‘Where’s That Fire?’ or — Flaming Idiots?

Catastrophe! Disaster! A huge fire is out of control at an oil refinery and every fire brigade in the area is racing to the scene. Every fire brigade except one that is and that’s the fire brigade of Bishop’s Wallop (what a great name), an incompetent 3 man outfit under the “command” of Captain Viking (Will Hay). They didn’t hear the fire alarm as an old sock has been stuffed in the clanger because Captain Viking suffers from insomnia and didn’t want his sleep disturbed that week.

After a call from headquarters they dash off — Viking, Albert and Harbottle — to the inferno and immediately get lost and arrive so late at the fire that not only has the blaze been extinguished hours ago but, in the interim, Bishop’s Wallop’s town hall has also burned down while they were away. It looks as though Captain Viking and his men will be looking for new employment.

However, Captain Viking has a secret invention and that’s a new type of firefighting foam he’s created and Captain Viking is convinced London headquarters will be very interested in his new discovery.

Meanwhile, a gang of criminals pose as movie producers in order to hire Captain Viking’s antiquated fire-engine so they can gain access to The Tower of London (which has exactly the same model of vintage fire engine as Wallop’s) and steal the Crown jewels!

Will Captain Viking’s firefighting foam work and save his career? Will the criminals steal the Crown jewels? And, more importantly, how many buildings can Bishop’s Wallop’s fire brigade burn down? Watch ‘Where’s That Fire?’ (1940) and find out!

The first thing to say about ‘Where’s That Fire’ is that the story is all over the place. Take the gang planning on stealing the jewels. They pop up around 30 minutes in to request to hire the fire engine for their movie and are then never seen or heard of again until the very climax. Then again, almost every other plot point is here simply to ensure more mayhem.

Fortunately that mayhem is extremely entertaining and, frequently, very funny. A good example is when the brigade visit London headquarters and are impressed with all their modern firefighting equipment, especially headquarters’ pole. So Captain Viking decides that Bishop’s Wallop’s station needs a pole, too, so they get one. What follows is what feels like ten minutes of nothing more than these three idiots arsing about with an unfeasibly long stick which starts with nothing more than a broken window or two but ends with, after every possible permutation of what can go wrong with a pole, wholesale destruction. Sure, it goes on WAY too long, adds nothing to the narrative (if this film even has one!) and is incredibly repetitive, but it’s also often laugh out loud funny.

Although my favourite scene could be when they’re called to put a fire out at a petrol station (a fire at a petrol station that THEY started!) that goes predictably, but also incredibly satisfyingly, wrong as they burn the entire place to the ground. The mistake they make is inspired in its blindingly obvious genius for what not to do when putting out a fire at a petrol station.

Another delightful touch is when they’re all ordered before the town council to explain why they failed to stop Bishop’s Wallop’s town hall going up in flames, and it was only after a few seconds I realised that the this meeting was actually taking place in the town hall, singed wallpaper, smoking fixtures and charred furniture in the background being the only, unspoken signals that this is the case.

‘Where’s That Fire’ is a very funny, fast paced comedy. It contains some great sight gags for slapstick fans, some pretty risqué double entendres and plenty of snappy back talk. It does all sort of fall apart a bit at the end when the foam gets seriously out of control but this is a film celebrating calamity anyway so some lack of structural finesse is not only expected but possibly even required.

Co-written by Val Guest and keep an eye out for a deliberately grating performance by a rather young Charles Hawtrey.

Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.