Dad’s Army (2016)
Written by Hamish McColl, based on characters created by Perry & Croft
Directed by Oliver Parker
Toby Jones as Captain Mainwaring
Catherine Zeta-Jones as Rose Winter
Bill Nighy as Sergeant Wilson
Tom Courtenay as Lance-Corporal Jones
Michael Gambon as Private Godfrey
Blake Harrison as Private Pike
Daniel Mays as Private Walker
Bill Paterson as Private Frazer
Mark Gattis as Colonel Theakes
Ian Lavender as Brigadier Pritchard
Martin Savage as Warden Hodges
Frank Williams as Reverend Timothy Farthing
Sarah Lancashire as Mrs Pike
Alison Steadman as Mrs Fox
Emily Atack as Daphne
Felicity Montagu as Mrs Mainwaring
Julia Foster as Dolly Godfrey
Annette Crosbie as Cissie Godfrey
Jacqueline Tong as Mrs Todd
Holli Dempsey as Vera
The TV series
All my stuff …
You might say I’m fond of Dad’s Army. My dad was in the Home Guard, and spent 1940 standing on a metal bridge in New Road between Bournemouth and Hurn Airport every night, watching for German paratroopers who it was thought would land in the water meadows before taking the airport. He and two older men would then stop their advance into Bournemouth with their shared 303 rifle. The idea was that when one got shot, another one could pick it up and keep firing. He was 28, and called up early in 1941. Private Walker (or rather James Beck) actually looks like my dad, too. My dad financed his years in the army by raffling a gold watch every Saturday. It was a fair raffle, but he bought it back from the winner for half the proceeds in cash. He was with the BBC unit describing D-Day from a flat-bottomed landing-craft, which made him so seasick he ever after felt sick on the Poole chain-ferry’s short crossing. He was driving the BBC unit as they entered Belsen, which gave him nightmares for life. He became a Motor Pool sergeant after VE Day, and adored Sergeant Bilko. He died in 1966, missing the English World Cup victory over Germany by days, and of course Dad’s Army which began in 1968. My brother-in-law had a Volkswagen, which my dad would not allow in our driveway. Captain Mainwaring would have approved. I still feel mild pangs of guilt when I get into my German-built car. (But they are better.)
I carefully compiled a virtually complete set of Dad’s Army on Super Betamax by timing the ever-present TV broadcasts over about a year. These got replaced with proper BBC VHS videos when they were published, which in turn got replaced by the DVDs illustrated. I read all the books too.
In the winter of 1989 we were filming Grapevine One video series in Bristol, and that was directed by Bob Spiers, who had directed the second series of Fawlty Towers as well as some late episodes of Dad’s Army and It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum. He directed The Miser’s Hoard, Wake Up Warmington, Number Engaged and The Making of Private Pike. I had the only car with a CD player as well as The Traveling Wilburys CD, Bob’s favourite at the time, so he travelled to locations with me and we spent waiting time in the car (a lot of the shoot was outdoor) and discussed comedy at length. In the hotel, one of the actors pointed out that Bob had directed the greatest sit com of all time. ‘Which one do you mean?’ he said. Because Fawlty Towers and Dad’s Army are the two best. Bob said if forced to pick, Dad’s Army should win the prize, for size of cast and the fact that it sustained it for nine series. It was certainly the best “gang show.” You can find Dad’s Army on British TV somewhere every week.
The original cast did a full-length movie in 1971, radio versions and a touring stage show. I saw that too. Last year, a BBC TV drama, We’re Doomed! The Dad’s Army Story (broadcast 22 December 2015) showed how Jimmy Perry and David Croft got the show off the ground, with John Sessions playing Arthur Lowe and Julian Sands playing John Le Mesurier.
CATCH PHRASES: you can even buy the T-shirts
The show’s catchphrases have entered the language: Don’t panic! They don’t like it up ‘em! Don’t tell him, Pike! (after the German submarine commander asks Pike for his name). You stupid boy! Put that light out! We’re doomed. I tell you! Doomed! Would you mind awfully just falling in? Don’t you know there’s a war on?
The 2016 film
They have set the new story in 1944 just before D-Day, so after the original series. A good move, compared to the obvious alternative of an “origin issue” on film, which was what the 1971 one did. Perry and Croft disliked the 1971 film. The first two-thirds was the “origin” story, then the last third was an action sequence demanded by the studio. It was filmed just before the Fourth TV Series.
