DAD'S ARMY

British Situation Comedy

The BBC comedy series Dad's Army was the creation of one of the most successful British television comedy writing and production teams, Jimmy Perry and David Croft. They created 81 half-hour episodes between 1968-77 with audiences of 18.5 million in the early 1970s. The programme has developed a TV nostalgia popularity among its original audience as repeat transmissions (in 1989 for instance) and sales of home video cassettes testify. One of the key factors in the programme's success lay in its historical setting during the early years of World War II. Dad's Army features the comic ineptitude of a Home Guard platoon in Walmington-on-Sea, an imaginary seaside resort on the south coast of England. The Land Defence Volunteers were formed in 1940 as a reserve volunteer force comprising men who did not meet the standards of age and fitness required for regular military service. These units were soon officially re-named The Home Guard, but they also attracted the somewhat derisory nick-name of "Dad's Army".

Perry and Croft's scripts, based on vivid memories from the period, won them professional recognition with a screen writing BAFTA Award in 1971 and their subsequent work secures them a central place within popular British television comedy. They went on to produce It Ain't 'Alf 'Ot Mum! (1976-81), set in a British Army entertainment corps posted in Burma during World War II, and Hi-de-Hi (1980-94), set in Maplins Holiday Camp in l959. In their own way, these programmes have tapped into and contributed to television's myths about wartime Britain and the immediate post-war period of the 1950S. All three series feature ensemble casts of misfit characters brought together under a quasi-authoritarian order (a volunteer army, concert corps, or holiday camp staff) and whose weekly crises demand that the group pulls together against adversity.

The longevity and endearing appeal of Dad's Army in particular is explained in part by the way in which the series successfully constructs myths of British social unity and community spirit that were so sought after in the years following the revolutionary moment of the late 1960s. The revival of the series in the late 1980s pointed up the starker, more divided nature of contemporary British life, riven by class, racial and national identity tensions. Dad's Army depicts with humour, but obvious underlying affection, the "bulldog" spirit of Britain popularly taken to characterise public morale during the Blitz and its immediate aftermath (1940-41). Britain alone against the threat of Hitler's Nazi army occupying Europe is the subject of the programme's signature tune lyrics, "Who do you think you are kidding Mr. Hitler, if you think old England's done", written by Perry and sung by war-time entertainer, Bud Flanagan in a clever re-creation of a 1940s sound. The opening credit sequence depicts a map of Europe with advancing Nazi swastikas attempting to cross the English Channel. In its production style, Dad's Army exemplified the BBC's reputation for period detail and many episodes featured exterior sequences shot on rural locations in southeast England. This film footage was mixed with videotape-recorded interior scenes and a live studio audience provided laughter for the final broadcast version.

The humour of Dad's Army derives from a combination of ridiculous task or crisis situations, visual jokes and a gentle mockery of English class differentiation. Perry and Croft's skill was to script dialogue for a talented ensemble of character actors who comprised the Walmington-on-Sea platoon, led by the pompous Captain Mainwearing (Arthur Lowe), the manager of the local bank. The other main characters included his chief clerk, Sergeant Wilson (John Le Mesurier), Frank Pike (Ian Lavender), the junior bank clerk, and Lance-Corporal Jones (Clive Dunn), the local butcher. The platoon's rank and file were made up of Privates Frazer, the Scots undertaker (John Laurie), Godfrey (Arnold Ridley), a retired gentleman who lived with his two maiden sisters in a cottage, and Walker (James Beck), a "spiv" who dealt in contraband goods. Mainwearing's main rival authority in Walmington is the Chief Air Raid Warden, Mr. Hodges (Bill Pertwee), a local greengrocer. They frequently battle over use of the church hall and office of the long-suffering camp Vicar (Frank Williams) and his toadying Verger (Edward Sinclair).

Perry and Croft's world in Dad's Army is largely male but women do feature, albeit in their absence or marginality. Underlying the appearance of the middle-class proprieties of marriage are dysfunctional relationships. Mainwearing's agoraphobic wife ("Elizabeth") never appeared in the series (except once as a lump in the top bunk of their Anson air-raid shelter). They obviously share a loveless marriage with her firmly in control over domestic arrangements. Similarly, Mrs Pike (Janet Davies) is a young widower who entertains the debonair Sergeant Wilson and although Frank refers to him as "Uncle Arthur" there is some suspicion that the lad is their illegitimate son. The amorous, larger than life Mrs Fox (Pamela Cundell) gives her matronly attentions freely to the platoon's men and she eventually marries the elderly but eligible Corporal Jones.

Dad's Army is particularly significant in its comic treatment of English class tensions. Through narrative and character, Croft and Perry re-visit a time when the war was being fought partly in the belief that the old social class divisions would give way to a more egalitarian post-war meritocracy. The chief manifestations of such tensions occur in exchanges between Captain Mainwearing and Sergeant Wilson. In a clever reversal of expectations, Croft made the Captain a grammar school-educated, bespectacled and stout man whose social status has been achieved through hard work and merit. His superiority of rank, work status and self-important manner are nevertheless constantly frustrated by Wilson's upper-class pedigree, Public School education and nonchalant charm. Mainwearing's middle-class snobbery, brilliantly captured by Arthur Lowe, is also reflected in his attitudes toward the lower classes. A member of the managerial class, he looks down at uncouth tradesmen: "He's a green grocer with dirty finger nails," he says of his arch rival Hodges. Although Dad's Army is comic because it mocks such pretension, it is essentially a nostalgic look back to a social order that never existed in this form. The programme celebrates values such as "amateurism", "making do" and muddling through, values that in this presentation remain comic, but appear quaint to later generations of television viewers.

-Lance Pettit

 


Dad's Army
Photo courtesy of the British Film Institute

CAST

Capt. Mainwearing .......................................Arthur Lowe Sgt. Wilson .........................................John Le Musurier Lance Cpl. Jones.......................................... Clive Dunn Private Frazer.............................................. John Laurie Private Walker........................................... James Beck Private Godfrey......................................... Arnold Ridley Private Pike............................................... Ian Lavender Chief Warden Hodges.................................. Bill Pertwee Vicar..................................................... Frank Williams Verger................................................... Edward Sinclair Mrs. Pike.................................................. Janet Davies Private Sponge............................................. Colin Bean Private Cheeseman................................ Talfryn Thomas Colonel................................................... Robert Raglan Mr. Blewitt.............................................. Harold Bennett Mrs. Fox ...............................................Pamela Cundell

PRODUCER
David Croft

PROGRAMMING HISTORY
81 Half-hour episodes 1 One-hour episode 1 Insert

BBC
July 1968-September 1968............................ 6 Episodes March 1969-April 1969.................................. 6 Episodes September 1969-October 1969...................... 7 Episodes October 1969-December 1969....................... 7 Episodes September 1970-December 1970..................13 Episodes December 1970................................. Christmas Special December 1971................................. Christmas Special October 1972-December 1972..................... 13 Episodes October 1973-December 1973....................... 7 Episodes November 1974-December 1974.................... 6 Episodes September 1975-October 1975...................... 6 Episodes December 1975................................. Christmas Special December 1976................................. Christmas Special October 1977-November 1977........................ 6 Episodes

FURTHER READING

Ableman, Paul. The Defence of a Front Line English village (ed. Arthur Wilson, MA). London: BBC Books, 1989.

Cook, Jim, editor. TV Sitcom. London: British Film Institute, 1982.

Perry, J., and David Croft. Dad's Army (Five Scripts). London: Hamish Hamilton, 1975.

Pertwee, Bill. Dad's Army: The Making of a TV Legend. London: David and Charles, 1989.

 

See also British Programming