Brailsford assesses why this is the case: "The thing is, it is quintessential British humour, but the British look pretty ridiculous [in the show] too. So everyone gets a pasting.

"But I think the main reason it did so well around the world is that it poked fun at the Nazis. By laughing at them, you take their power away, and you realise that they were actually pretty pathetic."

Brailsford was also amazed by how involved the audience became with the performance during its UK run. They had numerous guests turn up dressed as British RAF airmen or Nazi stormtroopers. However, during early performances, a loud sound effect produced the most extreme reaction.

Brailsford recalls: "The Brighton hotel we were in has a rather large atrium, and when this bomb explosion sound went off, it was rather large.

"It was such a realistic sound effect that some people hid under their tables. So we've had to tone that down a bit."

And such was the show's success, that one member of the original cast asked to get involved.

"I can't really say who it was, other than he lived in Brighton, and a message was passed to us that he was interested in joining us in Dubai. But we already had our team, who I know and trust, so we had to decline this offer."

With or without genuine cast members, the crowd at the Cucina seemed enthralled with the chance to relive some nostalgia.

Among these was Lalitha Thomas, 37, an Indian expatriate who has lived in Dubai all her life and attended the show with her husband Alex. She says the stage show evoked memories from a bygone era in the Emirates.

"When I was a child, there was only one English TV channel in Dubai and they screened 'Allo 'Allo. So this really brings back memories of my youth. I posted it on my Facebook wall that I would be coming to see this, and my friends from my childhood started to post all the catchphrases. For people of a certain age who grew up in Dubai, this really was part of our childhood."

With Fawlty Towers and 'Allo 'Allo proving lucrative amongst those wanting nostalgia trips, Brailsford believes there's scope for reinterpreting more classic TV programmes. "We're doing a proper play about [the comedian] Tony Hancock, so that might translate into a dinner show. We've also thought about maybe Blackadder. Downton Abbey was suggested the other day, so we might set that up, with a slightly different name obviously, but that whole Upstairs, Downstairs, posh country house class-struggle is really ripe for parody.

"Until then, we're going to keep 'Ello 'Ello going for as long as we can as it's been a huge hit for us."

Expect their catchphrases to be said a lot more than once.

'Ello 'Ello: The Dinner Show runs at 1pm and 7.30pm today and tomorrow at Courtyard by Marriott, Dubai Green Community. Tickets cost Dh395. Call 050 785 0149 for more information.