With the war safely won 15 years hence, it was acceptable in 1960 to portray the British armed forces as comically short of full efficiency. In fact, it may even have been desirable as not only a way of emphasising victory, but as part of the ongoing letting off of steam that the country was still undergoing.
Delightfully then, the gunners in Lewis Gilbert’s Light Up the Sky! are portrayed as inefficient, self-centred, unwilling and ramshackle in almost every sense. This is all to the good in a comedy such as this, and others of its time such as Carry On Sergeant (1958) can merrily poke fun at the soldiers while still emphasising the winning qualities of the armed forces as a whole.
Ian Carmichael is typically funny in Light Up the Sky! and had obviously found his niche, hamming it up as the chinless officer who still has a deep sympathy for his men, enough that he’s willing to motorbike to Sheffield to rescue one that has deserted for fear of being posted overseas.
And Benny Hill, the film’s star, steals every single scene he is in, not just with his timing but with his poise and the sheer lovability of his face and humour. Yep, his jokes are often poor, but the gags themselves sit secondary to the performance of the man, who on this showing, really should have been in many more feature films.
Tommy Steele, the film’s other star is not quite so good, but he never was, was he? To make things a little harder, Tommy Steele's philandering and cowardly character isn’t that sympathetic, and he doesn’t fare so well in the music hall routines, although he does his tragic turns well. He pairs admirably with Benny Hill, so well in fact that one’s surprised there aren’t a stream of these films.
Lovers of nostalgia and buffs in general will be duty bound to see Light Up the Sky! regardless of whether it’s any good or not. The fact that Benny Hill, Tommy Steele, Sheila Hancock, Dick Emery and Victor Maddern are all appearing on the same strip of celluloid (or indeed dvd file) will be too much for many to resist; but they won’t be disappointed.
Myself, I was braced for disappointment, although I am not sure why. A certain bonus is the quality of the period action evoked by Light Up the Sky! the best of which is in the searchlights themselves. Although the script is written in the spirit of all round 50s entertainment, with a bit of comedy, a bit of tragedy, a bit of love and a bit of class commentary, the scenes in the film which show the men working the searchlights are fascinating.
What is great about seeing the gunners portrayed this way is the sheer authenticity — after all it hadn’t been long since the war itself. Light Up the Sky! oddly did not receive a mention in Lewis Gilbert’s autobiography, which may have been because it was a rather slight and low-budget piece of work. That’s not to say that it’s poor though, because it’s not, and for British nostalgia fans and cineastes in general, it will be a fabulous treat.