For many, Dad’s Army still represents the pinnacle of iconic British comedy and even now, over forty years after its original screening, it attracts millions of viewers. Dad’s Army remains firmly planted in the hearts of the British viewing public and this enduring affection was represented on one occasion in 2010 when a statue of Captain Mainwaring was unveiled in Thetford, Norfolk – the main outside filming location for most of the Dad’s Army episodes.
The original series, which was broadcast by the BBC, ran for 9 years from 1968. The series is set during the Second World War and depicts the farcical antics of fictional Walmington-on-Sea’s Home Guard, successfully and movingly mixing pantomime with pathos and heroism with hilarity.
The authenticity of the series, although purposely orchestrated through musical score and factual observance, is often attributed to the semi-autobiographical nature of its creation. Co-writer and creator Jimmy Perry served in the Local Defence Volunteers, later to become the Home Guard. Many of the characters including Mainwaring and Jones are based on people who Perry actually encountered and worked with during his experience and it is widely believed that the character of Pike is actually based on himself.
It is indeed the inter-relations of the characters which give the series its distinction and creates recurring themes with which the audience is led towards familiarity and affection. Walmington-on-Sea’s Home Guard is made up almost entirely of old men, most of whom had served in the First World War and several of which are now on their last legs. Contrast is provided through the two young characters of Pike and Walker – one too young for conscription and the other a mildly nefarious draft-dodger.
The relationship between the two leaders of the platoon, Captain Mainwaring (Arthur Lowe) and Sergeant Wilson (John Le Mesurier) is the basis of many brilliant comedic moments. Captain Mainwaring is pompous, self-important and full of bluster. Again and again these traits lead his platoon into situations with uproarious slapstick consequences while the well bred and gentle mannered Wilson waits quietly in the wings to help extricate his comrades from disaster.
Some quirk of fate has placed the working class Mainwaring in the seat of authority as platoon leader while ex-officer, gentry class Wilson is relegated to sergeant. This reversal is the theme for much of the series subtext and again and again Mainwaring can be observed berating Wilson for some imagined slight or trumped up incompetence perception fuelled by the Captain’s insecurities. Wilson meanwhile takes it all on the chin, preserving dignity throughout and without the least malice or intention, unwittingly reinforcing the image of Mainwaring as the bumptious ass and himself as the gentleman.
Other main characters include Corporal Jones played by Clive Dunn who, despite his on screen appearance, was actually one of the youngest members of the cast when the series began, aged only 48. Jones, the town’s butcher, who provides so many of the slapstick moments, is an old campaigner and his repeated phrases of ‘they don’t like it up ’em’ and ‘don’t panic’ have become synonymous with the programme.
Private Frazer is a dour Scotsman who gloomily pronounces ‘we’re doomed’ at every opportunity while rolling his eyes and the truly ancient Private Godfrey played by Arnold Ridley is the epitome of a gentle old man living with his two spinster sisters, who are constantly, genteelly, inviting everyone to tea. Ridley was in his seventies when screening began for the original series.
Private Walker (Jimmy Beck) is the black marketeer Cockney spiv and lady’s man. Beck died suddenly, aged only 44, during the filming for the sixth Dad’s Army series.
Private Pike (Ian Lavender), who is the whipping boy for so much of Mainwaring’s frustrations, is the youngest member of the platoon; an extremely green, mummy’s boy who is never without his woolly scarf to protect him from the cold.
There are many peripheral characters such as Mrs Pike (Janet Davis) who has some kind of personal relationship with Sergeant Wilson, the nature of which is constantly hinted at but never revealed. At no point is the viewer ever sure whether anything truly exists or is only of Mrs Pike’s imagination.
Foils and adversaries are provided through the ARP Warden, Hodges (Bill Pertwee), the Reverend Farthing (Frank Williams) and the verger (Edward Sinclair).
As great comedy so often manages to do the viewer is taken from crying with laughter to moments where the heartstrings are truly tugged. The Walmington-on-Sea Home Guard may be old, doddery and inept, but on many occasions, a moving heroism is displayed and although individual competency may be questionable the issues of loyalty and commitment to the cause never are.
Dad’s Army made headline news in 2001 and again in 2008 when footage thought lost was recovered. Many Dad’s Army episodes were lost in the 1970s, in the days before proper film archiving existed; the video tapes were quite literally recorded over to save money and space. It is testament to the series’ success that, following an archivist’s appeal to private collectors, recovery of footage was deemed national news-worthy. Dad’s Army continues to be a nostalgic watch for viewers who remember the originals, but as only truly great TV can do, it also continues to attract new and young fans from all over the globe.
References for archive and other material – www.bbc.co.uk and the Dad’s Army Appreciation Society at www.dadsarmy.co.uk. Retrieved 22 March 2011.