Looking Back (& Forward) At DAD'S ARMY

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Don't panic! Says Gail Williams...

I recently caught the trailer for the new Dad’s Army film. And I was pleasantly surprised.

Now, I’m old enough to remember when Dad’s Army was on TV - not the first time round you understand, I’m not that old! But the BBC did used to play a lot of repeats. It’s interesting to see that the series lasted twice as long as the war, but then again, it was a lot funnier. While watching the trailer, I remembered so many of the things about Dad’s Army, I thought I’d share some thoughts.

First off, for those who don’t know (how old are you? 12? Probably anything under 21 would fit, come to think of it). Anyway, Dad’s Army, to quote IMDB, can be described thus:
During WW2, in a fictional British seaside town, a ragtag group of Home Guard local defence volunteers prepares for an imminent German invasion.
I can't say they are wrong but there’s actually a whole lot more to it than that.

Captain Mainwaring, the local Bank Manager (back in the days when people actually got to see their bank manager and had respect from the man since he would be the one who made the decisions that could make or break a person’s finances), appointed himself leader of his town's contingent of Local Defence Volunteers. Mainwaring’s pompous, puffed-up, self important, and in fact everything cliché about a British Bank Manager. His number two is Sergeant Wilson, who is a clerk at Mainwaring's bank. Wilson is intelligent, erudite, educated, well mannered, effortlessly cultured. In other words, he’s everything middleclass Mainwaring wants to be.

These guys lead a rag-tag bunch of Privates, otherwise known as the “Men” (oh dear I actually heard that in Arthur Lowe’s Mainwaring’s call-to-attention voice). Remember that the Home Guard was generally made up of men who couldn’t, for one reason or another, get into the regular army, and in the case of the sleepy town of Walmington-on-Sea, it seems to be mostly because they were too old.

These were Dodderers Dumfounded.

There was Lance Corporal Jones, the butcher - no really, that is what he did for a living - he had two catchphrases, “don’t panic” and “they don’t like it up ‘em”. There was Private Frazer, the local undertaker, a wild eyed Scot, this guy was known for saying “we’re doomed”, and he had an incredible lilt to his voice when he said it. The gentle Private Godfrey, from the gentleman’s outfitters, who still lived with his sisters Cissy and Dolly, and complained a great deal about his weak bladder. I always kind of wondered what this guy was doing in the military, but you never can tell - there is, by the way, an incredible back story to this character.

There were younger characters too. Private Walker, he was, allegedly, in an reserved occupation but it was never entirely clear what his occupation was. What was obvious from the get go was that he was your typical cockney spiv, having moved down from London to the East Coast. Finally there was Private Pike, who at 17 was too young to enlist, and who referred to Wilson as Uncle Arthur. Again it’s never made clear why, but we all knew.

Of course every comedy needs it villain and in this war story, Hitler just wasn’t enough. The Home Guard met in the Church Hall and there was a lot of friction between Mainwaring, the Vicar and his Verger. Then there was Chief Warden Hodges, the local grocer. Hodges had full wardens authority and was forever butting heads with Mainwaring who thought he should have all the authority.

The actors were brilliant. Arthur Lowe (Mainwaring), the original voice of the Mr Men. John Le Mesurier (Wilson), the voice of Bod (anyone old enough to remember that?). And Clive Dunn (Jones), who went on to become Grandad - the man was never young, even when he was.

With the reminder that I was very young before I say this, when Dad's Army was on TV I was convinced Bill Pertwee, the guy playing Warden Hodge, was the brother of Jon Pertwee, who I vaguely remembered as The Doctor, and more readily as Worzel Gummidge. I was wrong, they weren’t brothers, they were in fact first cousins. I also remember being stunned when James Beck, who played the spiv Private Walker, died rather suddenly in 1973 at the age of 44, right in the middle of the series run. Of all of the actors, he was pretty much the last you might have picked to die first as he was one of the youngest.