They have said they want the 2016 film to be seen as a new production entirely, which is disingenuous given the casting of near look-a-likes (or character-likes) for the new one. I can’t think of a better choice to replace John Le Mesurier as Sergeant Wilson than Bill Nighy. Toby Jones is an ideal Captain Mainwaring replacing Arthur Lowe. Michael Gambon plays Corporal Jones at the age of 75, reminding me that Clive Dunn was only 48 when he took the part of the Sudanese War veteran. I got confused between Oliver Parker who directed this (born 1960) and Ol Parker (born 1969) who directed the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, understandably given the presence of Michael Gambon and Bill Nighy in both.
Ian Lavender as Brigadier Pritchard with Mark Gattis as Colonel Theakes
Both the surviving TV cast members have roles. Ian Lavender (Private Pike in 1968) has a cameo as Brigadier Pritchard, while Frank Williams at 84 reprises his role as the vicar, Reverend Timothy Farthing, though blink and you’ll miss it. Corporal Jones’s original butcher’s van comes out of its museum location to appear. There’s no church verger, though Edward Sinclair’s tell-tale verger was a major character, but then the vicar is now a very small part. Air-Raid Warden Hodges, as the verger’s co-conspirator, is reduced too.
Captain Mainwaring (Toby Jones) & Rose Winter (Catherine Zeta-Jones)
The noticeable shift is that the women’s brief cameos have been expanded, and Catherine Zeta-Jones is introduced as a major new character, Rose Winter. The big surprise is seeing Mrs Mainwaring, never seen and often referred to in the original series. Her only TV appearance was a large bottom bulging through an upper bunk bed above Captain Mainwaring in their air-raid shelter. That scene gets reprised in the film, but now we see her as an important character, leading a uniformed women’s auxiliary. We agreed afterwards that all the women shone, but that’s because their originals roles were so short that the expanded roles feel fresh.
Daphne (Walker’s girlfriend) – Emily Atack, Mrs Mainwaring – Felicity Montagu, Mrs Fox (Jones’s lady friend) – Alison Steadman
There were around forty people in the cinema when we saw it. There was barely an audible chuckle in 100 minutes. There were three or four small ones. But they were all from me. So what happened?
The first issue is one that hit the 1971 film, as well as hitting all the other feature films based on sit coms like It Ain’t Half Hot Mum and Are You Being Served? They’re situation comedy, character driven. The sitcoms are filmed in front of a live audience, in real time (with outside clips shown to the studio audience.) You’re working with and timing to laughter. As soon as you get to a feature film you need a plot to sustain 100 minutes shot totally out of sequence. The somewhat silly plotlines in the TV series are fine in thirty minutes, but stretching one to over three times the length is … well, we’re doomed! To failure. I’m not doing plot spoilers either. There’s another issue. In full-colour magnificent widescreen, we lose something of the makeshift by the skin-of-their-teeth of the original. The most important point, is that sitcoms are recorded before a live audience. That dictates the timing. This wasn’t.
The main problem is that we don’t have “Toby Jones being funny”. We have Toby Jones pretending to be Arthur Lowe being funny. Some of my chuckles were at how perfectly he got the voice, the twitches, the double takes, the glasses askew. He didn’t have quite the innate pomposity of Lowe, and we missed Lowe’s bumbling, said in the books to be a result of alcohol and a very poor memory for lines. Nevertheless, it worked for Lowe. Bill Nighy would have been perfect as Sergeant Wilson in the original, but again he’s lumbered with being John Le Mesurier being Sergeant Wilson as well. Michael Gambon captures Arnold Ridley’s doddering Private Godfrey perfectly, and Daniel Mays is an even wider wide-boy than James Beck as Private Walker. Michael Gambon actually didn’t imitate Arnold Ridley (in the way that Toby Jones imitated Arthur Lowe) but he did come across as equally sweet and slightly befuddled. Those were highly successful … well, in music terms, “cover versions.” Bill Patterson had the Scottish undertaker Frazer’s lines and accent, but never looked anywhere near as mad as Frazer, not that he was given the lines for it. Blake Harrison never quite managed to come over as wet as Ian Lavender as Pike, the youngest member of the platoon, though he did Pike’s obsession with Hollywood movies well. He didn’t get the spitty drooling whine that Ian Lavender had given Pike on TV. The failure was Tom Courtney. Perhaps bravely, he didn’t try to do Clive Dunn being Corporal Jones as a direct imitation, though he had the moustache and the wary asthmatic stance on patrol. The result? Jones dropped flat, because everyone else was trying to imitate or emulate the originals. Clive Dunn was such a one-off specialising in playing elderly men from a young age, he was inimitable.
Tom Courtney as Lance-Corporal Jones (Perry & Croft couldn’t resist odd bits of dressing up in their scripts either!)
