Book review: Dad’s Army The Story of a Classic Television Show by Graham McCann

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Few sitcoms have aged as well as Dad’s Army.

Whereas many of the comedy series of the seventies, now seem either inexcusably racist (Love Thy Neighbour) or just plain awful in their own right (On The Buses), forty years after its heyday, Dad’s Army looks better than ever. This is partly down to its period setting but not entirely. Laudatory though this 2002 history of the series is, author Graham McCann is absolutely right to praise the pitch perfect writing and casting of the series. And amazingly, despite running for nine years (1968-1977, much longer than the Second World War itself), Dad’s Army did not even run out of steam. Only Fawlty Towers and The Good Life have endured even half as well. And neither lasted as long as Dad’s Army.

It could have been so different. The series was originally to be called Fighting Tigers and co-creator Jimmy Perry originally conceived the series as a vehicle to get back into acting: he wrote the Private Walker spiv part eventually played by James Beck, specifically with himself in mind. He was hugely disappointed when the powers that be decided against casting him in the role. What’s more, future Doctor Who and Worzel Gummidge actor Jon Pertwee was seriously considered for the part of Captain Mainwaring while a young David Jason (already a dab hand at playing geriatrics) was offered Clive Dunn’s role of butcher cum Lance Corporal Jack Jones.

But the show was quick to enjoy success. Some actors were disarmingly similar to the characters they played, John Le Mesurier  consciously played the laidback Sgt Wilson essentially as himself while many thought, Arthur Lowe was too quick to deny any similarity between himself and the pompous bank manager George Mainwaring. The masterstroke here, of course, was to switch the two actors between the two more obvious ranks. The middle class Mainwaring is frequently fuming with class resentment towards his public school educated sergeant. Wilson, himself, meanwhile is totally at ease talking to serving maids as anyone else and seems largely untroubled by the potential whiff of scandal hanging over his relationship with Mrs. Pike.

Others bore less resemblance to their roles. Arnold Ridley, who played the genteel Godfrey wrote the successful play Ghost Train and had been wounded in both World Wars while John Laurie (Frazer) bore many similarities to his character, but had not lived in Scotland for fifty years. Clive Dunn and Ian Lavender had little in common with Jones or Pike, though Dunn, like most of the main cast had war experience.

Although strong to the end, the show lost something with the sudden premature death of actor James Beck in 1973 and wound its way to a natural conclusion a few years after that.

Graham McCann’s excellent book reproduces the famously eccentric radio interview Ian Lavender (who played mummy’s boy Private Pike) from 1987. Having established, not very tactfully, that nearly all of the principal cast had died in the ensuing decade, the interviewer then asks bizarrely: “will you be making any more?”

And here is the final irony. In the thirteen years since this book came out, inevitably still more of the remaining cast and crew have died, notably Clive Dunn, writer David Croft, Bill “Warden Hodges” Pertwee, Pamela “Mrs Fox” Cundell. Virtually only Ian Lavender and Frank Williams, who played the vicar are left. And yet a new version of the story is planned, in the form of a film version scheduled for release next year.

Extreme foolishness or a good idea? Only time will tell if magic can strike twice.

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Is there Life After Who?

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At thirty, Matt Smith is the youngest ex-Doctor ever. He was generally well liked as the Doctor, acted in political drama Party Animals beforehand and played gay writer Christopher Isherwood in one off drama Christopher and his Kind in 2011 and 1948 Olympic Games drama Bert and Dickie last year.

But what about all the previous Doctors?

How did they find life after leaving the Tardis?

Is there life after Who?

William Hartnell

Life: 1908-1975. 1st Doctor: 1963-1966

Before: Hartnell appears in the title role in the  first Carry On film, Carry On Sergeant, crops up in Peter Sellers’ The Mouse That Roared and comes to a nasty end courtesy of Richard Attenborough in Brighton Rock.

During: Hartnell was the first to establish the role but was forced to retire on health grounds. He died in 1975.

During and after: Despite a career stretching back to the 1920s, Hartnell will always be primarily remembered as the First Doctor.

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Patrick Troughton

Life: 1920-1987. 2nd Doctor: 1966-1969.

Before: A Second World War veteran and an experienced character actor appearing in everything from Z-Cars to Jason of the Argonauts.

During: Troughton’s stint is fondly remembered as the man who saved the series once Hartnell retired but he quit after being overworked by a punishing schedule.

After: Troughton was far more than just the Second Doctor. His most famous non-Who role was as the unfortunate priest in horror classic The Omen. He was a regular on TV (A Family at War, the Box of Delights) before his death in 1987. His sons David and Michael are distinguished actors today.

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Jon Pertwee

Life: 1919-1996. 3rd Doctor: 1969-1974.

