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Bill Nighy fronts new Dad’s Army, but don’t forget the real Home Guard

‘Who do you think you’re kidding, Mr Hitler?’ EPA/Claudio Onorati

News that a feature film of the BBC TV comedy series Dad’s Army is to be made – starring Bill Nighy and Toby Jones – has garnered a mixed response. The Daily Telegraph has questioned whether the film is “a remake too far”.

Dad’s Army ran from 1968 until 1977, with the 80 episodes watched by a large segment of the British public. The programme’s viewing figures exceeded 13 million in 1969, and reached a peak of 18 million in 1972. So unsurprisingly the impact of the programme on popular perceptions of the Home Guard, and the British war effort, has been profound.

The term “Dad’s Army”, which was not used during the war, has a high recognition value. A number of books on the force have used “Dad’s Army” in their titles, and the marketing department of my publishers were insistent that it be used again in the title of my recent history of the Home Guard. In the minds of many people, Dad’s Army was not just a comedy series, but an accurate portrayal of the Home Guard.

Satire or tribute?

The creators of Dad’s Army, Jimmy Perry (who served in the Home Guard from 1941–1944) and the late David Croft, had a clear field when it came to representing the Home Guard for post-war generations. There had been little in the way of historical or cultural commentary on the wartime force. The sitcom followed a group of enthusiastic men too old to go abroad in their attempts to defend Britain against invasion. Their efforts were generally all hampered by other members of the community.

Although it is questionable how far the series was originally intended to be satiric – Perry and Croft insisted that they were not mocking the Home Guard – it certainly had that effect. Given its somewhat satiric nature, I wonder what education secretary Michael Gove will think about the remake, seeing as Blackadder and Oh, What a Lovely War! got his back up in terms of distorting popular perception.

Despite any satirical elements in Dad’s Army, the attitude towards the Home Guard heroes of the fictional Walmington-on-Sea was mostly sympathetic. Dad’s Army became not only a much enjoyed comedy, but also an affectionate celebration of one aspect of the country’s war effort. Given the BBC’s prominence, the programme had a notable, if distorting, impact on popular understanding of the Home Guard and its changing context.

Home Guard heroes

In its short wartime life, from its founding as the Local Defence Volunteers (LDV) in May 1940, to its “standing down” in December 1944, the Home Guard went through several stages of development. Although Britain had a long history of volunteer-based home defence, the creation of the LDV in 1940 was an emergency response to an increasingly grave situation.

The German blitzkrieg in the west appeared to have been successful because of new ways of war. Airborne assault and the widespread help for the invaders that was supposedly provided by Fifth Columnists, led to calls for some form of citizens’ defence force. Apparently it was slightly shambolic to start with: in the early days, the volunteers were nicknamed “the parashots”, and there was lots of joking that LDV stood for “Look, Duck and Vanish”.

But, the force grew rapidly, changed its name to Home Guard, and its arming and training improved quickly. At first, the best armed elements were Sixth Form boys from school Junior Training Corps, while many of the older, often veteran, members of the force had to make do with little in the way of arms or ammunition.

But by the spring of 1941, when the UK was still the only country in Europe fighting the Axis, the Home Guard was a key part of home defence. Home Guards eventually came to provide large numbers of coastal artillery gunners, anti-aircraft crews, and area defence throughout the country. Its success meant that regular personnel were released for overseas service, with, for example, 100,000 Royal Artillery gunners being freed up for the invasion of Europe.

There is an argument that Dad’s Army was very much a “period piece” from the golden age of state broadcasting, and it will be interesting to see if the humour can be successfully rekindled on the cinema screen. But still, it is important not to forget that 1,206 men lost their lives on Home Guard service.

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