In a production office far, far away someone has decided to turn the 1970s BBC sitcom Dad’s Army into a film. Its cast features some of Britain’s finest acting talent – and Catherine Zeta-Jones. But this promise dissolves rapidly once you consider that those behind the camera are responsible for work as bereft of humour as St Trinians and Mr Bean’s Holiday. The heart sinks more rapidly than the Titanic.
The motive for those responsible for producing the movie is clear: to cash in on popular affection for a comedy series that ended in 1977 but is constantly replayed, meaning it has probably been watched by almost every living Briton. Nearly four decades after the last episode was broadcast, when BBC2 shows Dad’s Army according to the Broadcasters Audience Research Board it still attracts about 1.5 million viewers, more than The Thick of It ever did.
That a comedy about Britain’s wartime Home Guard, a series regarded as old fashioned even when it first appeared in 1968, should still be held in such high and widespread regard is remarkable, especially as the series owed so much to the times in which it was produced.
The first episode was broadcast in April 1968, just months after sterling had been devalued. This was an event that provoked the Establishment to consider overthrowing the Labour government. A faltering economy, an uppity working class, black immigration and an imperial retreat from East of Suez was too much for those Britons who believed the nation had gone to the dogs. As odd as it sounds, they looked longingly back to World War II. This was a time when to their eyes the country had stood united and alone with little else to defend itself beyond Winston Churchill’s blood, sweat and tears.
Longing for war
Dad’s Army was but one of a wave of now forgotten but incredibly popular television wartime dramas and comedies produced during this period of apparent national crisis, fictions written by men who had experienced the conflict while in their 20s. Its writers, Jimmy Perry and David Croft, were typical, respectively serving in the Home Guard and as an air raid warden. Many of their generation found the 1960s and 1970s wanting. As Perry told the Daily Mail after the series had ended:
It wasn’t just a funny show. I like to think it gave people a feeling of that national pride we had in the war … the feeling we seem to have lost. The war was something we haven’t got to make excuses about. There are no ifs or buts about it; we won that one. I mean, I’d hate to be French, wouldn’t you?
This need for Britons to revive their wartime spirit so as to escape the country’s contemporary problems was encapsulated in Dad’s Army’s first episode, which began in the “present” day of 1968 with an ageing Mainwaring addressing a local meeting of the “I’m Backing Britain” campaign, a middle-class response to the country’s economic troubles. Surrounded by his old comrades, Mainwaring recalled that in 1940 everybody had backed Britain.
As the former BBC executive Stuart Hood put it in 1972, Dad’s Army represented:
The comic but loving expression of the Churchillian view of history and the role of the British people during the war. It is a rosy view of a firmly united nation subjected to minor inconveniences which it bears with a jest, deeply complacent, solidly middle class.
A new perspective
Hood believed the Churchillian version was wrong and should be challenged. Historian Angus Calder, whose ironically named The People’s War was published in 1969, kicked off the revisionist charge. Such research showed that Britain remained a class divided society, even at the height of 1940. But it is the rosy view that persists in popular thinking about the conflict.
The characters who feature in Dad’s Army are certainly an exclusively middle class group, albeit with a sprinkling of shopkeepers: even Walker the Spiv is an entrepreneur, of sorts. Yet, if Walmington-on-Sea’s Home Guard lacked a proletariat, the series demonstrated wartime national unity through the presence of a Scot, Private Fraser; and for a time Private Cheeseman, a Welshman, was found in the ranks. Significantly, no Irish apparently had applied to join the fight against Hitler. Dad’s Army began just as the Northern Irish Troubles erupted so perhaps this absence was no coincidence, especially given the 1970 episode Absent Friends, in which Mainwaring and company exchange blows with suspected IRA terrorists.
Dad’s Army traded on the comforting fantasy of wartime unity and its nostalgia was delivered in a way that appealed to a family audience even, reputably, a Royal Family audience. In a time of television permissiveness, BBC surveys reveal the relief many viewers greeted its gentle humour, one that was never vulgar or unkind.
If my experience was typical, the series was an early evening pacifier for children watching old men doing silly things while hearing references to Churchill for the first time. Perhaps most importantly, Dad’s Army had a cast of skilled old-stagers who seized their last hurrah with relish: it was they who turned an often-banal script into gold. It is no wonder the Daily Express called Arthur Lowe et al: “British folk heroes”.
You didn’t have to be nostalgic for the war to like Dad’s Army in the 1970s but it certainly helped. Now the series has now taken on a life of its own and the nostalgia it provokes is for watching television as a family, safe from both Mr Hitler and rude words. The makers of the new film version presumably think they can turn a quick profit by exploiting this sentiment. It would be an extremely clever trick to take the assumptions of the original series (which often underpinned its humour) and turn the movie into something contemporaries will enjoy. So I highly doubt they’ll do it. Audiences are better advised to get the series box set rather than watch Toby Jones, Bill Nighy and the rest in a movie which Private Fraser might rightly think was doomed, doomed, doomed to disappoint.