The other day I read a piece by Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian that was ostensibly about Nigel Farage and his daft-but-unpleasant political party, the United Kingdom Independence Party. However, unexpectedly, Freedland also made some telling comments about the beloved old BBC sitcom Dad’s Army. Freedland tried to compare Nigel Farage’s situation (in charge of a party of misfits and eccentrics) and his mentality (anti-EU, anti-immigrant, permanently under siege) with those of Captain Mainwaring, the pompous and beleaguered bank manager in Dad’s Army who’s in charge of a platoon of part-time and over-the-hill Home Guardsmen in an English coastal town called Walmington-on-Sea during the bleakest days of World War II – when Hitler’s forces are parked just across the Channel.
Of Dad’s Army itself, Freedland observed: “I have written before of 1940 as the creation myth of modern Britain, that defining moment when the country stood alone to fight Nazi Germany. What is curious is that for so long this myth was not distilled or advanced through a great monument or ceremony, a symphony or grand sculpture, but through a modest, if brilliant, sitcom about a bunch of old guys huffing and puffing their ways through drills, parades and the occasional false alarm.
“From 1968 to 1977, and through decades of repeats ever since, Dad’s Army became the chief depiction of Britain’s wartime experience… Britons who would struggle to name a single regiment that fought the decisive battles of that conflict can instantly identify the gentle amateurs of the Home Guard.”
Freedland pointed out that while other countries commemorate World War II more earnestly and lavishly – the USA continues to crank out Hollywood epics about the conflict like Saving Private Ryan (1998), Flags of our Fathers (2006), Inglourious Basterds (2009) and this year’s Fury – the gentle comedy of Dad’s Army seems to have become the UK’s preferred cultural statement about it. Maybe, he suggested, it’s because the show possesses a very self-depreciating sense of humour; which is also a very British sense of humour.
Freedland may be right. However, with Dad’s Army, I’ve always been more interested in the things that most people tend to overlook about the show. Everyone goes on about the characters’ buffoonery and endlessly quote their catchphrases (“Stupid boy!”, “Don’t panic!”, “They don’t like it up them!”, etc.), but there’s much more happening with them beneath the comic surface. And those characters’ complexity is testimony to the talents of the show’s writers, Jimmy Perry and David Croft.
For all his pomposity, Arthur Lowe’s Captain Mainwaring is someone tormented by a sense of inferiority. He’s lower-middle class and – with the society around him still strongly class-based – he’s painfully aware of it. This is underlined by his dealings with the languidly aristocratic Sergeant Wilson, played by John Le Mesurier, who despite being his subordinate in rank manages somehow to undermine him every time he opens his mouth. (“Do you think that’s wise, sir?”) And despite Wilson’s obvious problem that he’s much too posh to be a sergeant – “Would you mind awfully falling in, please?” he tells the men – the platoon-members prefer him to the blustering Mainwaring.
Then there’s the issue of Wilson’s relationship with the working-class Mrs Mavis Pike (Janet Davies), whose teenaged son Frank (Ian Lavender) is the only person who’s in the platoon because he’s too young to do military service. Despite their difference in social class, Wilson lodges with them and is clearly sharing a bed with Mrs Pike – to the scandal of the town – while he maintains a slightly uncomfortable relationship with Frank, who calls him ‘Uncle Arthur’. Perry and Croft did tell interviewers that, in their minds, Wilson was Frank’s biological father.
While the excitable Corporal Jones, played by Clive Dunn, is the show’s main source of slapstick, there’s actually a lot going on with him too. He might make a constant fool of himself but, as the local butcher and the man who hands out the meat rations, he wields a lot of power. He’s also, in his doddery way, something of a ladies’ man — he’s in his element when the housewives of Walmington-on-Sea are in his shop, trying to wheedle some extra meat-cuts out of him. No wonder that in the show’s final episode in 1977, he ends up marrying the glamorous, if bulky, local widow Mrs Fox (Pamela Clundell).
