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National Service review a cultural history of postwar British call-up

Richard Vinen shows how conscription emphasised the mirage of a nation’s importance on the world stage

Carry on Sergeant, the first Carry On film, came out in 1958 when national service was a reality for most young British men. It mingled a music-hall banter with daft one-liners. (“Your rank?” “Well, that’s a matter of opinion.”) Kenneth Williams, with his outlandishly flared nostrils, played an army conscript spectacularly ill-suited to bayonet practice. In his camp-cockney nasal protestations (“Don’t you think this is a trifle out of date, sergeant?”), one can hear something of the angry young men who had begun to rebel against peacetime conscription.

In his fascinating cultural history National Service, Richard Vinen reminds us that Williams had undertaken national service in Bombay after the second world war, where he staged It Ain’t Half Hot Mum-like concert parties and burlesques in the company of the future playwright Peter Nichols. Drill attendance did not always agree with the thespian in Williams.

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