Until this January I had never heard of Phil Silvers, who I now recognise as being a comedy genius. A chance visit to FarGo village just outside of Coventry city centre changed everything. Tucked away in this artistically repurposed industrial space – which houses a plethora of creative, independent businesses – is the superb Phil Silvers Archival Museum. This hidden gem – visited recently by celebrities such as Danny Baker, Tim Vine, Nick Hancock and Paul Bradley to name but a few – is owned by the incredibly welcoming and knowledgeable Steve Everitt, who agreed to sit down with me and discuss all things Phil Silvers.
The Phil Silvers Show, created and written by Nat Hiken, features Phil Silvers – a powerhouse performer – as the scheming Sergeant Bilko. For 142 episodes, which were aired on the CBS network between 1955 and 1959, Sgt Bilko scammed, conned, and hustled his way through fast-thinking, elaborate get-rich-quick schemes. Indeed, the endlessly inventive scams of the crafty, bespectacled 1950s conman have been named the best sitcom of all time by the prestigious Radio Times Guide to TV comedy.
Everitt’s passion for this classic 50s sitcom dates back to 1981. Late one Sunday evening, whilst flicking between the only four channels available at the time, Everitt “stumbled across an episode, on late night BBC. Catching it about half way through, I sat down and watched it.”
“That got me interested in what Phil Silvers was doing,” Everitt says. “Next morning, I was quizzing my father about who was this guy, what did he do?” Everitt recalls that his dad “grew up with Bilko, as a lot of people did, and that’s how it started. I made contact with another fan, called Mick Clews, and we decided to form an appreciation society in around 1983. We officially launched it on the BBC in 1985. Phil Silvers recorded a message for us and gave his blessing for the appreciation society. Prior to that, we had got his address so we were writing to him, sending Christmas and birthday cards.”
It was the first show to feature a multi-racial cast, way before Star Trek had its first multi-racial kiss
So, just how popular was The Phil Silvers Show? “In 1955, when the show took off, it was pulling in 23 million American viewers,” Everitt said – a testament to the power of Hiken’s writing and Silvers’ incredible performance. Silvers was “headhunted by Carling Black Label, Smirnoff, these big companies wanted Phil because he had such an identifiable face with the glasses and the bald head which were his trademarks. When people come in and say they don’t know who Phil Silvers is, I explain to them that, in the 50s and 60s, he was probably photographed as many times as people like Elvis, The Beatles, John Lennon, or Muhammad Ali, who he was close friends with. He was a huge, huge star.”
Even today, the show is seen by many as sitcom’s high-water mark. But why is that? “The success of the show was teaming Phil with Nat Hiken, I think that was genius. It was the first show to feature 23 cast members, the first ensemble cast. It paved the way for shows like Hill Street Blues, a big cast that worked well together.” Whereas shows like l Love Lucy featured very domestic settings – say a cosy living room – “Bilko was a group of soldiers on an army base. It was so different to anything that had been on television before. The Bilko show was very influential in that it cast five black actors in pivotal roles. This wasn’t met with a great deal of agreement from the networks and certain TV stations, but Phil and Nat were adamant that their cast had to be as realistic as possible.” “It was the first show to feature a multi-racial cast, way before Star Trek had its first multi-racial kiss, I think in 67.”
Bob Odenkirk, who plays Saul Goodman, is on record as saying that his character has been heavily influenced by what Phil Silvers did
Phil Silvers was the quintessential “loveable rogue” and, in 1963, he returned to his roots when he starred as factory foreman Harry Grafton in The New Phil Silvers Show. “That persona has influenced a lot of American and British comedians. Two that spring to mind are David Jason in Only Fools and Horses, the crafty conman, and on the American side and most relevant today because the show is still running, Better Call Saul. Bob Odenkirk, who plays Saul Goodman, is on record as saying that his character has been heavily influenced by what Phil Silvers did on the Bilko Show.”
The Phil Silvers Archival Museum consistently and deservedly ranks as one of Coventry’s major attractions. Over a 35-year period, Everitt has amassed an impressive collection of memorabilia which would pique the interest of ardent fans and laymen alike. “Personal items have come directly from the Phil Silvers estate and his family. A lot of the Bilko-related stuff, like the Bilko Gold Brick, the statuettes, and the scripts” have come from cast members such as Mickey Freeman and Allan Melvin. “Danny Baker donated one of Phil’s programmes from his second Broadway show called High Button Shoes, actually signed by Phil Silvers.” Going forward, Steve would like to expand a little more, although recognises that “people are coming from all over the world to what is probably the smallest museum in Coventry and going away very happy, so we’re mindful we’re about the right size. The big news at the moment is that I had a two-hour meeting with Coventry City of Culture. What we plan to do is arrange a huge photographic exhibition dedicated to Phil in the city centre for 2021” to highlight some of the people and businesses at FarGo.