‘The Navy Lark’ was a radio comedy series of the type that was very popular in the mid 20th century. Like ‘The Goons’, ‘Round the Horne’, ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’ and many others it was a weekly dose of familiar characters and catchphrases which audiences couldn’t get enough of. These programmes launched careers back then, and spawned other projects too. Hancock, for example was transferred to television. It is not so well known that ‘The Navy Lark’ got its own film, which arrived quite early on in its lifetime. Having seen it, it’s not surprising that it isn’t listed among the classics of British cinema. But its sheer daftness was enough to brighten up my afternoon – well, how can you not smile at Leslie Phillips?
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Aside from the fruity Mr Phillips, most of the radio show favourites didn’t make it to the screen – perhaps the actors read the script first! The other screen stars are Cecil Parker and Ronald Shiner – veterans who make up for the lack of Pertwee or Barker. The rather far-fetched storyline is as follows – the Larkees are based on a fictional island in the English Channel. They are supposed to be clearing the area of World War Two mines; but instead they are taking advantage of the laid-back lifestyle to spend their days fishing, womanising and dealing in black market goods. All this is put in jeopardy when an ambitious officer in Portsmouth works out that no mines were ever laid in that part of the Channel anyway. He decides to pay them a visit to begin the process of shutting their operations down. Faced with a future of actual work, the Larkees come up with all kinds of schemes to thwart the plans from Portsmouth. This culminates in a faked native uprising complete with pretend battles. It’s all harmless fun, and I began musing on just how far-fetched the basic plot was. The film was made in 1959, 14 years after the end of the war, so I wondered about the idea of having mine detection units still in place. Surely they’d all been cleared up by then? Was this a daft joke, or a genuine possibility? None of my history books touch on naval warfare, so I turned to the Google search box.
If any mine clearing units like this were still in place in the 1950s, I could find no trace of them. However, I did find some interesting snippets of information. Firstly, as late as the mid 1950s, relics of the war at sea were still being cleared away because the UK lent Denmark a minesweeper to go and help clear up their coastline. Secondly, it would appear that mines dating from the 1940s do still occasionally pose a danger to shipping. As late as 2007, cross Channel ferry services were disrupted due to the discovery of an old device. These mines were built to withstand stormy seas, and they did move around – so on consideration it is unsurprising that some proved difficult to find and are still primed and ready to go off.
I wouldn’t rely on this film to tell me anything about the navy or the Channel Islands. But it did send me on a little journey of discovery about how the problems of war didn’t just go away in 1945.
My short story, ‘Amphitrite’ touches on the dismantling of mines on British beaches after World War Two. It’s available in my book ‘Athene and Other Stories’ on Amazon.