James Perry, comedy scriptwriter. Born: 20 September, 1923, in London. Died: 23 October, 2016, in London, aged 93.
If Jimmy Perry had had more luck as a young actor, one of the most successful and enduring British sitcoms of all time, Dad’s Army, might never have been made. Struggling to find enough acting work in the 1960s, he started sketching out a sitcom based on his own experiences as a teenager in the Home Guard and, before long, it was pulling in audiences of more than 18 million on the BBC.
Perry was born into a comfortable life in west London in 1923. He found many of the other boys at his private schools to be overbearing at times, and his father, an antiques dealer, would take him to the music halls of London for joyful distraction.
It was there that young Perry fell in love with the idea of a life on stage, and even tried his hand at stand-up comedy at the age of 14. He later claimed he was billed as “Jimmy Perry – not very funny but a lot of charm!” He also said that when he had told his father about his desire to become an actor and comedian, the response was: “You stupid boy” – a phrase that would later be levelled at Dad’s Army’s Private Pike, a character based partly on Perry and partly on the other young lads he’d encountered when he joined the Watford Home Guard at the age of 16.
There he was taught by several First World War veterans – personalities who would inspire many of the other characters in the sitcom set in the fictional Walmington-on-Sea. Aged 18, he was called up to the Royal Artillery, and served in India and Burma. While there he got more stage experience – with the Royal Artillery Concert Party – as well as picking up inspiration for what would become another successful sitcom of his, It Ain’t Half Hot Mum.
After the war, he trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (Rada), and later spoke of an encounter with George Bernard Shaw, who had advised the budding actors that it was crucial for all comedy to be grounded in reality. Perry never forgot that tip.
Also while at Rada, Perry worked as a Butlins Redcoat during the holidays, an experience that would later prove fruitful as he co-wrote the 1980s sitcom, Hi-de-Hi!
In the 1960s, Perry was working with Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop but was frustrated by how little acting work he was getting. In 1967 his agent Ann Callender engineered a meeting between him and her husband, David Croft. Croft was producing a sitcom called Hugh and I, and she thought there might be an opening for Perry.
Perry told Croft about the Home Guard sitcom he’d been writing and something clicked. Croft then pitched it to the BBC’s head of comedy, Michael Mills, who was worried it might be considered disrespectful to war veterans, but, nevertheless, the project was greenlit. Perry’s original name for the show, The Fighting Tigers, was changed to Dad’s Army, some of the character’s names were changed, and Perry, who had hoped to play the spiv, Private Walker, was gently advised that he would be more useful on the other side of the camera. (He did get a cameo in the sixth episode, Shooting Pains, as entertainer Charlie Cheeseman.)
As he would with nearly all his future sitcom projects, Perry wrote the theme tune, and Who Do You Think You Are Kidding, Mr Hitler? (sung by his music hall hero, Bud Flanagan), won an Ivor Novello award for best TV signature tune in 1971. Dad’s Army ran for 80 episodes over nine years, and a film version came out earlier this year. Perry was at the premiere and gave the movie his blessing.
The sitcom-writing partnership Perry formed with Croft would result in hundreds of hours of prime-time television over the years. Perry always said that the show of which he was most proud was It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, which ran between 1974 and 1981. It was set within the Royal Artillery Concert Party in Burma and India during the final months of the Second World War. Some of the language and costumes would not sit well with more politically and culturally aware audiences these days, but the show is still remembered with much affection.
Hi-de-Hi!, which Perry and Croft penned together, was set in a 1950s holiday camp, and Perry wrote its theme tune, Holiday Rock. It ran from 1980-1988 and won a Bafta in 1984 for best comedy series.
Their next project was You Rang, M’Lord (1988-1993), an Upstairs Downstairs pastiche. This time, it was Croft’s experiences that were drawn upon: his grandfather had been a butler in a big house and had passed on many amusing stories.
Perry had one or two shows that weren’t quite as successful as he had hoped. Room Service in 1970 and High Street Blues in 1989 were both named as contenders for the worst sitcom ever. And in 1969 he wrote a The Gnomes of Dulwich, a sitcom satirising the Common Market. Terry Scott and Hugh Lloyd played concrete garden gnomes threatened by their plastic European counterparts.
For a spell in the 1960s, Perry was actor-manager at the Watford Repertory Theatre, and in the late-1970s presented a BBC series called Turns, about long-forgotten music hall acts. Before he died he had been hoping to develop a script about Ivor Novello.
Perry received an OBE in 1978, and in 2003 he and Croft received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the British Comedy Awards. Croft died in 2011, aged 89.
In 1953 Perry married actor, dancer and choreographer Gilda Neeltje (her sister, Diane Holland played the snooty dance instructor Yvonne Stuart-Hargreaves in Hi-de-Hi!), but in recent years was living with his partner, Mary Husband, who had been a costume designer on many of the biggest comedy shows in the 1970s and 80s. A genial, garrulous man with no shortage of amusing anecdotes, he had beaten cancer three times, as well as having other serious illnesses. He had no children.