'Dad's Army' - the Television Series
Created | Updated Feb 15, 2017
Characters | The 1971 Film
Dad's Army is often regarded as one of Britain's finest television sitcoms. With 80 BBC episodes and a feature film made between 1968 and 1977, it told of the often-incompetent exploits of the fictional Walmington-on-Sea division of the Home Guard.
Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden called for the creation of the Home Guard, initially known as the Local Defence Volunteers, in a speech over the radio in June 1940. He implored men who were older or younger than the age of active service to form a voluntary local defence corps to help defend Britain in the event of German invasion. The number of often very elderly volunteers was overwhelming, and in the early days at least this defence force made do without uniforms or weapons, armed only with enthusiasm and a determination to fight any invaders on the beaches.
Fall In: Creating Dad's Army
One of the volunteers too young for active service was Jimmy Perry. He joined the Home Guard in Barnes, despite his mother always being worried about him catching cold through being out at night. He later joined the Royal Artillery in 1943 where, in addition to his duties, he organised concert parties and served in an anti-aircraft unit in the Far East1. When discharged, he returned to the UK and continued his theatrical career, notably performing at Butlin's during the summers2.
In the late 1960s, Jimmy Perry contacted producer David Croft and proposed making a sitcom series set during the Second World War telling the exploits of the Home Guard. Although the Head of Variety, Bill Cotton, had serious doubts that such a setting would work, the BBC commissioned a six-episode black and white series. They felt that the working title, 'The Fighting Tigers', was not right. Michael Mills, Head of Situation Comedy, renamed the series Dad's Army.
Mills' other main contribution was in casting, particularly John Le Mesurier as Wilson and the key character of Jones. As much of the comedy came from slapstick situations in which the elderly Jones found himself in precarious situations, a much younger man was needed to play him. Clive Dunn was cast following auditions which also included David Jason. Godfrey was quickly cast as David Croft had previously worked with Arnold Ridley. Jimmy Perry had been keen throughout to get Arthur Lowe to play Mainwaring. Lowe was best known for being in ITV soap opera Coronation Street at the time and there was some reluctance from the BBC to cast him; however he was a natural fit for the role.
When the series was commissioned, Paul Fox, the head of BBC1, was worried that the show's setting would put off the audience and be considered as belittling the Home Guard. To counter this, the first episode began with a largely irrelevant prologue set in the then present day. The first series was filmed in black and white and was only modestly successful with home audiences on first broadcast. It was sold abroad, only to be met with little interest, the antics of an incompetent group of old men inadequately prepared to meet a full-scale invasion having little appeal outside Britain. The second series was kept for home viewing, which meant that only three of the six episodes of the second series are known to survive3. Yet following the series' recording in colour from the third (1969) series onwards, the show became a firm favourite within the UK. In fact, viewing figures peaked at 21 million.
At the end of every episode, the 'All Clear' siren was played, informing viewers that it was safe again to resume normal life.
On The Front Line: Filming
Location filming took place in Thetford in Norfolk, with the principal cast staying in Bell Hotel and other cast and crew in the nearby Anchor Hotel. Each night, the day's filmed rushes4 would be put on the train to London for processing, and returned by train the following day for viewing.
The town of Thetford doubled for the fictional Walmington-on-Sea. Much of the filming took place on the Ministry of Defence's Stamford Practice Training Area, a large stretch of countryside several square miles in size. When the series was being made, great care and attention was paid in ensuring that clothes, vehicles and all visible items in the series were from the correct time period. This did, on occasion, cause unforeseen problems. On one occasion a traffic warden complained that the 1940s period vehicles had 30-years out-of-date tax discs.
The leader of the platoon is the rather pompous, self-appointed Captain Mainwaring, the local bank manager by day. His second-in-command is Sergeant Wilson, a soft-spoken genteel fellow who is incapable of raising his voice and works with Mainwaring in the bank. The oldest man in the platoon is Lance-Corporal Jones, a veteran of the Sudan War who believes using a bayonet can solve any problem and appropriately is the town's butcher.
