The play is set in the Song and Dance Unit South East Asia (SADUSEA), a mostly gay British military concert party stationed in Singapore and Malaysia in the 1940s during the Malayan Emergency. It draws on Nichols' own experiences in that sphere.
Privates on Parade is about a company of men, incongruous members of the British Forces who are entertainers to the soldiers, sailors and airmen stationed in Malaysia. It is representative of that very British phenomenon, the low key musical which doesn't take itself too seriously. The play asks political questions about the presence of the British in the Far East during the sunset of Imperial splendour, as a new revolutionary movement sweeps China, under the leadership of the communist Mao Tse-tung. Many of the events of the play are autobiographical; Peter Nichols described his time in the army as "my university". The characters are based on real people. and the centre of the play is this group of military misfits and how they bond with each other—. what matters to them, their relationships at home and abroad.
It was premièred at Stratford by the Royal Shakespeare Company, before receiving its London première at the Aldwych Theatre on 17 February 1977, where it ran for 208 performances. This production won the 1977 Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Comedy.