Dad’s Army at 50: Still soldiering on

The cast of Dad's Army
The cast of Dad's Army
  • Exactly 50 years ago, the first episode of Dad’s Army went on air. Few of the cast survive, but the laughter lingers still.
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Jimmy Perry was just 17 when he joined the 10th Hertfordshire Battalion of Anthony Eden’s hurriedly constituted Local Defence Volunteers.

These guardians of the home front – retirees and those not yet old enough for the draft – would, if all else failed, hold the line against the German invasion everyone feared.

But there was a flaw in Eden’s plan. The invasion might come at night, and Mrs Perry didn’t like the idea of her son being out in the dark.

Worried that he might catch cold, she wrapped him in warm clothes to supplement his uniform. She did not realise that in so doing she was creating one of the defining characters in British comedy.

“She didn’t go so far as making me wear a scarf, but she came pretty near,” Perry recalled.

It was 50 years ago today that Private Pike and his comrades in arms – initially they were comrades in broom handles – were first seen, as the opening episode of Dad’s Army went out, in black and white, on BBC1. Perry had created the character in his own image, but – don’t tell him, Pike – it was another member of the Walmington-on-Sea platoon on whom he had his eye.

In 1968, Perry was a jobbing actor and would-be writer. He had turned out a script called The Fighting Tigers, based on his experiences in what became known as the Home Guard.

He handed it to his agent, whose husband was the BBC comedy producer, David Croft. The rest is the stuff of comedy legend.

Perry and Croft had worked together already, but on far from equal terms. Perry was carving a niche for himself in playing spiv characters, which he had purveyed in guest appearances on the popular sitcoms Hugh and I, with Hugh Lloyd and Terry Scott, and Beggar My Neighbour, with Reg Varney.

Croft produced them both. He was also a veteran of The Benny Hill Show and drove a Rolls Royce, and had actors beating a path to his door.

Whether or not he liked Perry’s over-the-top performances on his shows is not recorded. But in the BBC written archive, the memos remain of his missive to Perry that in Dad’s Army, the spiv Private Walker would have to be played by someone else.

“He told Jimmy that he couldn’t write and act in the same show, because the rest of the cast would believe he was saving all the best lines for himself,” says Tony Pritchard of the Dad’s Army Appreciation Society.

Appointing himself as Perry’s co-writer, Croft set about assembling an alternative cast that would become the best known of its time and, perhaps, of all time.

His masterstroke, says Mr Pritchard, was to switch the characters of Cpt Mainwaring and Sgt Wilson, so that the senior officer was outranked in class.

“That’s partly why it stands up as such a classic, even today,” says Mr Pritchard. “That and the fact that even in 1969 it was a period piece. It was set in a time gone by and that’s saved it from looking dated.”

Half a century on, the BBC’s paper archives, preserved improbably in a large bungalow at Caversham Park in Reading, shed intriguing new light on the contractual negotiations that accompanied the casting.

John Le Mesurier, familiar from a score of British films, was considered the star of the show and was paid £209, 9s 6d per episode. Arthur Lowe, as Mainwaring, received around £39 less.

He was new to the BBC, though nevertheless a TV “name” from having played Leonard Swindley in Coronation Street and in the Street’s first and only spin-off series, the sitcom Pardon The Expression, produced by Granada.

The paperwork also records the altercation over the launch of the show. Paul Fox, later the managing director of Yorkshire Television but then controller of BBC1, objected to the use of newsreel footage of Nazis in the first episode, which had been inserted for historical context.

Writing that he “felt uneasy” about the whole series, he ordered the head of comedy to replace the shots with something “entirely innocuous”. Later – following near universal popular and critical acclaim – Fox admitted that Croft had been “100 per cent right”.

Among those early reviewers was the critic Peter Tinniswood, who would go on to write the South Yorkshire sitcom, I Didn’t Know You Cared. The Home Guard, he remembered, had been “a constant source of humour” even during the war.

Ironically for a show whose paperwork is so well preserved, the video library is incomplete. Much of the second serieswas wiped, and archivists have been trying ever since to put the pieces back together.

Tony Pritchard, whose organisation of amateur enthusiasts runs a Dad’s Army museum near Diss in Norfolk, where many of the exterior scenes were filmed, was invited to a screening of one of the restored tapes, in which Pike puts a rifle butt down his trousers.

“I hadn’t seen it since 1969 – no-one had,” he says, “but I recalled it as if it were yesterday. That’s how much of an impression it made.”

Mr Pritchard got to know Perry and Croft well. “They were incredibly supportive,” he says. “They came to all our events and they gave us poetic licence to do anything, within reason.

But it had been Bill Pertwee, who played the moaning air raid warden Hodges, who had been his first point of contact.

“He knew of a small group of us wandering around looking at locations, and he was getting so much interest from the public that he got in touch with a view to setting up a society,” Mr Pritchard says.

That was 25 years ago, and when, in 2016, a new movie version was being filmed in Bridlington, it was to them that the film makers turned as consultants.

“We walked the set and just made sure there weren’t any obvious errors,” he says. “Eagle-eyed Dad’s Army fans would have spotted any a mile away.”

He was also given an extra’s part. “If you don’t blink you can see me wearing rim spectacles and a flat cap.”

He considers the movie a hit.

“Michael Gambon as Godfrey was tremendous, and Toby Jones did a great job as Mainwaring. I don’t know what people were expecting. They weren’t going to try to imitate Arthur Lowe or John Le Mesurier but they wanted to get the mannerisms and to be sympathetic to that style of acting.”

Those mannerisms were to make it hard for Ian Lavender, who played Pike in the original series and the 1971 movie, to get future roles.

“It stopped me getting a type of work,” he says. “I was typecast. I wasn’t character-cast. I was expected to be funny; I wasn’t expected to be Pike.”

He also clears up, in Radio Times, a lingering mystery about the show. After the final episode had been recorded, he asked creator Croft if Le Mesurier’s Arthur Wilson was really Pike’s father.

Croft looked at him as if to say, “You stupid boy!”, but bit his tounge.

“Of course he is,” he winked.