UK, BBC, Sitcom, 13 x b/w / 70 x colour, 1968
Starring: Arthur Lowe, John Le Mesurier, Clive Dunn
The unmistakable voice of Bud Flanagan singing 'Who Do You Think You Are Kidding, Mr Hitler?', a cod-Second World War propaganda singalong written especially for the show (by Jimmy Perry), introduced Dad's Army, the zenith of the British broad-comedy ensemble sitcom. Consistently good writing and a wonderful cast of old timers and newer talents combined to produce a whimsical period-piece that continues, justifiably, to be savoured and has now assumed a place in the 'hall of greats' pantheon, adored by new generations of the British public.
Walmington-on-Sea, an imaginary south-coast town not far from Eastbourne, was the setting for the Second World War adventures of a disparate group of men who, prevented by age or some other disability from enlisting in the services, enrolled as Local Defence Volunteers (LDV), forming part of Britain's 'last line of defence', a force which became known colloquially as 'Dad's Army'. Creator/writer Jimmy Perry had been in one such LDV group when he was 16 and based the idea upon his own experiences; it was his first sitcom. He and co-writer David Croft populated the show with a host of memorable characters, each with a recognisably different trait: the Captain, Mainwaring (pronounced Mannering), was pompous and suffered from delusions of grandeur that regularly led to his downfall; his Sergeant, Wilson, was vague and - to the perpetual annoyance of Mainwaring - cultured and public-school educated; Jones was dotty; Pike was precious; Walker was wily; Frazer was pessimistic; and Godfrey was frail. Often in opposition to them were the effete vicar, the oleaginous verger, the bullish ARP warden and the officious Colonel, Mainwaring's rival from a nearby town. All of the men had day jobs: Mainwaring was the local bank manager, Wilson his chief clerk and Pike the clerk; Jones was the local butcher; Frazer was the undertaker. The comedy arose from the bickering interplay between all these characters and the sometimes desperate attempts to solve the unlikely problems encountered by the accident-prone but determined and well-meaning platoon.
A huge cache of catchphrases from the show clicked with viewers, notably Mainwaring's 'Stupid boy', aimed, with a withering look, at Pike; Wilson's effete dispensing of military orders, such as 'Would you mind awfully falling into three lovely lines?'; Frazer's exaggeratedly Scots-accented 'We're doomed'; Hodges' heartfelt, 'Ruddy hooligans!'; Godfrey's 'Would you mind if I was excused?' as his ageing bladder necessitated yet another trip to the loo; and Jones's four gems, 'They don't like it up them', 'Handy-hock!' (German for 'Hands up!'), 'Permission to speak, sir!', and the perversely alarming 'Don't panic!'.
Dad's Army benefited from inspired casting, featuring many veterans of the business, some of whom had worked together in the past and formed professional friendships. Arthur Lowe (best known at the time as Leonard Swindley from Coronation Street and its sitcom spin-off Pardon The Expression! was originally invited to play the role of Wilson, with John Le Mesurier as Mainwaring, but they found themselves more comfortable in each other's roles. No spring chicken, Lowe was 52 when the show began and 62 when it finished, but he was a mere junior compared to some of the others - their ages at the beginning were: Le Mesurier 56, Laurie 71 and the daddy of them all, Arnold Ridley (the actor and playwright, best known beforehand as author of the stage and film favourite The Ghost Train), 72 at the start and 81 at the finish. Clive Dunn, who had carved a reputation by playing characters much older than himself, was merely a youthful 46 when the show began. Ironically, it was one of the youngest actors, James Beck - only 35 when the first episode aired - who died during the run of the show, shockingly young, in 1973. The subsequent series failed to match the brilliance of the earlier episodes, perhaps indicating how integral Beck's dodgy spiv character was to the mix.
At its height, Dad's Army was a staggering success, spawning a feature film version in 1971 (director Norman Cohen) starring the main TV cast but with Liz Fraser in the role of Mrs Pike; and a musical stage-play in 1975 at the Shaftesbury Theatre, London, in which John Bardon took the Walker role and Hamish Roughead appeared as Frazer. (A musical number from the show was performed by the cast at the 1975 Royal Variety Show, televised on 16 November 1975 by ITV.) Six members of the cast (Lowe, Le Mesurier, Laurie, Beck, Ridley and Lavender) turned up as guests in the 22 April 1971 edition of The Morecambe And Wise Show on BBC2. A BBC Radio 4 version of Dad's Army, adapted from the TV scripts by Harold Snoad and Michael Knowles, ran for a total of 67 episodes (20 half-hours from 28 January to 10 June 1974, 20 more from 11 February to 24 June 1975 and 26 more from 16 March to 7 September 1976, with an hour-long special on Christmas Day 1974); and a Radio 2 sequel, It Sticks Out Half A Mile (13 episodes, 13 November 1983-9 October 1984), again with new scripts from Snoad and Knowles, followed Wilson, Pike and Hodges' post-war pranks on a pier. This eventually ended up on TV, albeit with a different casts, first as Walking The Planks and then High & Dry (Years earlier, in 1971-72, Arthur Lowe and Ian Lavender - not in their Dad's Army characters - had teamed in another Radio 2 sitcom, Parsley Sidings, written by Jim Eldridge.) But The Rear Guard, a US adaptation of Dad's Army screened there by ABC on 10 August 1976, failed to make it past a pilot (which was based on the UK episode 'The Deadly Attachment'). The American version did have a couple of extra spins, however, one being the ethnic mix of the squad (Italians, blacks, Jews - even someone with a German background); perhaps, though, as the United States was never seriously in danger of military invasion, a premise depicting the old codgers' last stand was never going to be fully appreciated. In Britain, whose borders were very much threatened in 1940-41, few comedies have garnered such deeply entrenched and deserved love and affection.
