The women and children of Walmington-on-Sea could rest easy in their beds knowing the south coast town was under the protection of Captain Mainwaring (Arthur Lowe) and his band of rigorously drilled veterans, armed to the (false) teeth and ready to see off the Teutonic hordes at a moment’s notice. Couldn’t they?
The adventures of Sergeant Wilson (John Le Mesurier), Lance Corporal Jones (Clive Dunn) and privates Frazer (John Laurie), Walker (James Beck), Godfrey (Arnold Ridley) and Pike (Ian Lavender) brought joy to millions over the course of the show’s nine-year run, during which 80 episodes were produced, followed by a feature film in 1971 and a touring show in 1976.
Dad’s Army was created by writing duo Jimmy Perry and David Croft under the shrewd guidance of producer Michael Mills and remains instantly recognisable from its theme, “Who Do You Think You Are Kidding Mr Hitler?”, sung by period music-hall favourite Bud Flanagan.
The show dwelt on Mainwaring, a fastidious bank manager, whose attempts to instil strict discipline into his platoon of “Fighting Tigers” (the programme’s provisional title), despite their advanced years, dithering and confusion, frequently ended in disaster.
Mainwaring’s bristling frustration with this well-intentioned mob was brilliantly set against his rivalry with Wilson, a deliciously wry, bored presence throughout. Class tensions abound, Mainwaring dismissing Wilson’s education at a “tuppenny ha’penny public school” and quietly seething at the latter’s having served with genuine heroism at Mons, Passchendale and Gallipoli.
Lowe gave us one of British comedy’s great characters – haughty and self-important to the last, a study in footling English officialdom – but he was greatly aided by the coolly experience character playing of Le Mesurier, also put to good use in his role as reluctant stepfather to Pike, whose mother Wilson is dating.
Many of the cast had real war experience of their own – their familiarity with military life as younger men no doubt helping to inform their performances. Lowe had served with the British Army in the Middle East during the Second World War, after being rejected from the Merchant Navy as a result of his poor eyesight, while Le Mesurier had fought in India with the Royal Tank Regiment.
Dunn had been captured while fighting with the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars to prevent the German invasion of Greece and was subsequently held as a prisoner of war in Austria.
Perhaps most extraordinary of all was Ridley (Godfrey), a veteran of the Somme badly injured in combat who nevertheless shelved his career as a popular playwright to enlist again for the Second World War, serving with the British Expeditionary Forces in France and guiding journalists to the front line. Discharged on health grounds, Ridley, of course, returned to patrol with the Home Guard in Caterham, Surrey.
The idea of men aged between 17 and 65 otherwise unfit to join the army being put to use defending the home front was conceived of by secretary of state for war Anthony Eden, who invited applicants to apply to their local police station in a radio address of 14 May 1940. Originally known as Local Defence Volunteers, the name was subsequently changed to the Home Guard by Sir Winston Churchill to convey a grander sense of importance.
More than 250,000 men attempted to sign up in the plan’s first week of operations. There were 1.5m Home Guardsmen in place by July.
Perhaps the first to realise the rich comic potential of the situation was Liverpudlian comedian Robb Wilton, famous for his inspired radio monologues: “The day war broke out, my missus said to me, ‘It’s up to you... You’ve got to stop it’. I said, ‘Stop what?’ She said, ‘The war.’”
Other key comic influences on Croft and Perry include British film comedian Will Hay, a specialist in schoolmasters and other exasperated authority figures, particularly his feature Oh, Mr Porter! (1937), itself partly inspired by Ridley’s drama The Ghost Train (1927). A young Clive Dunn had appeared in Hay’s earlier Boys Will Be Boys (1935).
Another was the plucky spirit essayed in Ealing’s wartime caper Went the Day Well? (1942) in which sleepy villagers are forced to rise up and defend the duck pond from Fifth Columnists after the Home Guard has been gunned down on a country lane. Adapted from a story by Graham Greene, Alberto Cavalcanti’s film boasts the extraordinary sight of future theatrical dame Thora Hird manning a machine gun.
Arguably what made Dad’s Army so special was not the comic mechanisms at work, although these are deftly tuned and the authors and actors deserve every credit, but its conjuring of a very particular mood.
The war had finished 23 years before the show first aired in black-and-white at 8.20pm on 31 July 1968 and yet the atmosphere of unease that lingers in the background at all times, for which Captain Mainwaring is something of a lightning rod, is ever-present and absolutely right for its historical moment.
The residents of Walmington-on-Sea attempt to go about their life as normal, the absence of the town’s menfolk uncommented upon, nor the church bells fallen silent.
The Home Guard likewise must be vigilant and ready for the fight, perennially poised for a fight that might never come. As The Telegraph’s Charles Moore put it so brilliantly recently, Mainwaring’s recruits are “a bit like Shakespeare’s soldiers before Agincourt”.
Like Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1953), Dad’s Army’s is a comedy of stasis. These old boys are braced for the chance to prove themselves heroes and make the ultimate sacrifice if necessary, but know all the while the opportunity may never come. With hindsight, we know that Adolf Hitler’s Operation Sea Lion never came to pass and their visions of a final stand staged in the streets of our quaintest market towns would never be realised.
When they do finally encounter a U-Boat crew in “The Deadly Attachment”, the situation is every bit as petty and childish as you might expect: Pike branding Hitler “a twerp” and their captain duly entering his name in a notebook for future reference.
Though history denied Mainwaring’s Fighting Tigers a real shot at daring-do or the sort of grand finale Blackadder Goes Forth (1989) executed so devastatingly, their dedication is very moving on the few occasions it is allowed to surface above the farce. Take this simple exchange from “The Battle of Godfrey’s Cottage”, in which they genuinely believe they are under attack:
Mainwaring: “It’ll probably be the end of us, but we’re ready for that, aren’t we men?”
Frazer: “Of course.”
Dad’s Army was rebooted with great sensitivity in 2016 – and an all-star cast including Bill Nighy, Michael Gambon, Tom Courtenay and Catherine Zeta-Jones as a ravishing femme fatale. Toby Jones wisely elected not to imitate Lowe as Mainwaring in a part that was always a thankless task. The project largely suffered by being unable to satisfactorily answer the question: who is this for? An unfamiliar irrelevance to younger viewers that left older fans pining for the uniquely beetle-browed presence of John Laurie.
The mark the show has left on British culture is vast, Jonesy’s catchphrases alone becoming part of the language. “Don’t panic!” shouted in a state of enormous panic, sums up the national character more astutely in two words than others have achieved with a thousand.