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Monday, February 11, 2008

40 Years On: Why we're still barmy for Dad's Army

Here's my 40th birthday tribute piece to Jimmy Perry and David Croft's wonderful comedy series from The Daily Express.
(For foreign readers who have never been introduced to Captain Mainwaring and co, I've posted above a classic clip from the series above. The clip not only features all the DA regulars, but Fulton McKay (of Porridge fame) as a hysterically funny sergeant major testing the platoon).

We've had quite a good debate over the last few days on this blog comparing the television programmes and comedies of yesteryear with those of today, but it's sad to say they really don't make programmes like Dad's Army any more.

(P.S. Do any American readers remember watching the US version of Dad's Army, The Rear Guard?)

It was 1968. The year of riots and revolutions, assassinations and anti-Vietnam war marches. And amid all the turmoil of that most dramatic of years, the BBC first broadcast a television programme that was to become the nation’s best-loved comedy series of all time.

Yes, Dad’s Army celebrates its fortieth birthday this year. And forty years on from the first appearance of Captain Mainwaring, Sergeant Wilson, Lance-Corporal Jones and the other members of the Walmington on Sea Home Guard, Jimmy Perry and David Croft’s classic wartime sitcom remains as popular than ever.

The show is still repeated regularly on television, earning high ratings and helping it to win over a whole new generation of fans. There is a thriving Dad’s Army Appreciation Society (www.dads, with over 1,400 members. There are two Dad’s Army museums and a Dad’s Army walking trail in the town of Thetford, Norfolk where many of the outside scenes for the series were shot. And last year it was announced that a bronze statue of Captain Mainwaring was to be erected in the centre of the town. Over the past 40 years, Dads Army has been enjoyed by people of all ages and all walks of life: celebrity fans include The Royal Family,( it was the late Queen Mother’s favourite programme), the veteran politician Tony Benn, and the comedian Ben Elton.

In light of this amazing success, it’s remarkable to think the programme very nearly didn’t make it on to our television screens. Actor Jimmy Perry, who had served in the Home Guard as a teenager, conceived the idea while on a train journey of a comedy series based on his experiences in the Home Guard while on a train journey. He wrote a couple of episdoes and passed them on to BBC producer David Croft to read. Croft was impressed and sent them to the BBC’s Head of Comedy Michael Mills, who commissioned a series. But then it hit trouble. “The BBC hierarchy had their doubts as they thought we were taking the mickey out of Britain in its finest hour. Top level meetings were held and the whole future of the programme hung in the balance“ Croft recalls. Fortunately, Mills fought the show’s corner and Dad‘s Army got the go ahead.

The original title for Dad’s Army had been ’Fighting Tigers’. But altering the title was not the only important change that took place. Actor John Le Mesurier had originally been cast to play Captain Mainwaring with Arthur Lowe as his deputy, Sergeant Wilson. But David Croft, who not only co-wrote the show, but directed and produced it, was not happy at the thought of the laid-back Le Mesurier being the man in charge. Then he and Jimmy Perry hit upon what was to prove the perfect solution: to switch the roles of the two lead actors. Arthur Lowe would be the pompous grammar school educated bank manager who appointed himself the officer, while Le Mesurier would play the ex-public school chief clerk and sergeant. The switch worked like a dream: the interplay between Mainwaring and his socially superior deputy being one of the highlights of the series.

Other wonderful characters too played their part in making the show such a hit. Lance-Corporal Jones, (played by Clive Dunn) was based on an old veteran from the Battle of Omdurman who Perry had served with in his Home Guard days and who really did say “They don’t like it up them’. Private Godfrey (Arnold Ridley), was a mild mannered-medical orderly always asking to be excused. Miserly Scottish undertaker Private Frazer (John Laurie) was convinced that the platoon was ‘doomed‘. Cheeky cockney spiv Private Walker ( James Beck), was of great help when it came to obtaining black market supplies. And of course there was ‘stupid boy’ Private Pike (Ian Lavender) based on Jimmy Perry himself.

At its peak, Dads Army regularly commanded viewing figures of 18.5m. In 1971, a Dad’s Army film was made. And in 1975 a stage show followed. All in all nine series of the programme were made- a total of 80 episodes. Among the most memorable were ‘The Deadly Attachment’ in which the platoon capture a German U-Boat team, ‘Sons of the Sea’, in which the platoon think they’ve landed in enemy occupied France and ‘My Brother and I’, where Captain Mainwaring’s alcoholic brother turns up in Walmington-On-Sea determined to embarrass him.

How can we explain Dad’s Army’s extraordinary long-lasting appeal?

“I always thought it was a good idea but it’s success totally overwhelmed me”, says the show’s creator and co-writer Jimmy Perry. “The secret was that everything was right. It was one of those rare things: the cast was right, the time was right, the subject was right”. Cultural historian Professor Jeffrey Richards believes Dad’s Army is a work of art. “I would go so far to compare it with the works of Dickens and Shakespeare”. Richards believes Dad’s Army is popular because it reminds us of a gentler age. “ In recent years the British national character has become sour, spiteful, prurient and coarse. I think people looking at these shows see a gentler, nicer, decent and better kind of Britishness and they look back with genuine nostalgia“.

Dad’s Army certainly takes us back to a time when there was a real community spirit in Britain. But the appeal of the series is not only about nostalgia for the 1940s.

Unlike much of what passes for comedy today, the humour in Dad’s Army is affectionate and never nasty. Even the pompous Captain Mainwaring is at heart, a loveable character, someone who we can feel sorry for as well as laugh at. “The most important thing with any sitcom is that it’s real; you care about the characters and you believe in them”, says Jimmy Perry. We certainly care about the characters in Dad’s Army, who have, over the years, become much-loved friends.

Perhaps most importantly of all, in an era where family entertainment is at such a premium, Dad’s Army is a programme that all the family can watch and enjoy together.

Will we still be laughing at repeats of Dad’s Army in another forty years? I think so.

Good comedy is timeless, and in creating Dad’s Army, Jimmy Perry has bequeathed to us all a timeless classic.

Some interesting facts about Dad’s Army.

The encounter between Captain Mainwaring and a captured U-Boat commander in which Mainwaring utters the immortal line ‘Don’t Tell Him Pike’ in response to the commander asking Pike his name, was voted the nation’s funniest TV moment of all time.

The signature turn of Dad’s Army ‘Who do you think you are kidding Mr Hitler’ was written by Jimmy Perry and performed by legendary music hall comedian Bud Flanagan.

James Beck (Private Walker) was the first of the cast to die, in 1973; Clive Dunn (Lance-Corporal Jones); Ian Lavender (Private Pike ), Bill Pertwee (ARP Warden Hodges) and Frank Williams (Vicar) and are the only main members of the cast still living.

An American version of Dad’s Army called ‘The Rear Guard’ appeared in 1976, but was not a success.

The last ever episode of Dad’s Army, ‘Never too Old’, in which Lance-Corporal Jones gets married to Mrs Fox, was broadcast on 13th November 1977.


Charlie Marks said...

That episode with Fulton McKay was a classic. My personal favourite is the one where Pike's about to go off and fight in the army and is treated to a fish supper... And of course, the one when the Americans arrive... There's too many to mention!

You're right - the appeal of Dad's Army is its warmth. There's arguments, but no vitriol.

Neil Clark said...

Hi Charlie: totally agreed.
I love Pike's farewell dinner episode too.

Anonymous said...

There was a feature film made too but not nearly so good as the TV series. Chalfont St Peter in Bucks was the location for the village shops and bank scenes. I still love watching episodes that crop up on TV.