Notes. In 1998, 30 years after its debut, the original 1968 black-and-white series was repeated for the first time (BBC2, 14 July-18 August), and on 28 May 2000 BBC1 presented Don't Panic! The Dad's Army Story, a 50-minute documentary researched and hosted by Victoria Wood. This was then repeated by BBC2 on 28 December 2001 as part of a Dad's Army special, the centrepiece of which was the screening of two hitherto lost (ie, junked) episodes - 'Operation Kilt' and 'The Battle Of Godfrey's Cottage' - from the second series. The rediscovery of these 32-year-old episodes itself prompted a further documentary, Missing Presumed Wiped, screened the same evening.
The TV career of Arthur Lowe was documented in A Life On The Box, screened by BBC1 on 21 February 1999, in The Unforgettable Arthur Lowe, ITV, 18 September 2000, and in the BBC2 series Reputations on 21 September 2002. ITV1 broadcast The Unforgettable John Le Mesurier on 9 September 2001.
Researched and written by Mark Lewisohn.
Gallery Images - Click for a bigger image
Arthur Lowe - Capt George Mainwaring
John Le Mesurier - Sgt Arthur Wilson
Clive Dunn - L-Cpl Jack Jones
John Laurie - Pvt James Frazer
Arnold Ridley - Pvt Charles Godfrey
James Beck - Pvt Joe Walker (series 1-6)
Ian Lavender - Pvt Frank Pike
Bill Pertwee - Air Raid Warden William Hodges
Frank Williams - The Vicar: The Reverend Timothy Farthing
Edward Sinclair - The Verger: Maurice Yeatman
Janet Davies - Mrs Mavis Pike
Pamela Cundell - Mrs Fox
Queenie Watts - Mrs Edna Peters
Colin Bean - Pvt Sponge
Talfryn Thomas - Pvt Cheeseman (series 7)
Robert Raglan - Capt (Colonel) Pritchard
Geoffrey Lumsden - Capt Square
Harold Bennett - Mr Blewitt (Bluett)
Don Estelle - Gerald
Jimmy Perry - Writer
David Croft - Writer
Harold Snoad - Director (to series 8)
Bob Spiers - Director (series 9)
David Croft - Producer
Number of episodes: 83
Length: 77 x 30 mins · 1 x 60 mins · 1 x 40 mins · 1 x 35 mins · 3 x short specials
Series One (6 x 30 mins, b/w) 31 July-11 Sep 1968, BBC1 Wed 8.20pm
Short special (b/w) part of Christmas Night With The Stars
25 Dec 1968, BBC1 Wed 6.40pm
Series Two (6 x 30 mins, b/w) 1 Mar-5 Apr 1969,
BBC1 Sat 7pm
Series Three (14 x 30 mins, colour) 11 Sep-11 Dec 1969, BBC1 Thu 7.30pm
Series Four (13 x 30 mins, colour) 25 Sep-18 Dec 1970, BBC1 Fri 8pm
Short special (colour) part of
Christmas Night With The Stars
25 Dec 1970,
BBC1 Fri 6.45pm
Special (60 mins, colour) 27 Dec 1971, BBC1 Mon 7pm
Series Five (13 x 30 mins, colour) 6 Oct-29 Dec 1972, BBC1 Fri 8.30pm
Short special (colour) part of Christmas Night With The Stars 25 Dec 1972, BBC1 Mon 6.55pm
Series Six (7 x 30 mins, colour) 31 Oct-12 Dec 1973, BBC1 Wed 6.50pm
Series Seven (6 x 30 mins, colour) 15 Nov-23 Dec 1974, BBC1 Fri 7.45pm
Series Eight (6 x 30 mins, colour) 5 Sep-10 Oct 1975, BBC1 Fri 8pm
Special (40 mins, colour) 26 Dec 1975, BBC1 Fri 6.05pm
Special (30 mins, colour) 26 Dec 1976, BBC1 Sun 7.25pm
Series Nine (5 x 30 mins, 1 x 35 mins, colour) 2 Oct-13 Nov 1977, BBC1 Sun 8.10pm
The information in the bbc.co.uk Guide to Comedy is complied from 'The Radio Times Guide to Television Comedy' by Mark Lewisohn, published by BBC Books. More information about the book is available from the BBC Shop.
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Reviews supplied by Radio Times © 2003 BBC Worldwide - used under licence from BBC Worldwide.
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