Beneath them are the four privates. Pike, a 17-year-old mollycoddled mother's boy who is convinced that war is just like the movies and is the bank's junior employee. Fraser, a cynical Scotsman who constantly complains, thinks the worst about everyone and works as an undertaker. The frail Godfrey, a retired Shop Assistant, is the platoon's medic. Most of the emergencies he attends involve his need to find a toilet very quickly. Finally Walker, the only man of military age in the platoon, is a self-employed spiv who rarely takes anything seriously but is constantly on the lookout for means of making profit.
Many of the platoon's adventures see them facing their nemesis, Chief Warden Hodges (the head of the local ARP5) who considers the Home Guard hooligans led by a man with a Napoleon complex.
The theme song, 'Who Do You Think You Are Kidding, Mr Hitler' was written by Jimmy Perry with Derek Taverner in a 1940s style. To ensure it sounded genuinely from the period it was recorded by the 1940s music hall star Bud Flanagan, the last record he released before his death. Perhaps as a consequence of how the theme tune so perfectly encapsulates the period, it won the 1971 Ivor Novello Award for 'Best Theme from Any Film, Television Programme or Theatrical Production'.
All other music featured in the programme dated from the 1940s to give a genuine period feel.
The Ivor Novello Award was not the only award the series won. It won the Writers Guild Award three years in a row between 1969-1971, the 1971 Best Light Entertainment Production BAFTA. Croft and Perry were each awarded an OBE in 1978.
In addition to the television series, there have been a number of spin-offs of Dad's Army.
The Film (1971)
In 1970 Columbia Pictures made a film version of Dad's Army. This featured most of the stars from the television series, with the exception of Mrs Mavis Pike. For the film Liz Fraser, a woman younger than Janet Davies, played her as Columbia wanted a sexier actress in the role. Location filming took place in Chalfont St Peter rather than Thetford and another type of lorry was used, giving the film a different appearance than in the television series. The film's script was closely based on the first series.
Although it was a tremendous success, Perry and Croft found working with an American film company that was more interested in making a profit than making the film correctly to be frustrating and a proposed sequel was never put into production.
Walmington on the Wireless (1974-76)
In mid-1973 the BBC commissioned a radio version of Dad's Army, however as Dad's Army's creators and writers Croft and Perry were working on the sixth television series, Harold Snoad and Michael Knowles were chosen to adapt the series for radio instead. Both were very familiar with the programme as Snoad had been Dad's Army's production assistant and later director, while Knowles had played Regular Army captains in six episodes of the series and additionally in the 1971 film. Between 1973-75, 67 episodes were made, primarily based on the 80 television episodes, with the last episode inspired by a comedy sketch.
The radio series featured the same main cast as the television series, although only Arthur Lowe as Captain Mainwaring and John Le Mesurier as Wilson appear in every episode. Only the first eight featured James Beck as Walker, as the actor died unexpectedly in August 1973 shortly after recording the episode 'A Striper for Frazer'. Both Graham Stark and Larry Martyn would play Walker on the radio in subsequent episodes. Pearl Hackney, not Janet Davies, played Mrs Pike. Similarly Molly Sugden6, not Pamela Cundell, played Mrs Fox, neither of whom appeared as often as their television counterparts.
A stage musical of Dad's Army toured the nation in 1975-6. Most of the main cast as well as Hodges, the Vicar, the Verger, Mrs Pike and Mrs Fox featured. Two main characters, Frazer and Walker, were recast from the beginning as Jim Beck who played Walker had died and John Laurie did not feel able to perform each night. They were replaced by John Bardon and Hamish Roughead. For the latter half of the show's run, Jack Haig replaced Clive Dunn as Jones.
The Rear Guard (1976)
Dad's Army, a British television series about a small coastal town under the threat of invasion from Germany, was the unlikely subject for an American remake, although only a pilot episode was made for ABC. Entitled The Rear Guard, the pilot remade episode The Deadly Attachment, in which the platoon guard the crew of a German U-boat. Perhaps unsurprisingly there was little interest in making a full series.
Pier Pressure: It Sticks Out Half A Mile
In the early 1980s, Harold Snoad and Michael Knowles, who had adapted the original Dad's Army series for radio, came up with a plan for a sequel radio series. Set after the Second World War had ended in the late 1940s, the idea was to follow what happened when Mainwaring purchases a disused pier near Walmington-on-Sea at the neighbouring town of Frambourne, having secured a loan from Wilson, now the manager of Frambourne's bank.