Before: A veteran of comedies such as The Navy Lark and small roles in Sixties Carry on films, Pertwee was seriously considered for the role of Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army before Arthur Lowe got it. By coincidence, Jon’s cousin Bill Pertwee was cast as Warden Hodges in the same show,

During: The first Doctor Who to appear in colour. Boosted the series after it was once again left at low ebb by Patrick Troughton’s departure. He is still a favourite amongst older Who fans.

After: Pertwee is as famous for his role in the sinister children’s series Worzel Gummidge and for voicing Spotty on the cartoon Superted.  He died in 1996. His son Sean Pertwee is known for roles in the films Dog Soldiers, Event Horizon and slightly more macho roles than his father.

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Tom Baker

Born: 1934, age 79. Fourth Doctor: 1974-1981.

Before: Like Troughton, Baker crops up in a Sinbad film.
During: The famously eccentric Baker played the Doctor for longer than anyone else. He is usually ranked alongside David Tennant as the most popular of the Time Lords.

After: He has one of the most recognisable voices in the UK and his narration on comedy series Little Britain was crucial to its success. Despite numerous roles (Blackadder II, The Life and Loves of A She Devil) it may be that Baker’s eccentricity have denied him true stardom. He remains much better known for the Doctor than anything else.

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Peter Davison.

Born: 1951, age 62. Fifth Doctor: 1981-1984.

Before: Best known as vet Tristan Farnham in James Herriot TV drama All Creatures Great and Small. He was also the “dish of the day” who briefly appears in TV’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and was married to Sandra Dickinson who played Trillian in that series.  The couple wrote and performed the songs on children’s show Button Moon.

During: Davison had a tough act to follow in Tom Baker, particularly as Davison was the youngest ever Doctor (by some way) at the time. But he was a popular Doctor in the end.

After: Had a healthy career in the Eighties on All Creatures Great and Small, A Very Peculiar Practice (alongside David Troughton) and remains a likeable presence on TV today. Davison Is also the father in law of David Tennant strengthening his ties to the Who empire still further.

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Colin Baker

Born: 1943, age 70. Sixth Doctor: 1984-1986.

Before: Baker is the only previous actor (before Peter Capaldi) to have appeared in a previous episode of the series as another character. He played Colonel Maxil in the 1983 Peter Davison story Arc of Infinity.

During: An unhappy spell as the Doctor. Baker was so annoyed after being sacked that he refused to participate in the traditional regeneration sequence forcing Sylvester McCoy to use a curly wig and hide under special effects. Some have suggested a link between Baker’s firing and his first wife Liza Goddard’s relationship with BBC 1 controller Michael Grade.

After: Baker was recently on I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here!

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Sylvester McCoy

Born: 1943, age 69. Seventh Doctor:

Before: A regular presence on children’s TV in the Eighties appearing in Eureka (a sort of Horrible Histories about the origins of inventions), Jigsaw and Tiswas.

During: Initially criticised for being too comedic, McCoy was Doctor when the show was cancelled in 1989. Few blame this solely on him, however. The show was in decline throughout the Eighties.

After: Enjoyed perhaps his biggest role ever this year as the eccentric Radagast in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films.

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Paul McGann

Born: 1959, age 53.

Eighth Doctor: 1996.

The most famous of the McGann brothers, he was the unnamed “I” in Withnail and I (1986), World War I deserter Percy Toplis in The Monocled Mutineer.

The 1996 TV movie was a disastrous flop. Few blame McGann for this although his career probably hasn’t benefited from talking the role. He remains a busy actor though.

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Christopher Eccleston

Born: 1964. age 49.

Ninth Doctor: 2005

Before: A well known name from roles in Cracker  and Our Friends In The North on UK TV in the Nineties and film parts in Danny Boyle’s debut Shallow Grave,  as the rebellious Earl of Essex in Elizabeth and the villain in Gone In Sixty Seconds (alongside Nicholas Cage and Angelina Jolie).

During: Eccleston’s Doctor was popular and successfully revived the series in 2005. But Eccleston seems never to have intended to be a long running Doctor and announced he would step down after one series following the screening of his well received first episode.

After: Has played John Lennon  in Lennon Naked on TV and remains buy in film and TV but it’s hard to tell if he benefitted from playing the Doctor or not.

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David Tennant

Born: 1971, age 42.

Tenth Doctor: 2005-2010.

Before: Best known for his roles in TV’s Blackpool and Casanova before being cast as the Doctor at about the same time as being cast as Barty Crouch in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

After: One of the most popular Doctors, Tennant has benefitted from the role more than any other actor. He is now a hugely acclaimed star of stage (particularly Shakespearian roles) and screen (Broadchurch, The Politician’s Husband, Munich air disaster drama United! and many more).  Yet to achieve film star status, he is nevertheless hugely successful and has escaped typecasting.

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