The mystery and misdirection behind the world’s most notorious and misunderstood sit-com.
It’s been called the worst sit-com ever made, a byword for awfulness dragged out by talking head-based throwaway documentaries to stun and amaze viewers. Yet Heil Honey, I’m Home throws up many more questions than just ‘how was this made – it’s a fascinating example of how a project has been wildly misinterpreted and mythologised, usually by people who simply follow the narrative set out by other critics. How this show became so infamous is almost as much a mystery as how it was commissioned.
It’s 1990, and Britain is getting its first taste of satellite TV. Sure, satellite systems had been around for a few years, but they were far from mainstream. At the start of the decade, two competing systems set out to grab the newly emerging market for affordable and relatively unobtrusive dishes and receivers. The market was certainly out there, in a country with just four TV channels – and both Sky TV and British Satellite Broadcasting (BSB) offered a set-up with exclusive new entertainment channels as well as dedicated film and sports channels. It was set to be the battle of the century, but in the end, the knock out blow came almost immediately – Sky had the better channel selection, and BSB were struggling with finances – within a year of launching, they had sold out to their rival, to form British Sky Broadcasting, which sounds like a merger until you realise that pretty much all the BSB-exclusive channels immediately bit the dust.
But in its short life, BSB hosted Galaxy, a general entertainment channel that showed a mix of original programming, old BBC shows and US imports. It was pretty ambitious for a start-up – it’s rival Sky One was, for years, made up of nothing but imported shows. The channel launched on March 25th 1990 and ended broadcasting on December 2nd. Much of the Galaxy original output is now said to be lost due to a mix-up between the broadcaster and the production companies – both thinking the other had kept the master tapes and so dumping their own copies. Does this make sense? A TV production company wiping its only copies of its own productions? It’s just one of the mysteries surrounding this show.
Among the original programmes made for the channel was Heil Honey, I’m Home, which was shown just once, at the end of September. Apparently, eight episodes (or possible twelve, or maybe even more) were shot – with production still taking place in November, rather putting a lie to claims that the project was immediately dropped after the first episode was shown. While the show did attract complaints from the Board of Deputies of British Jews before it was broadcast, there is little evidence to show mass outrage from viewers. In truth, the single episode appears to have been a pilot, and BSB happily commissioned a full series for 1991. In the end, it was the corporate takeover, not moral outrage, that did for the show – Sky quickly dropped Galaxy and most of its shows as an unnecessary expense.
The premise of Heil Honey, I’m Home certainly sounds outrageous – shot in the style of a 1950s US sit-com, it has Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun living next door to Jewish couple Arny and Rosa Goldenstein, with ‘hilarious’ results. the first episode has the henpecked Hitler trying to keep his nosy neighbours from popping over while Neville Chamberlain comes to visit.
With such a story, it’s no surprise that the show invariably became a staple of ‘TV Hell’ shows covering the worst or most shocking television moments, where lazy minor celebrity talking heads would line up to pretend that they had seen the show in question before the point that the documentary’s researchers supplied them with a copy (or, more often than not, just the clips they wanted them to comment on). The infamy of Heil Honey, I’m Home grew as countless people over the years lined up to say how their jaws dropped when they saw the show on its original broadcast. But of course, the chances of them having seen it were slim, to say the least. Some of them were probably not even born when it was shown. It was on an obscure channel on a short-lived satellite broadcasting system with 750,000 subscribers – how could it be possible for a significant number of people to have even tuned in to begin with?
And you only have to watch five minutes of the show to realise that it is not the show that people seem to think it is. Firstly, there’s the fact that it is presented as a lost USTV sit-com from the period when just about any premise was possible – think Mr Ed, My Mother the Car and other outlandish concepts. As such, it’s more a satire on American television than it is on Hitler. It’s probably closer in spirit to Mel Brooks’ The Producers than anything else – to be shocked at how tasteless an idea it was is to miss the point because that’s the entire joke. It’s a satire of bad taste and crass sit-coms, and the fact that people have taken it at face value is telling. Of course, those shocked celebrities had never seen the full show – their astonished reactions were effectively scripted outrage over something that they hadn’t even watched. But it’s hard to see how anyone could sit down and watch this and not immediately understand what it is trying to do.
And more to the point, this was hardly the first show set during the war, or the first comedy to satirise Hitler and the Nazis. The first episode even followed a Dad’s Army re-run, for crying out loud. And you have to wonder just what aspect of the show was actually that shocking – it’s not as if it presented Hitler as anything other than the latest in a long line of sit-com buffoons. It took the piss out of him, in much the way that comedy sketches and movies had done for years. Surely the best way to deflate any notorious figure is to turn them into a laughing stock?
Now, I think the show drags out the point somewhat – and if there really was a whole series, then I think it might have gotten old very quickly. It might have been better as one of writer Geoff Atkinson’s Spitting Image sketches in all fairness, though equally, it could have developed the idea into something impressively satirical.
At least one person – the one who posted the title sequence for later episodes on YouTube – claims to have all the tapes, and there is a DVD bootleg site out there supposedly selling the whole series – I would approach with extreme caution. But if anyone reading this does have other episodes, feel free to let us know (and pass them on). However, no matter how many episodes were shot and completed, an official release seems unlikely, if only because some of those involved might not to too keen to sign off on it or even talk about it – though Atkinson doesn’t seem to be one of them. In 2017, he told Entertainment Weekly:
“I’ve certainly never felt embarrassed by it because I know the motives were good. If we were trying to make fun of what happened in the Holocaust, we’d deserve the hate. I never felt we were trying to belittle that at all. But to not get it right, that was frustrating. It was fun, but it came at a price, and I wish I could do it again. If Netflix phoned and said, ‘Okay, you can do six more episodes,’ I would be the happiest person in the world.”
Anyway – for your delectation, here is the opening episode, and the animated opening titles that were used on later shows. As always, we encourage anyone with more information to come forward.
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