by Allan Fish
(UK 1968-1977 2,340m) DVD1/2
We are the boys who will make you think again
p David Croft d David Croft, Harold Snoad, Bob Spiers w Jimmy Perry, David Croft theme song sung by Bud Flanagan
Arthur Lowe (Capt.George Mainwaring), John le Mesurier (Sgt.Arthur Wilson), Ian Lavender (Pte.Frank Pike), John Laurie (Pte.James Frazer), Clive Dunn (Cpl.Jack Jones), Arnold Ridley (Pte.Charles Godfrey), James Beck (Pte.Joe Walker), Bill Pertwee (Warden Hodges), Frank Williams (The Vicar), Edward Sinclair (The Verger),
One cannot help thinking back to Powell and Pressburger’s immortal The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and the moment when John Laurie’s faithful servant, Murdoch, announces he’s helping the war effort by joining the Home Guard. It’s enough to make you think Pressburger, when writing his script, could see into the future. Laurie was one of British cinema’s forgotten character actors, memorable in everything from Hitch’s The 39 Steps to Mine Own Executioner and appearing – one of only two people besides Larry himself – in all three Olivier Shakespeare films. Yet none of that matters, for he will always be Private James Frazer, undertaker and member of the Home Guard for Walmington on Sea, always ready to tell you the tale of the “auld empty barn”. And he wasn’t alone, there’s not an actor amongst this cast whose efforts in other spheres has not been dwarfed by their association with arguably Britain’s best-loved small screen comedy.
The institution that was Dad’s Army ran for nearly a decade and followed the (mis)adventures of a group of Local Defence Volunteers during the dark days of World War II when a Nazi Invasion was expected. Among the volunteers are young Pike, a bank teller whose poor health prevented him signing up, Frazer, the aforementioned Scottish undertaker, Jones, a butcher who once served in the Boer War and can’t shut up about how he used to deal with the Fuzzy-Wuzzies, and Godfrey, an old bachelor who lives with his elderly female relatives and has all the ferocity of an angel cake. Rounding off the group are Walker, a dodgy geezer who perpetuates the “fell off a back of a lorry” small-time black marketeer, and the two leading personnel; Sergeant Wilson served in World War I at Gallipoli and Passchendaele, but his superior officer, also his manager at the bank where he works, still insists he should be in command. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you – and get ready to cringe – Captain Arthur Mainwaring. Mainwaring comes from a long line, a tradition of incompetence in authority well-remembered from the Will Hay comedies of the 1930s, but the character itself surely derived most from the eerily similar portrayal of the Home Guard captain in Whisky Galore by Basil Radford. Despite memorable performances in small and large screen, Mainwaring would immortalise Arthur Lowe, the little Napoleon too pompous to realise what a dimwit he really is.
There’s a tendency these days to overlook the quality of Dad’s Army. True, the later series set in similar times by Perry and Croft – Allo! Allo!, Hi-De-Hi and the execrable You Rang M’Lord – were instantly forgettable, and it’s also true that Dad’s Army went on four years too long. It should have stopped in 1973 after the premature death of James Beck. Somehow Beck’s immortal portrayal of the wide boy Walker was more intrinsic to the show’s popularity than they realised. It became a story of old men going through the motions after that, but in its early black and white years, the writing and playing was at its sharpest, so that though later episodes and exchanges from the colour years have become legendary – such as the “Don’t tell him, Pike!” episode – it’s to the earlier pieces, narrated by the voice of the newsreel himself E.V.H.Emmett, and when Bud Flanagan’s singing of the much-loved them tune hadn’t passed its sell by date, that we find the real treasures. All the characters were national institutions, and the entire cast, right down to Pertwee’s Warden and Williams’ Vicar, were irreplaceable. Laurie, Dunn, le Mesurier, Ridley and Beck were incomparable, but Lowe recreated a figure of British tragedy, a King Canute trying to stem back the tide through sheer stubborn obstinacy. Even Mr Alternative Comedy, Ben Elton called it the greatest British sitcom.