Tragically Arthur Lowe died in April 1982, soon after the pilot episode was recorded. Arthur's widow insisted that the idea should not be wasted, so it was tweaked and a new pilot was made in September 1982. In this second version Hodges and Pike go into business together, purchasing the pier with the help of bank manager Wilson (John Le Mesurier). This led to a series being recorded in early 1983. After making 13 episodes, John Le Mesurier died and the radio series ended.
Having worked hard to develop a pier-based comedy, Snoad and Knowles removed all remains of the Dad's Army origin and persuaded the BBC to make a television pilot of people re-opening a pier with the help of a bank. Entitled Walking the Planks (1985), it didn't go beyond the pilot stage. Yorkshire Television showed interest in the idea and made seven low-budget episodes under the title High & Dry in 1987, filmed entirely in a studio. Starring Bernard Cribbins and Richard Wilson7, only one series was made, which has not been repeated to date.
We're Doomed! The Dad's Army Story (2015)
An all-star, hour-long dramatisation of the making of Dad's Army, from how Perry and Croft came out of nowhere in 1967 to create one of the best-loved comedies of all time. It begins with Perry wishing to write himself a good acting role while Croft wants to gain control over his own productions. Together they fight to get their vision off the ground with the support of Michael Mills, head of Comedy, against the disapproval of the controller of BBC1. It portrays the struggle to find the cast, showing how the actors influenced the writing of the characters, through the filming of the series in 1968 and up until transmission of the first episode.
The Film (2016)
In 2015 a new film of Dad's Army went into production, it was released in early 2016. The two surviving cast members, Ian Lavender and Frank Williams, both make cameo appearances.
Don't You Know There's A War On
In most episodes the platoon battled bitter rivals Hodges and the ARP or the neighbouring Eastgate platoon commanded by Captain Square. More often, their biggest enemy was their own incompetence. Despite their constant vigil against paratroopers disguised as nuns, only on six occasions did the war come to Walmington. The episodes in which Mainwaring and his men actually encountered the enemy are:
'The Enemy Within the Gates' (Series 1 - 1968)
The platoon find it difficult to tell the difference between their Polish allies and two Luftwaffe airmen.
'The Lion Has Phones' (Series 3 - 1969)
A German aircraft crash lands in Walmington's reservoir, with the crew on board shooting at anyone approaching. Both the aircraft and its crew remain unseen in the episode.
'Man Hunt' (Series 3 – 1969)
When Walker finds a parachute he uses the silk to make ladies underwear. When Mainwaring discovers this he needs to learn whether the parachute was made of British or German silk to discover if an enemy agent is at large in the area. The only way to discover this is to go around Walmington-on-Sea and ask all the women to show him their knickers.
The Film (1971)
Three German airmen bail out over Walmington-on-Sea and take local dignitaries hostage in the church.
'Time On My Hands' (Series 5 – 1972)
A German pilot's parachute has left him dangling from the top of the town hall's clock tower.
'The Deadly Attachment' (Series 6 – 1973)
The platoon are asked to guard the crew of a sunken German U-boat, but all goes wrong when the submarine captain dangles a hand-grenade down Jones' trousers. This episode's script was used as the pilot of The Rear Guard.
Who's The Daddy?
The television series is called 'Dad's Army', which leads to the question, who is the dad being mentioned? Throughout the series there is a never confirmed, but often hinted at, suggestion that Wilson is in fact Pike's father, a fact that Pike is completely unaware of.
Experiencing Dad's Army for a Day
If watching old episodes isn't enough, then why not visit either the Dad's Army Museum in Thetford, or the display at the Bressingham Steam Centre, home of the Dad's Army Appreciation Society's Collection?
You have been watching:
|Captain Mainwaring||Arthur Lowe|
|Sergeant Wilson||John Le Mesurier|
|Lance-Corporal Jones||Clive Dunn|
|Private Pike||Ian Lavender|
|Private Fraser||John Laurie|
|Private Godfrey||Arnold Ridley OBE|
|Private Walker||James Beck|
|Chief Warden Hodges||Bill Pertwee|
|Mrs Pike||Janet Davies|
|The Verger, Mr Maurice Yeatman||Edward Sinclair|
|The Vicar, Rev Timothy Farthing||Frank Williams|
|Private Sponge||Colin Bean|