Film review: Dad’s Army (2016)

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Who did they think they were kidding?

A new film version of the classic BBC TV comedy series about the Walmington-on-Sea Home Guard was never likely to win over fans of the much-loved sitcom.

But in fairness, while certainly not great, this isn’t all bad. The casting is mostly successful. Toby Jones achieves the near impossible feat of filling Arthur Lowe’s shoes as the perfectly pompous Captain Mainwaring. ‘Line of Duty’ star Daniel Mays is also excellent as the spiv Private Walker and Michael Gambon (despite a needlessly crude scene in which he pisses on another character) does an admirable job of evoking the spirit of the placid Private Godfrey (originally played by Arnold Ridley). There is also an admirable attempt to expand the female cast – perhaps a slight failing of the original show – including Alan Partridge’s Felicity Montagu as the formidable and previously unseen Elizabeth Mainwaring.

But there also is quite a lot that is bad. Although mostly competent, some of the cast such as Tom Courtenay as Lance Corporal Jones (a genuinely old actor playing the character Clive Dunn played in middle-age) and Bill Nighy’s louche Sergeant Wilson generally reminding you of the old cast just enough to annoy you rather than truly replacing them. Blake Harrison’s portrayal of young Pike, meanwhile, is completely misjudged, ‘The Inbetweeners’ star playing him more as a debonair lech than as the juvenile “stupid boy” Ian Lavender perfected, despite both actors playing the role at a similar age.

Like the flawed 1971 film of the series, the movie also errs in making the platoon face a very specific foe in this case in the form of spy Catherine Zeta Jones. In the TV series, the real but unseen threat posed by the Nazis overseas was usually deemed sufficient although in fairness this is perhaps an inevitable consequence of expanding ‘Dad’s Army’ into a full-length film.

Unanswered questions abound though. Why does the film start in 1944 when in reality that was the year the Home Guard ceased activity? Why is one group of characters shown in full fox-hunting regalia, when hunting never occurred during the Second World War? Why does the plot hinge on a civilian telephone call to occupied Paris, an impossibility at the time? Why does the usually uneducated Jones suddenly start making a fairly deep philosophical point on one occasion? Why is Wilson suddenly revealed as an ex-university don?

This isn’t a disaster and is certainly respectful to the memory of  ‘Dad’s Army’. But forty years on from the end of the series, one wonders if even despite its surprisingly strong box office (mostly, like the recent Brexit result, attributable to older audiences) if this will be our final visit to Walmington-on-Sea.

Director: Oliver Parker. Cast: Toby Jones, Catherine Zeta Jones, Bill Nighy, Bill Paterson, Michael Gambon, Daniel Mays, Felicity Montagu, Alison Steadman, Sarah Lancashire

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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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