Dad’s Army was as much a comedy of manners as it was of errors. It was slapstick and gentle at the same time, but most importantly it was quintessentially British. From the pen of David Croft and Jimmy Perry, this excellent show was just funny, really funny. I’m not a fan of slapstick, and there was certainly plenty of it in Dad's Army, but behind that, within the character interactions was such well observed humour and understated rivalry. This was showing and knowing without cynicism or belittling, even for that Stupid Boy Pike. I wouldn’t say it was the perfect show of its time, but it was perfect within its own sphere.

But that was then, what of now?

When I first heard that Dad’s Army was being remade, I did the eye roll thing. Why can’t film makers leave the established behind and come up with something new? But like I said, I was impressed by the trailer. For a start, the whole look of the piece seems right. Toby Jones is Mainwaring. That’s pretty much enough said. I love this little guy. He was brilliant as the Dream Lord in Doctor Who. He sparkles understatedly as Claudius Templesmith in The Hunger Games - though let’s face it, no one’s going to outshine Stanley Tucci in that. And he was Dobby, dearly departed Dobby the House Elf in that little known series you might just have heard of called Harry Potter. Toby hits the pomposity of Mainwaring with just the right lack of self awareness, not to mention perfect comic timing.

Wilson’s boots are filled by the wonderful Bill Nighy, and when is he not a joy to watch (even as Dr Black in Doctor Who)?

Interestingly, there’s a main character (well actually there are several) that I don’t remember from the original series: Colonel Theakes, played by the almost ubiquitous Mark Gatiss. Now I’ve like Gatiss since his days of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and his work on Sherlock and Doctor Who isn’t easily forgotten either. What I’ve seen of him in the trailer looks good.

Then there’s the one that surprised me - Godfrey is being played by Michael Gambon. Yes Dumbledore has become a dumfounded dodderer. Again, looks good so far.

Catherine Zeta Jones plays Rose Winters. A new character who appears to be the grit around which the oyster of this film is formed, i.e. her appearance is central to sparking off the action, and it does seem there is also a lot more action from the women. Now I find this noteworthy because there was so little shown of the women in the original series and I do wonder if it’s been put in because of what women did on the home front (and that should never be underestimated) or because, in these times of political correctness, the writers felt obliged to add it. To be honest, as long as it’s funny, I don’t care why it got in.

According to IMDB, and this is not in the trailer, the film makers have made the nod towards the original series. The Reverend Timothy Farthing is played by Frank Williams, who you probably haven’t heard of but he was The Vicar in the original series. And the original Private Pike, Ian Lavender (yes, he who was in Eastenders for a while, possibly as Pauline Fowler’s love interest, but I’d given up watching long before that and frankly don’t care if I’m wrong), who is sadly no longer able to pass for a seventeen year old, also makes an appearance. So there is clearly an awareness of where these characters come from and where they belong.

Do they, though, belong on the big screen?

Here's where I’m not convinced.

There have been several television programs that have been turned into films in the last decade, and I’m struggling to think of one that really worked. The Inbetweeners didn’t, The Simpsons didn’t (yes I expect some of you are screaming at that one), it's tough to make that jump from TV to silver screen. Though to be fair, Firefly managed it with Serenity, but that’s a whole different article.

So would I recommend watching this remake of Dad's Army? Probably, if you like gentle, very British comedies. Will I watch this movie? Yes, from what I've seen I will. But I won’t go to the cinema to watch it. I think the Home Guard belongs at home.

Dad's Army arrives in UK cinemas February 5th, 2016.

Gail lives in her own private dungeon populated with all the weird and the wonderful she can imagine. Some of it’s very weird, and the odd bits and pieces are a bit wonderful. Well okay, she lives in Swansea with her husband and daughter. And the world’s most demanding cat. To find out more about Gail, check out www.gailbwilliams.co.uk - Dare you!

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