'Don't panic Mr Croft! Dad's Army, TV's top sit-com, will still run for years
PUBLISHED: 07:55 23 June 2018
Next month classic TV sit-com Dad's Army celebrates its 50th anniversary. Arts editor Andrew Clarke takes a look at why it continues to bring in record ratings while a big screen re-make failed to find an audience
Dad’s Army is still a much-loved, regular on our screens. Every Saturday evening it draws millions of viewers to BBC 2 and is still one of the most watched on the channel. It has that warm, ageless, timeless feel to it. It is brilliantly written and is superbly acted.
It is an incredible achievement for a sit-com to span the generations and next month it will be celebrating its half century as one of the nation’s favourite comedies.
So, what is its secret? Why has it lasted when so many other shows reach their sell by date even while they are still on air? The critical failure of the recent big screen film with Toby Jones and Bill Nighy with Catherine Zeta Jones offers some valuable clues but it doesn’t tell us everything.
Dad’s Army had that X Factor, that something special that happens when the stars align. If you marry great writing with great actors then something magical happens as a result.
Get any part of the equation wrong and everything collapses. The 2016 film had a great cast but the script didn’t capture the homeliness of the home guard – it also suffered from the fact that over the years, the writers, David Croft and Jimmy Perry, began to weave the real-life characteristics of the actors into the roles.
So Toby Jones, playing Captain Mainwaring, had to not only play a bumptious bank manager but also flavour his portrayal with conscious echoes of Arthur Lowe. Likewise Bill Nighy, as Sergeant Wilson, had to bring strong elements of John le Mesurier to the role. No-one had free reign to reinterpret the role because the original actors were so much a part and parcel of the success of the show.
Also, Dad’s Army, the TV series, was as much a character-study and a drama as it was a situation comedy. With the exception of Corporal Jones’ panic attacks, everything else in Dad’s Army was played straight. The laughs came from the situation, the characters themselves were complex and comically flawed.
The actors knew that the best way to get laughs was to imbue their characters with dignity and not to play the scenes for laughs. Croft and Perry’s stroke of genius was to reverse the traditional roles of Captain and Sergeant.
No-one before had seen an laid-back, upper-class sergeant and a resentful, jealous grammar school person as his superior. But, the really clever thing was to add further layers of depth into the relationship. In episodes when Mainwaring was temporarily out of action either through hositalisation for an in-growing toenail or demotion (Room at the Bottom) Wilson is shown to be not a particularly effective leader because he is too laid-back. On the other hand, when the chips are down, Mainwaring can throw his petty stuffiness aside and show himself to be very brave. In the episode Fallen Idol he climbs into the back of a lorry filled with ammunition to retrieve a live grenade.
Wilson, on the other hand, proves himself to be perceptive in another episode when he disobeys an order to prime a dummy grenade which eventually is used by a German submarine crew to engineer their escape from captivity.
Dad’s Army works because the writers knew it was all about relationships – the audience’s relationship to the Walmington-on-Sea platoon and their relationship with one another. The best episodes were frequently the most serious and the most touching. Mum’s Army was Croft and Perry’s take on David Lean’s Brief Encounter when Mainwaring falls for Carmen Silvera’s Mrs Gray, part of the new women’s contingent, equally touching was the arrival of Sergeant Wilson’s illegitimate daughter in Getting The Bird, and Godfrey was revealed to be the proud recipient of the Military Cross having been shunned in Branded for being a conscientious objector during the First World War. He displayed great bravery rescuing wounded soldiers under fire. Mainwaring and the platoon learned a lesson in humility.
It’s episodes like these which raised the series above the average sit-com and made the members of the platoon more than caricatures.
In the episode A Wilson (Manager)? we get to see the flip side of Mainwaring’s selflessness, which had been displayed in Fallen Idol, when he is shown to have held back Wilson’s career at the bank.
The series has enjoyed a long life not only because it was well-written and well-acted but because from the moment it first aired it was already dealing with the past. The action may taken place in 1940-44 but it didn’t obsess over the historical setting, it was a backdrop that’s all, it was really all about a group of individuals interacting with one another in a funny and recognisable way.
This is why the 2016 film failed. It concentrated too much on telling a World War II story in which the Dad’s Army characters could have been easily replaced and the film’s narrative would not have been affected.
The TV series benefitted from ten years of evolution and 50 years of love. The humour and the characterisation have stood the series in good stead and I see no reason why it can’t continue for a further 50 years.