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3rd August 2018

Dad’s Army at 50

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The world of British comedy is packed full of nostalgic landmarks and anniversaries which encourage us to remember and reflect upon the development and evolution of the genre and how it came to influence today’s crop of entertainment. At 8:20pm on Wednesday 31st July 1968 the BBC bravely launched a brand new sitcom surrounding the frequently infertile and bizarre antics of the Warmington-On Sea Home Guard. Just over twenty years after the end of the Second World War and thirteen years since the end of rationing, the country was still raw with the memories of the atrocities which had taken place.

Around this time jobbing actor Jimmy Perry was performing a variety of television cameo roles in his quest to find that career defining role. Part of Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop Company based at Stratford East in London, Perry was surrounded by figures who would go on to dominate British television for generations to come including Barbara Windsor. In 1967 his agent Anne Calendar recommended Perry for a small part in the hugely popular BBC sitcom Hugh And I which was being produced by her husband David Croft. This was to be the first meeting of what became one of the most significant and influential writing partnerships in the history of British entertainment and as soon as they met both Jimmy and David (or Perry and Croft as they later became known as) had an instant spark. It wasn’t long before Jimmy disclosed to David his idea about a sitcom surrounding the Home Guard to which David was greatly interested as a result of his personal experiences as a major in the army. Now with Croft’s contacts at the BBC, the once vague concept looked like it was going to make its way to television.

 

In 1941 at arguably the height of the Second World War, Perry was posted to Burma as part of the Royal Artillery Concert Party where he entertained the troops. This gave him the inspiration for his and David’s other hugely popular sitcom It ain’t Half Hot Mum. Yet while Jimmy was providing the wartime entertainment, David Croft had risen to Major in the army ironically also stationed in Burma. These two experiences gave Perry and Croft the tools required to offer the sitcom a sense of truth and reality. Despite being an extremely funny sitcom, Dad’s Army was never scared to reinforce the grimness of war and this may be key to the show’s success and longevity.

 

With the scripts in progress, it was time to assemble a cast. Unlike most other sitcoms of its day, Dad’s Army is essentially an ensemble piece and while Mainwaring and Wilson are arguably the two main protagonists, the show is also heavily reliant on the behaviours and actions of the supporting cast. So when it came to casting, Croft was required to be extremely precise with the placement of each character. Arthur Lowe was a recognised television face thanks to his portrayal of Leonard Swindley in Coronation Street and his ability to portray a stereotypical English snob made him perfect for the role. Yet this idea wasn’t shared by all members of the cast. Variety stalwart Clive Dunn had been ploughing his entertainer trade for many years and was already an established name on television and in theatre. So he and his management could not understand why he wasn’t playing the part of Captain Manwairing. This prompted his agent Michael Grade to write a stern letter to the BBC confirming his client’s billing. They eventually came to an agreement that the opening titles should feature the names of Arthur Lowe, John Le Messurier and Clive Dunn to prevent it from being a star vehicle sitcom.

 

Jimmy Perry had always written the character of Private Joe Walker with himself in mind to indulge the inner actor in him. He identified with the East End wide boy side of the character and in some way it could have had certain echoes to Perry’s own life. Yet when David Croft requested Perry’s services in more of a producing role, an extra effort was made to ensure that the role would still be perfectly filled. Such a difficult task fell to television actor James Beck who had starred in popular drama series such as Dr. Finlay’s Casebook and Coronation Street. Beck’s portrayal of Walker was a constant curveball to Mainwaring’s fight to maintain power and his wide boy persona highlighted just how corrupt and off kilter the platoon was. Yet tragedy struck in 1973 as Beck suddenly passed away from pancreatitis at just the age of forty four. This was a difficult time for both cast and crew as there was a severe doubt to whether the series would continue following the death of a dominant member of the cast.  That meant a new character had to be written into the show and Talfryn Thomas played the ever obliging Private Cheeseman for just one series.

At just twenty two in 1968, Ian Lavender was the youngest member of the cast but his portrayal of Private Frank Pike proved to be one of the most significant roles within the series. His mother’s poor attempt at a secret relationship with Sergeant Wilson raised suspicion over the identity of Pike’s father, something that we never discovered during the whole eighty episodes. Speculation was so rife that neither David Croft nor Jimmy Perry decided to tell anyone for the entirety of the series. Indeed it was only during one of the last meetings between Jimmy Perry and Ian Lavender that Lavender asked the question which had surrounded his whole career, to which Perry answered “Of course he was!”.

