“The Royal Navy is not only the Senior Service but also the Silent Service - hidden, secret, seaborne and mysterious. To the uninitiated landlubber the world of the British sailor can seem a strange, bizarre, even surreal world in which people live in floating grey prisons called warships (or submerged ones called submarines) for months on end; sleep in coffin-sized bunks surrounded by snoring shipmates; constantly pit their wits against the hostility of the sea, the weather, or the threat of an enemy; ‘run-ashore’ periodically for legendary beer-binges that come with the territory, and use a strange language in which ‘getting a car smash down your grid for scran’ simply means having tomatoes on toast for tea!
The R N has a long and proud tradition, is fundamental to the British way of life and central to our social, economic and political history, but is none the less pitilessly parodied and caricatured by those who would make fun of what they do not understand or are quite possibly a little afraid of. Whether it is music hall, slapstick, sitcom, pantomime or high camp revue, the British sailor has always been fair game for comics, mimics and satirists who instinctively associate shipboard life with all that is outrageous, extreme and shocking. Maybe it is the idea of so many men living together in such close quarters that has generated so much droll comment, tongue in cheek witticism, and just plain seaside postcard bawdiness. The apparently innocuous greeting ‘Hello Sailor!’ is as pink in its innuendo as The Village People were in their rendition of ‘In The Navy’ and it is no coincidence that Little Britain’s ‘Only Gay in the Village’ is invariably dressed in a pvc sailor suit. On the other side of the particular coin, of course, is the counter view, just as stereotypical, that the average sailor is a serial womaniser who operates on a global scale. Again, this undoubtedly arises from the conjecture that weeks and months at sea pump up the sex drive to an exaggerated degree - hence the evergreen assumption that a sailor has ‘a girl in every port’, and of course, the more romantic or possibly ironic postulation that ‘every nice girl loves a sailor!’ Add to that the old favourite “worse things happen at sea” and we have a neat set of notions that have coloured our nations attitudes to ‘life on the ocean wave’.
My theory is that we make fun of our sailors precisely because we find them so mystifying as people, and their lifestyles so perplexing and counter to our own. We do not react to soldiers or airmen in the same way - just sailors. On one level, as an island race and a seagoing people, I think we naturally identify with seafarers - we admire them. Its just that we find it difficult to understand what makes them tick. So, from Gilbert and Sullivans HMS Pinafore to the lowbrow stage farce Sailor Beware and from Alec Guinnesses’ perpetually seasick captain in the film All At Sea to the 1950’s sitcom The Navy Lark and even from Captain Pugwash to Captain Birdseye, the Navy has long been the butt of a nation’s sometimes mischievous but mostly affectionate humour.
And here, all the joking stops, because when it comes down to war the Royal Navy is, and always has been, deadly serious.”
- Christopher Terrill, Shipmates