It’s Coventry’s smallest museum – and in all likelihood one of the smallest in the world – but the Phil Silvers Archival Museum is a sight to behold.
It is dedicated to the life and work of the late American comic actor Phil Silvers, most famous for playing the role of Sgt Bilko in the long-running Phil Silvers Show.
The museum houses an impressive collection of Phil Silvers-related personal effects, posters, photographs, letters, books and memorabilia.
It will soon celebrate its fifth birthday, having opened on November 1 2015, the 30th anniversary of Phil Silvers’ death.
The museum is a work in progress and is constantly evolving, with the aim ultimately to move to a larger premises.
It can be found in the bustling and bohemian place that is FarGo Village, on Far Gosford Street.
It is at the back of the appropriately named Sgt Bilko’s Vintage Emporium, a shop which specialises in vintage and modern film and television memorabilia.
There’s a strong emphasis of everything ‘cult’ and the store caters for a wide range of tastes.
It has a life size Christopher Lee as Count Dracula in the front window and a full-size Dalek inside.
Both are run by Steve Elliot, who is a lifetime Phil Silvers fan.
The background story
So, how did it all come about?
“It’s the only museum in the world dedicated to Phil Silvers,” said Steve.
“It same out of the British Phil Silvers Appreciation Society, which we launched in 1984, and which Phil Silvers gave his backing to.
“The society was launched on the BBC in 1985 just a month before Phil died.
“It was our aim to meet him but we never did sadly.”
The museum has a key backer in the shape of Phil’s family and many of the items on display – including personal photographs – have been supplied by the family, in particular his daughter Tracey.
There are photos of Phil and his children and grandchildren and even one of him as a child celebrating his bar mitzvah.
Outside of the items in the display cases there are old photographs and posters – including one of Phil appearing in a very British film franchise – the Carry On series.
He played a Bilko-like French Foreign Legion sergeant in Follow That Camel.
It’s said that Phil Silvers’ casting as Sgt Nocker did not go down well with the UK Carry On stars though.
He was paid the then astronomical fee of £30,000 – the most ever paid to any actor in a Carry On film.
Interestingly the film also starred Carry On stalwart Peter Butterworth, who died in Coventry in 1979 at the age of 63.
The museum might be small but it has a lot packed in and even has an old 1940s television set which has been converted into a DVD player and is constantly showing episodes of the Phil Silvers Show.
Although often referred to as Sgt Bilko, the show – which featured Silvers’ most famous character – was entitled the Phil Silvers Show.
It originally ran from 1955 to 1959 but went on to become one of the most enduring sitcoms ever.
There were 144 episodes in total and the BBC screened them from 1957 until 2004.
The show was set on a US Army post in which Phil played Master Sergeant Ernest (Ernie) Bilko.
It inspired William Hanna and Joseph Barbera to create their much loved animation series Top Cat.
The Phil Silvers Show, and in particular the character of Sgt Bilko, was their main influence with Bilko being the blueprint for the main cartoon character TC.
The Phil Silvers Archival Museum has seen visits by many celebrity fans, including Phil Jupitas, Danny Baker, Paul Merton, Nick Hancock and Tim Vine.
He has yet to pay a visit but it is also enthusiastically supported by actor Mark Hamill, who famously played Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars film franchise.
So, how did Steve’s fascination with Phil Silvers start?
“I stumbled across Bilko,” he said. “It used to be the last programme on the BBC on a weekend night before closedown. The next day I started quizzing my dad about it.
“I discovered Phil Silvers started out in vaudeville and burlesque and was a Coney Island boy singer.”
Steve, who in 2014 worked with Mediumrare Entertainment at Pinewood Studios to get the Phil Silvers DVD box set released, believes the longevity of Sgt Bilko is testament to Phil’s brilliance as a comic actor and feels the show’s appeal is timeless.
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He said: “Interestingly when lockdown started Bilko was voted as the show most people wanted to return.
“We are lobbying the BBC to buy the rights and bring it back.
“It is a show that could create a whole new audience.”
As well as celebrities, comedy fans from far and wide travel to Coventry just to make a visit to the museum.
Admission is free and all fans and admirers of Phil Silvers and aficionados of comedy history are welcome.
It’s open seven days a week, with opening hours varying. You can find out more about the museum and the British Phil Silvers Appreciation Society here.