The need for a cast with a very specific age range was music to the ears of many mature actors. Some of whom had already enjoyed illustrious careers on either the stage or film. John Laurie who played Private James Frazer had appeared in scores of feature films with directors such as Alfred Hitchcock and Laurence Olivier. Private Godfrey better known as the veteran actor and playwright Arnold Ridley who had previously penned the stage play The Ghost Train. The average age of the cast was a major concern for Croft and Perry when it came to filming the more physical dominated scenes. This added to the gravity of the series as some of the actors were  just as physically challenged as their characters they were portraying, especially Arnold Ridley who, just like Godfrey, would regularly stop for a break in the more active scenes.

 

Of course just like every classic sitcom, Dad’s Army naturally spawned its fair share of catchphrases. Perry and Croft allowed this to happen organically rather than just thrusting comedy devices down viewers necks, after all it was a sitcom and not a pantomime. Instead these catchphrases were chosen by the public who identified greatly with a few lines of dialogue and they quickly became used as a verbal shorthand for each character. Whether it was Corporal Jones frantically shouting “Don’t Panic!” at the slightest idea that something bad was about to take place or Captain Manwairing giving Pike a look of disdain following hearing one of his irrelevant ideas and uttering the immortal phrase “You stupid boy!”. Indeed it wasn’t just the leading characters who would have these indelible lines: the frequently defeatist Private Frazer would always cement a sticky situation by crying “We’re Doomed”in desperation. Eventually these phrases became an integral part of the show and while writers in later generations would limit the use of a catchphrase, Perry and Croft were so meticulous with every aspect of production that they knew when and where to place a line so it never got boring or predictable.

Dad’s Army was also responsible for small cameos from actors who went on to become giants of British television. Here’s my top five:

  1. Wendy Richard better known as Miss Brahmmes in David Croft’s other successful sitcom Are You Being Served? and later became the original matriarch Pauline Fowler in Eastenders. Yet she was also Private Walker’s voluptuous and brash girlfriend Shirley, who bemused and challenged the forthright,  conservative values of Captain Manwairing.
  2. Carmen Silvera. In 1970 the late Allo Allo star appeared in the episode Mum’s Army as Fiona Gray, the love-interest for Captain Mainwaring, a role especially written for her by David Croft.
  3. Barbara Windsor. The Carry On star played the part of Laura La Plaz, a busty blonde looking to join the new women’s troop much to the distraction of the sexually frustrated Captain Manwairing.
  4. John Bardon: The late actor best known for his portrayal of Jim Branning in Eastenders once played the film director who cast Mainwaring in the role of a Nazi captain.
  5. Felix Bowness: The Hi-De-Hi actor played a number of roles from a taxi driver to the warden’s assistant. Being the studio warm up man, it was easy for Felix to dip in and out of scenes if they require an extra supporting actor.

 

Apart from cameos, Dad’s Army boasted an extensive cast which regularly interacted with the main ensemble. Frank Williams played the part of the ditsy vicar in charge of hiring the church hall to the platoon for one evening per week. This created a power struggle between the frequently pompous Captain Manwairing and the vicar which was frequently mediated by the ARP warden Hodges who was just as jumped up as his arch enemy. Throw in the church verger Maurice Yeatman, a slightly deranged individual who occasionally had ideas above his station, then you have the dynamics for a perfect battle for supremacy. This was always politely refereed by the awfully nice Sergeant Wilson who would regularly attempt to restore order amongst the chaos which surrounded him.

 

The relationship between Captain Manwairing and Sergeant Wilson is one of the most interesting in sitcom. The public school educated Wilson had everything that Mainwaring could ever wish for: membership to the golf club, friends in high places and a full command of the English language. This was heightened by the close proximity in which they worked. As manager of the local bank, Manwairing thought he had the upper hand over his senior clerk Wilson, only to be reminded of his class whenever Wilson encountered someone of similar social standing. This affected Manwairing deeply and added to the social struggle which surrounded the series.

So what is the secret to Dad’s Army’s success? Is it the universal understanding of war? Is it the cohesion of the ensemble cast? You could argue that none of the above information even matters because half a century on, a percentage of the television watching nation still sit down to watch Captain Manwairing and co battle several obstacles and do their bit to keep Britain great. There are so many different elements which go into making a series into a phenomenon. Yet why is Dad’s Army still enjoyed by new audiences? It’s simply because it’s funny!

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