And there’s the story behind the platoon’s First Aid supervisor and most venerable member, the kindly but slightly befuddled (and beset by bladder problems) Private Godfrey, played by actor and playwright Arnold Ridley. He’s patronised by the others as an effete softy and the fact that he was a conscientious objector during World War I doesn’t win him any respect either. It’s later discovered that he served in the Royal Army Medical Corps and won a medal for saving several soldiers’ lives during the Battle of the Somme – something that Godfrey is too modest and gentlemanly to ever talk about. (In real life, Ridley had fought in the Battle of the Somme and sustained a barrage of injuries, including shrapnel in the legs and a bayonet in the groin.)
I don’t remember there being much depth to the platoon’s resident Scotsman, the dark, sly, conniving, pessimistic and utterly dour Private Fraser who, appropriately enough, works during the day as the town’s undertaker. But played by the great John Laurie, Frazer has become a cultural stereotype like no other. Even today, if a Scotsman is out in company in England and says something to the effect that things are not as peachy as everyone thinks they are, the company will instinctively recite Frazer’s catchphrase back at him: “We’re doomed… All doomed!”
Anyway, Dad’s Army has been in the headlines recently because plans are afoot to remake it as feature film with a big-name British cast in the roles made popular by Lowe, Le Mesurier, Dunn and the others. Some of that casting makes sense. It’s a stroke of genius to have Bill Nighy playing Sergeant Wilson and I’m sure Bill Paterson and Daniel Mays could do great things with, respectively, the roles of Private Frazer and the spiv, Private Walker. However, I suspect that Toby Jones – who’s an actor I greatly admire – is not quite right for the role of Captain Mainwaring and I’m not convinced by the prospect of Sir Tom Courtenay playing Corporal Jones, either.
As for the proposal that Sir Michael Gambon should play the gentle, pacifistic Private Godfrey… Well, I’m sorry, but when I think of Gambon I picture him as the monstrous gangster in Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989), stabbing a woman in the face with a fork when she becomes irritating at his restaurant table. Which isn’t a very Private Godfrey thing to do.
But what worries me much more about this cinematic remake of Dad’s Army is the comedy credentials of the people behind it. Director Oliver Parker is the man responsible for those dire updates of the St Trinian’s movies made in 2007 and 2009. Scriptwriter Hamish McColl’s past form hasn’t been any better, as he penned Mr Bean’s Holiday (2007) and Johnny English Reborn (2011), both of which starred Rowan Atkinson, a man who was last funny in 1989’s Blackadder Goes Forth. Parker also directed the Johnny English movie.
Meanwhile, a synopsis of the film’s plot, which to quote the BBC news website “will see (Catherine) Zeta-Jones play a glamorous journalist sent to report on the Walmington-on-Sea Home Guard before MI5 discovers there is a German spy in the fictional British town”, does nothing to persuade me that the film will be anything other than gimmicky, lowest-common-denominator pap. Actually, it makes my heart sink.
Mind you, I also read recently that a reboot is being planned of another fondly-remembered ensemble-comedy piece, the 1980s Ghostbusters movies. However, there’s a twist. This will be a female reboot of Ghostbusters, with actresses in the roles made popular by Bill Murray, Dan Ackroyd and company. So if Dad’s Army has to be remade, why not do it as an all-female version as well? Why not have women playing those old characters we remember so well and love so much? Here, then, are my suggestions for the cast of a female Dad’s Army:
Dame Judi Dench as Captain Mainwaring.
Dame Helen Mirren as Sergeant Wilson.
Alison Steadman as Corporal Jones.
Annette Crosby as Private Fraser.
Olivia Coleman as Private Walker.
Juno Temple as Private Pike.
Imelda Stanton as Warden Hodges.
Penelope Wilton as the Vicar.
Kathy Burke as the Verger.
Joanna Lumley as Captain Square.
Miranda Hart as Private Sponge.
Tilda Swinton as the U-Boat skipper.
And of course… Joan Collins as Private Godfrey.
(c) The Guardian