Catherine Zeta Jones: Why I'd make a pretty good spy

Catherine Zeta Jones and Tom Courtenay in Dad's Army.Catherine Zeta Jones and Tom Courtenay in Dad's Army.
Catherine Zeta Jones and Tom Courtenay in Dad's Army.
Film Critic Tony Earnshaw catches up with the Joneses as the much-anticipated reboot of Dad's Army hits cinema screens.

Catherine Zeta-Jones lets rip with a throaty laugh.

“I think I’d be a really good spy, yeah! Mata Hari did it wonderfully.”

She’s referring to her sultry villainess in Dad’s Army, a pouting temptress from the Big Smoke who arrives in a sleepy seaside town and sets tongues wagging. More importantly, she turns the heads of the officers and men of the resident Home Guard platoon.

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This, then, is the decidedly 21st century reboot of Dad’s Army in which a woman discovers not just the Achilles heel of Captain Mainwaring and his merry men but also, potentially, wartime England as it prepares to invade Hitler’s Europe.

“I think a lot of actors are spies, don’t you? You enter as an actor into a lot of places and territories that you wouldn’t necessarily ever be. They’re allowed to wine and dine you and I’m sure there’s a lot of information it’d be very easy for me to find out. I could! If MI5 needs me I’m available…”

Sitting alongside her is Captain Mainwaring himself aka actor Toby Jones – no relation – who warms to the espionage theme.

“Your point about observation is an interesting one. I am compelled to observe whether I want to or not. I find myself fascinated by people, the relationships, the dynamics of people. It’s not a conscious thing but I think that I am drawn towards it.

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“And I am always very grateful – even when I’m on something quite high profile – that I don’t get bothered. I’m able to be very discreet and wander around in a way that I suspect Catherine isn’t.”

One of the very best of the current gallery of British character actors, 49-year-old Toby Jones is the son of veteran thesp Freddie Jones, currently appearing in Emmerdale.

Oddly enough he’s among the youngest in a starry ensemble that boasts Bill Nighy (66) as awfully nice Sergeant Wilson, Sir Tom Courtenay (78) as panicky Corporal Jones, Sir Michael Gambon (75) as doddery Private Godfrey, Bill Paterson (70) as Private Frazer with Daniel Mays and Blake Harrison bringing up the rear as Walker the spiv and mummy’s boy Pike.

It’s a quarter of a century now since Zeta-Jones enjoyed her breakthrough as country lass Mariette Larkin in Yorkshire Television’s The Darling Buds of May. Her return – once the producers saw Bridlington, and thanks to investment in excess of £1m from Screen Yorkshire, they opted to shoot Dad’s Army on location in the county – marked her first trip back since those salad days.

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She smiles at the memory. “It’s funny… even though The Darling Buds of May was set in Kent – ‘the garden of England’ – the Yorkshire folk really felt that the programme was for them because we’d been doing it for so long. But coming home to work was everything that I expected it to be. I’m a bit biased because I do believe the Gower coast [in South Wales] is the most beautiful coastline in the world but how gorgeous that Yorkshire coastline is.”

Toby Jones recalls something of the Zeta-Jones factor and the reaction this Oscar winner, Hollywood star and daughter-in-law of soon-to-be centenarian Kirk Douglas received.

“What’s great about a film where you can stay in one location is that there is an element where you get to know restaurants. You can infiltrate the town a little bit. We were in Scarborough and then we were working a lot in Bridlington. I totally understand why people would be proprietorial about Dad’s Army. It’s a classic and I totally get it. And I suppose I was nervous that there might be some hostility towards the entire enterprise but wherever we went everyone was so happy that we’d chosen to film it in Yorkshire. And, yes, it was winter in Yorkshire but luckily it didn’t rain. It was just cold.”

Jones was right to be wary about people’s reaction to the resurrection of the good men of Walmington-on-Sea. In terms of his own involvement as fussy Captain Mainwaring, his decision not to give an impersonation of Arthur Lowe was a canny move.

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“I’m a big Arthur Lowe fan but I’m glad it was different. As an actor you can get very wound up before a project about theoretically imagining what is being asked of you. And I remember getting very bogged down [thinking], ‘Am I going to be acting Arthur Lowe acting Captain Mainwaring or am I going to be Captain Mainwaring?’ In the hurly-burly of filmmaking there just isn’t time to be that anxious. So although I did watch a lot of Dad’s Army while I was making it, there are a couple of things I thought of. It’s a brilliant, brilliant performance Arthur gives but there are things he chose about that status that I tried to find my own answers to: a prissiness that he has as a man and a kind of amateurish and buffoonishness. But there’s a lot more slapstick in our film, I think.”

Zeta-Jones relied on the iconography of 40s noir femmes fatales to inform her role as Rose Winters. Unlike her co-stars she didn’t have to rely on personal or family experiences to build her character. But she mischievously remembers the moment Kirk Douglas donned uniform to go to war.

“My late mother-in-law was on the dock, waving. Kirk was going off to be an officer, looking fabulous. But they couldn’t back out of the harbour! So they discharged some ammunition that backfired and blew up half the boat. He fell over and was in the infirmary and never went back! So that was his war – he didn’t actually get there. That was a real Dad’s Army moment for him.”

Dad’s Army (PG) is on saturation release.

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