They recycled most of the well-known lines. One that nearly made me laugh was when the German officer said ‘Who do you think you’re kidding, Mr Churchill?’ I would have put a ‘Don’t tell him, Pike’ in there somewhere. They didn’t. The recycled lines should have drawn recognition laughter, but they didn’t. I would definitely have expected them to work. Jimmy Perry and David Croft lived through the era. Perry was in the Home Guard. They’re also two of the most brilliant TV scriptwriters in British TV history. The script lacked their distinctive snap and crackle … and we both felt the directorial pace was laboured. It was noticeable that completely new bits, such as the women practising first aid on the platoon, worked much better. Toby Jones trying to answer the phone with both arms out, splinted with a broom handle was brilliant work.
L to R: Frazer, Wilson, Jones, Pike
They tried to create classic locations … the church hall, the bank, the office in the church hall. The street of “Warmington-On-Sea” looked terrific. They also tried to have classic events … Corporal Jones getting himself into a dangerously precarious position, Mainwaring falling over everything in sight and getting up, glasses askew. They have he obligatory dressing up in silly camouflage with Jones as a tree. We both thought part of the failing was a weak introduction of the Home Guard platoon. I thought the whole “bull in a field” sequence predictable, flat and unfunny. It does get much better from there.
They added a bit of back story, but we didn’t see how Sergeant Wilson could have been a tutor at Oxford University in his past. We then need to know how he ended up as Assistant Manager (or perhaps it would be Chief Clerk) at the Swallow Bank. We were never reminded that he had been a “real” officer in World War One – an important plot point. They made the Wilson-Mrs Pike relationship more overt, and (I think) established Private Pike’s paternity. The class antagonism between he pushy, pompous middle class banker Captain Mainwaring and the languidly upper class Sergeant Wilson was not pointed enough. The acting was fine. But they needed the lines too.
Bridlington becomes Warmington
1944 Britain looked gorgeous, especially in the wonderful parade at the end, but we kids of the 1950s knew full well that Sergeant Wilson could not have sipped a sherry before a wartime weekday meal, nor would the Mainwarings have enjoyed red wine with what looked like a substantial dinner. Nor would Chelsea buns have been so easily available in the tea shop. There could have been a joke about cloudy home-made elderberry wine in their crystal wine glasses, but you’d have to know the era, and there wasn’t. As the catch phrase goes (and it was used elsewhere) Don’t you know there’s a war on? Commendably for a light comedy, no Germans were killed in the making of this story, even though one got a nasty dent in his coal-scuttle helmet. Which would not have been worn by a submarine crew, surely. I always assumed the shape of a German helmet is the origin of the 1950s word for a chamber pot (British hotels still had them into the 1970s): a jerry.
The women came across particularly strongly, because we have less comparison. Godfrey’s sisters now have a major role and were a very funny double act of Miss Marples. However, solving the mystery by “phoning Chanel in Paris and getting an address in Berlin” couldn’t have happened pre D-Day, and was plain silly. Rose Winter (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is the lead role, and again beautifully done – with no original to set her against. They worked hard in very cold weather, according to Catherine Zeta-Jones. Certainly, Holli Dempsey as Pike’s girlfriend Vera had to endure icy seas, as did Blake Harrison rolling around in the surf with her. I don’t know how the diminutive Toby Jones managed to carry Catherine Zeta Jones in his arms, but he did!
The parade at the end made me feel genuinely patriotic!
If you love Dad’s Army it’s worth seeing. I’m so hooked on the whole story, that I will buy the DVD too when it comes out. But as a hilarious comedy movie, it failed, and I was truly sorry to see it fail so clearly with the audience.
Jeffrey Holland, from Perry & Croft’s Hi-de-hi (my other Top Three Sitcom of all time) was the understudy for Ian Lavender on the 1975 stage show, before playing Private Walker in the stage show tour and appearing in Wake Up Warmington. He defines the problem:
It so happened that Ian Lavender, I forget the reason, couldn’t make a particular Wednesday matinee and I had to go on and play Pike. Horrors !!! Well, Lord knows I did my best but sadly to almost complete silence. I delivered all of Pike’s lines in my best Ian Lavender impersonation and when I got to a gag – nothing. You see it didn’t matter what I did or how I did it, I simply wasn’t Ian Lavender. (Memories of Dad’s Army, 1996)
Here in the casting, they had gone for look-a-likes, and character-likes. The original series is so well-known, they couldn’t escape comparison. They cast first-rank British actors too, but whatever they did, and however well they did it, they weren’t the originals. The originals are not only well loved, but we had approximately eighty episodes to round out the details of their characters. We got to know about Wilson’s daughter, and Mainwaring’s brother, and Wilson’s World War One service.
In the end, it’s like the Bootleg Beatles, the Australian Pink Floyd, the Illegal Eagles … the film equivalent of a highly-accomplished tribute band.