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4 February 2016updated 14 Sep 2021 2:57pm

The argument against remaking beloved sitcoms in five words: Martin Clunes as Reginald Perrin

The closer Dad's Army gets to its source material, the more you wish you were watching that instead. Plus: Rams.

By Ryan Gilbey

It is generally accepted that dogs and their owners come to resemble one another. The gentle comedy Rams suggests the same is true of farmers and their livestock. Most of the men in this film, set in an isolated Icelandic community, have tumbleweed beards that double the lengths of their faces. The patterns on their chunky knitwear could be markings that differentiate one breed from another. And though the farmers don’t have horns, they are every bit as gnarled as the rams they tend – none more so than Kiddi (Theodór Júlíusson), who hasn’t spoken to his younger brother Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) for forty years. Living on neighbouring farms with no one else in sight might present problems for most feuding siblings, but they have found a way to manage their grievances. When Kiddi is mad at Gummi, he shoots at his windows. When Gummi despatches the invoice for the broken panes, he does so through a third party. A carrier collie grasps the rolled-up note in its jaws and trots off next door to deliver it.

The brothers, along with other local farmers, are facing ruin. Signs of scrapie, the sheep equivalent of BSE, have been ­detected in Kiddi’s flock. As if that weren’t bad enough, it was Gummi who found it. Now all the sheep in the area must be killed. “Why not just take us, too?” Kiddi rages to the authorities. “Finish the job.”

This is no mere hyperbole. The writer-director, Grímur Hákonarson, encourages us at all points to see the farmers as synonymous with their animals. This he does through repetition (a sheep is delivered to a farmhouse doorstep, an unconscious man dumped outside a hospital) and suggestion (Kiddi is forcibly stripped and bathed as though being dunked in sheep dip). So, when the brothers’ animosity wanes long enough for them to commiserate each other over the slaughter of the last of their prized stock, it is clear that they are also lamenting their own imminent extinction. Like the sheep, they are a dying breed. But Gummi has a plan up the sleeve of his cosy cardigan.

Rams fits in to a melancholy Nordic tradition – think of Kitchen Stories, Of Horses and Men or the hangdog comedies of Aki Kaurismäki – where whimsy is forever being elbowed aside by despair. Hákonarson allows his camera to gawp at the cruel landscape but for the most part he keeps us inside looking out, adopting the entrenched perspective of the beleaguered farmers. This visual directness, no barrier to poetry, would make it possible to watch Rams as a silent movie without losing much nuance. But you would then miss out on the evocative soundtrack. The wind whistles balefully behind a wheezing accordion and a piano is played so tentatively that the pianist’s fingers might be frostbitten.

The argument against beloved sitcoms being remade with a new cast can be stated in five words: Martin Clunes as Reginald Perrin. The second big-screen version of Dad’s Army (the sitcom already spawned a so-so 1971 film) presents an unconvincing case for the defence. It is set in 1944 in fictional Walmington-on-Sea, where Captain Mainwaring (Toby Jones) oversees a group of Home Guard volunteers, including the go-getting Lance-Corporal Jones (Tom Courtenay), the naive Private Pike (Blake Harrison) and the doddery Private Godfrey (Michael Gambon). They have been alerted to a German spy in their midst but their attention is consumed by the arrival of Rose (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a glamorous journalist who has come to report on their bravery. What she finds instead is infighting, cluelessness and a fleet of inflatable tanks that get blown away on a breeze.

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There is welcome comic material for the wives, formerly left off-screen, played by Sarah Lancashire, Felicity Montagu and Alison Steadman. Class tensions are teased out between Mainwaring and the debonair Sgt Wilson (Bill Nighy, bringing a whiff of Leslie Phillips to the part). But the film is caught between two stools. Who wants a Dad’s Army featuring bad bedroom farce and glum soul-searching? (“All I ever wanted in this war was to do my best,” Mainwaring says at one point.) Yet the closer it resembles the source material, the more you ache to be watching that instead. Decent films made from sitcoms, as we know, are as rare as flying tanks. 

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This article appears in the 03 Feb 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war