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22 January 2016

How class war underpinned the laughs in Dad’s Army

What makes Dad’s Army so enduring? The answer might have a lot to do with its surprising depth of social commentary.

By Erica Wagner

What do Star Wars and Dad’s Army have in common? Plenty, actually. Daisy Ridley, the star of J J Abrams’s reboot, is the great-niece of Arnold Ridley, who played Private Godfrey in the series created by Jimmy Perry and David Croft; both contain a character given to uttering the catchphrase “We’re doomed!” (though one is a dour Scotsman and the other a golden protocol droid); both are so beloved by their audiences that the thought of any sort of messing around with the original brings on a kind of existential dread.

The Force Awakens passed the fan test with mostly flying colours. Now Dad’s Army must face the trial (the posters have the strapline “The British Empire Strikes Back!”). Oliver Parker’s film opens next month with a stellar, sturdy cast to embody Perry and Croft’s seaside Home Guard, tasked with protecting Britain’s coast while their younger compatriots are fighting the Nazi hordes. From Bud Flanagan singing the theme tune, “Who Do You Think You Are Kidding, Mr Hitler?” (not a wartime ditty, as many think, but an original composition by Perry), to its loving, laughing portrait of British pluck, the show has become part of the myth of not only British television history but British history, plain and simple.

The film stars Toby Jones as the pompous Captain Mainwaring, Bill Nighy as the languid and genteel Sergeant Wilson, Bill Paterson as the abrasive Private Frazer and Michael Gambon as the ancient, pacifist Private Godfrey. The script, by Hamish McColl (Paddington, Johnny English Reborn), aims to make enough changes to the original to create something new out of fine old cloth, pushing the action forward from the early years of the war to just before D-Day, setting a Nazi spy among the good folk of sleepy Walmington-on-Sea and, perhaps most
daringly, allowing a few women out from behind the curtain (in the original series, the terrifying Mrs Mainwaring was never even glimpsed). But so adored is the series that even some of the present cast thought that the whole thing was a dreadful idea at first; Nighy has said that he thought the producers were out of their minds.

What makes Dad’s Army so enduring? The television show, which aired between 1968 and 1977, was a rousing success from the get-go. As Graham McCann writes in his history of the series, its path from idea to broadcast classic was pretty smooth. Perry – who had served as a 16-year-old in the Home Guard in Watford during the war (he based the character of Private Pike on his teenage self) and later saw active service in Burma – had the spark of the idea in 1967; his agent was Ann Callender, who happened to be the wife of David Croft. She put the two of them together and Walmington-on-Sea was born. The first test audiences loved it. “What memories it brought back!” said one viewer who saw the show before it was screened. “We chuckled all the way through.” (This quick success made the recent BBC drama about the creation of the show, We’re Doomed! The Dad’s Army Story, rather undramatic but it was a treat for fans, one crowned by an endearing performance by John Sessions as Arthur  Lowe, who was in some respects quite similar to his character, Captain Mainwaring.)

To Jimmy Perry – still going strong at 92 – Dad’s Army’s appeal is no mystery. “Bravery always attracts people,” he said to me. “Everybody wants to be brave. Most people are washouts but they keep going and they want to be what they will never be.” The characters in Dad’s Army, he says, are “doing the best they can. They can be courageous if they need, too.” There was a pause as he thought back to his days during the war. “I was there,” he said. “I know.”

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In the London Library, I found The Home Guard Training Manual, produced by the War Office not long after war was declared. You can easily buy reprints now (surely thanks to the popularity of Dad’s Army) but the library’s copy is an original, printed in 1941 – one of the books that survived the bombing of the library in 1944. This pocket-size guide, produced for the “veteran soldiers” who made up the Home Guard, is a reminder of just how truthful Perry’s and Croft’s sitcom was. “The Home Guard is not a spare wheel to be kept in readiness to be fitted if anything goes wrong with the others. It is an essential part of the machinery with which Britain is being defended.” How easily one can imagine those two sentences being spoken by Captain Mainwaring! This was the tenor of the times.

Dad’s Army somehow manages to bundle a slew of British obsessions into one package without ever falling into cliché: the peril of the war, a display of the stiff upper lip, the seaside, the tension of class. The show, wrote Dennis Potter, “is made possible by the extended joke which allows the British, or more specifically the English, to turn every possible encounter into a subtle joust about status”. Its audience was one that “likes pips as well as chips on its shoulders”.

Dad’s Army remains a stalwart of the BBC’s iPlayer because, however much we bang on about a classless society, there is no sign of achieving it any time soon. But to the playwright Lee Hall, there is something quite subtle going on. “Maybe it really is about the welfare state,” he says. “It came from the minds of people who were living in this new welfare state – and what is it about? It’s about getting everyone to work together for a common objective and deal with all the issues of class this throws up. I  think that’s what it’s secretly about – people who’ve been taken out of their civic lives and the security of their class traditions and are forced to work together on a common project. That’s where we get the comedy, the misunderstandings, the complexity and the stasis that ensues.” That stasis and the absence of a visible enemy in the series earn it comparisons, in Lee’s view, to Waiting for Godot and the work of Franz Kafka.

It was the powerful use of an ensemble that made Dad’s Army a hidden inspiration for Hall’s 2007 play, The Pitmen Painters. And this is also what makes the series so ­remarkable to the comedian and novelist David Baddiel. (“A very nice boy,” says ­Jimmy Perry, when I tell him that I have spoken to Baddiel. “Very interested in football, isn’t he?”) “Most sitcoms involve three or four main characters,” Baddiel says. “But with Perry and Croft, there’s normally about eight people.”

This is also true of the other series they co-wrote, It Ain’t Half Hot Mum and Hi-de-Hi!. “It’s really complicated to write for eight characters,” he says. “But you know who these men are very quickly.” And, Baddiel adds, “It’s a successful sitcom about old people. It’s been tried a few other times but it’s hard to make old age really funny. If you focus on the fact of ageing, it can be quite bleak. But that’s not the point of the show in Dad’s Army: it’s just the canvas on which the show is made.”

If Parker’s film can capture the magic of Dad’s Army yet still make something new, it has a good chance of success. It will be interesting to see how it goes down in the United States. The peculiar Britishness of Doctor Who survived the Atlantic crossing, but Dad’s Army? I grew up in New York on British television – Upstairs, Downstairs may well be the reason I live here – but never saw Dad’s Army until I had been in England for quite a while. When I discovered it, I quickly sent a tape to my parents because I thought it would be a welcome addition to their diet of Fawlty Towers, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin and Butterflies. They were, however, wholly mystified, the show’s subtle reversal of class and privilege entirely puzzling to their American sensibilities. “If you think this is funny, well . . . we think you should come home now,” my dad joked. I never did go home. I stayed here, with the doughty men of Walmington-on-Sea to keep me safe. 

“Dad’s Army” is released on 5 February

Graham McCann’s “Dad’s Army: the Story of a Very British Comedy” is published by Fourth Estate

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This article appears in the 20 Jan 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Middle East's 30 years war