AS a child, there were two TV programmes that brought an end to my world. One was the Budget – that grim, grey day each year when children’s programmes were suspended and replaced by squabbling statistics.
The other was having the evening marred by 30 minutes of Dad’s Army’s khaki slapstick. I hated that show with a passion. My father, meanwhile, would spend the entire programme guffawing and snorting with laughter.
It was only as I grew older and began to appreciate his own experiences as an injured serviceman during the Second World War that I became rather fond of those old buffers in their sludge green uniforms and the half hour of happiness that they brought to my dad. I heard the theme song on the radio the other day and felt duty bound to turn up the volume and sing along to the polite jingoism.
This week we learned that Dad’s Army has been recalled for active service by the British film industry. A film is now in development which will see Toby Jones take on the role of Captain Mainwaring and Bill Nighy, who I rather adored as the spy Johnny Worricker in David Hare’s recent BBC dramas, playing Sergeant Wilson. The new recruits should be reporting for duty to a cinema near you sometime next year, but will they be welcomed with open arms and warm applause? I’m not so sure, but then again the original comedy was considered a bit of a risk.
When the programme was created in 1968 there was understandable concern at the BBC about the feelings of the veterans, as the Second World War was only 23 years past, closer than we are today to the Falklands War. The inspiration was Jimmy Perry’s spell as a 17-year-old in the Local Defence Volunteers, the predecessor to the Home Guard. As Perry set off in the evenings to train alongside the OAPs of the 10th Hertfordshire Battalion, his mother fretted about her son being out after dark and that he would catch not a bullet but a cold, concerns that would eventually find their way on to the script page and the character of young Frank Pike.
The original title was “The Fighting Tigers” but David Croft, the comedy’s co-creator, suggested Dad’s Army instead and it was commissioned by Michael Mills, the BBC’s head of comedy. Mills was constantly concerned about the tone and worried the British public would think the comedy mocked those elderly men who had been prepared to put their lives on the line for Britain in the event of a German invasion. The title credits had been planned to include footage of the marching German army but were changed to the only part of the show that pleased me. As a child I loved, loved, loved the slithering “Nazi snakes”, those swastika-headed arrows creeping ever closer to the English Channel. I also always thought the song was an original Second World War ditty but I later learned that Jimmy Perry had written it as a clever pastiche of those period songs and persuaded a great crooner of the time, Bud Flanagan, to sing Who Do You Think You Are Kidding, Mr Hitler. I still think there is something archetypically British about referring to history’s greatest monster by his formal title.
Dad’s Army did poke fun at the elderly Home Guardsmen despite the concerns of Michael Mills, but the British public, who have always been able to laugh at themselves, loved it, although one early episode touched on the seriousness of the task those men may have been asked to do if history, and those Nazi snakes, had taken a different turn. Believing Britain to have been invaded by the German army, Captain Mainwaring instructs the men to try and hold back the invasion force until reinforcements arrive. “It’ll probably be the end of us,” said Mainwaring, “but we’re ready for that, aren’t we men?” To which Private James Frazer replies: “Of course.”
I don’t remember that episode, but when I read those lines I couldn’t help but think about my dad and the legacy of pain he carried around, like a duffle bag, for decades after the war’s end.
I’m not sure about the prospects, both comic and financial, for a re-make of Dad’s Army. For me it is so grounded in its time, the late 1960s and early 1970s, that it is difficult to imagine even an actor as talented as Toby Jones taking over from Arthur Lowe and making the pompous Captain Mainwaring his own. Although he does have a face that fits that cap. Would I be so rude as to dismiss the producer of the new movie, using the words of the good Captain: “You stupid boy!”? No, too harsh, but I would politely point out to him what happened when Steve Martin took over Phil Silvers’ role as Sergeant Bilko in a Hollywood re-make. It wasn’t pretty or successful.
I just think that Dad’s Army is irreplaceable. Like my dad.