Dad’s Army and Ghostbusters: how to reboot a beloved comedy without ruining it

The news that both a Dad’s Army film and Ghostbusters 3 are in the works is great for nostalgia fans. But how do you go about updating something well-loved without wrecking it?

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Nostalgic comedy fans got a double-dose of promising news last week when two film projects drawing on past glories were announced. The news of a Dad’s Army movie, co-produced by Universal Pictures and Screen Yorkshire, was a bit of a bolt from the blue. As far as I know, this hasn’t been a noticeable clamour for a new screen version of the cherished sitcom. Dad’s Army, about a creaky band of Home Guard volunteers during the Second World War, notched up 80 episodes between 1968 and 1977. It has already spawned one film in 1971; though not a disgrace by any means, it was lukewarm and diluted in the manner of most 1970s British sitcom spin-offs.

The new one will necessarily feature different performers – no CGI magic, thank goodness, will be used to decant vintage footage of Arthur Lowe and John Le Mesurier into new scenes. But the casting looks inspired and high-calibre: Toby Jones as Captain Mainwaring, Bill Nighy as Wilson, Tom Courtenay as Corporal Jones, Michael Gambon as Godfrey and Blake Harrison (the gangly, gormless one from The Inbetweeners) as Pike. Mark Gatiss, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Daniel Mays will also feature. Will today’s audiences have enough awareness of the original property to make the new one commercially viable? Well, major studios do not enter lightly into projects such as this. Market research must have determined that there is enough residual fondness for the sitcom to make a film version fly.

Such questions need not even be asked of this month’s other big reboot news. In the 25 years since Ghostbusters 2, there has been constant chatter and speculation about when a third instalment of the horror-comedy franchise would be upon us. Various reports have indicated that there were one or more screenplays in existence; most stories held that Bill Murray was the common obstacle in getting another Ghostbusters off the ground. Give or take the odd Garfield or Monuments Men, Murray is all about quality control. In an interview with Variety this week, he talks about some of the different ideas that were floated over the years, including one in which his character, Peter Venkman, died and then returned to haunt his mortal former colleagues. Murray’s memory is of it being “kind of funny, but not well executed”. He also says in the interview that he would consider a cameo appearance in the third film.

A new Ghostbusters, it was revealed last week, will be directed by Paul Feig, who made Bridesmaids. This is excellent news. Even better is that he is working on the screenplay with Katie Dippold, who wrote Feig’s last film, The Heat, which paired up Sandra Bullock with Melissa McCarthy and breathed new life into the buddy comedy. The third piece of good news about this 21st century Ghostbusters is that it will be female-oriented. Populating a blockbuster with women – now that’s radical. Sure, Sigourney Weaver was a big and often amusing part of the first two, but she wasn’t allowed to be boy-funny: she wasn’t permitted to goof around on equal terms with the fellas (as, say, Julia Louis-Dreyfus does in Seinfeld).

Feig has confirmed that his film won’t have any connection to the previous two – so Murray’s involvement may be moot after all. This is unequivocally the right way to go. I’m all for apparent sequels that shake off any link to their predecessors (The Curse of the Cat People) or updates that rib and riff on the source material (The Brady Bunch Movie). In which case, perhaps we shouldn’t even be calling it Ghostbusters when this is clearly a post-Ghostbusters enterprise. PostBusters, anyone?

No hint yet of what the plot will entail. But I’ll throw my hat into the ring with this script idea: an announcement is made that a big-budget Hollywood franchise will be rebooted with an all-female cast, triggering a rash of “Can women be funny?” think-pieces, much as Bridesmaids did. This has the unexpected effect of accidentally cranking open the gates of hell, causing pop-culture columnists and op-ed writers around the world to be slimed. The second act needs work but I think I might be onto something.

Ghostbusters will have selected 30th anniversary screenings on 28 October

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.