Who do you think you are kidding Mr. Hitler
If you think we’re on the run?
We are the boys who will stop your little game We are the boys who will make you think again.
‘Cause who do you think you are kidding Mr. Hitler If you think old England’s done?
Jaunty tunes like the above helped the British keep their famed stiff upper lip during the bleakest days of WWII, so it’s fitting that such a song begins every episode of perhaps the classic sitcom about that era, Dad’s Army. With a new movie currently filming we’ve decided to take an indepth look at the series.
During WWII, many of those who could not serve in the Army due to age or other factors signed up as Local Defense Volunteers in what became known as the Home Guard. This morale-boosting stroke of genius from the government of Winston Churchill made everyone feel as if they were doing some part to keep Britain safe from German tyranny. The truth of the matter, was, though, that like a geeky high school hall monitor who asks you for a pass, the Home Guard didn’t have much authority or heft to back it up. What they did have, though, was a lot of heart.
One of those who volunteered was 16-year old Jimmy Perry, who would later relive these experiences as co-writer of Dad’s Army. He and David Croft fashioned a motley squadron whose members included:
Captain George Mainwaring, who has the unenviable task of turning this collection of disparate loons into a lean, mean fighting machine. A bank manager by day, Mainwaring has a tendency to be pompous and overbearing. These qualities, along with his rotund build, cause his detractors to refer to him as Napolean.
Mainwaring was played by Arthur Lowe, who entered show business at the somewhat late age of 30. Like most television actors of his generation, he had his beginnings in the theater. When television called, however, the character of Mainwaring proved to be a perfect fit for Lowe. He was in the Army himself prior to World War II and served in the Middle East. Before joining Dad’s Army, Lowe appeared in such films as the Ealing Studio classic Kind Hearts and Coronets, with Alec Guinness. He also played Mr. Swindley on the long-running soap opera Coronation Street.
Mainwaring, however, is constantly outclassed by the dignified, laid back Sergeant Wilson, played with great aplomb by John Le Mesurier. As in many Britcoms, Dad’s Army broaches the subject of class differences, and in this one, it’s Mainwaring’s second-in-command who actually has the status and Hyacinth Bucket style social connections.
The character of Wilson was not unlike Le Mesurier himself. He came from a comfortable background and like Arthur Lowe had a relatively late entrance into the world of show business. He considered following his father into the legal profession, but the lure of the theater proved greater.
Le Mesurier could also relate to the era portrayed in Dad’s Army. He was an air raid warden in Chelsea and then joined the Army, spending much of his time in India.
Next in the platoon was the ditzy but sweet Corporal Jack Jones. As with all the men, Jones had a day job and his was as a butcher. His duties with the Home Guard, however, seemed to consist mainly of running around yelling “Don’t panic! Don’t panic!” or asking Captain Mainwaring for permission to speak. In fact, Permission to Speak would later be the title of the autobiography of Clive Dunn, the man who played Jones.
Dunn came from a show business family with roots in the music hall tradition. His mother, Connie, was a comedienne and his father Bobby was a singer. Clive trained at the Italia Conti stage school in London and he, too, served in the Army. His experience was more traumatic than the others, however, as he was taken prisoner by the Germans while stationed in Greece.
Along with Dad’s Army, Dunn also has to his credit a hit record called Grandad, which reached number one on the charts and landed him a guest appearance on the popular show Top of the Pops.
In stark contrast to “Jonesey” is Private James Frazer, played by John Laurie. By day, Frazer works as a mortician, but in the evening, he provides the voice of cynicism and gloom for the platoon. He also provides Mainwaring with plenty of headaches as he often questions the Captain’s authority. In one episode, he even takes over as platoon leader. “We’re doomed! We’re doomed! ” is his war cry, and with his wild-eyed stare and disarming Scottish brogue, he can make his horror stories come vividly to life.
Off screen, Laurie was from all reports your typically reticent Scotsman. His humility covered up a very distinguished pre- Dad’s Army career, including study at Stratford-on-Avon and playing all the major Shakespearean roles on stage. His talent for Shakespeare led to film roles alongside Olivier in Richard III, Hamlet, and Henry V. He also appeared in two Alfred Hitchcock films – Juno and the Paycock and Thirty-Nine Steps.
The gloom and doom of Frazer was offset by the roguish charm of James Beck as Private Joe Walker. This “spiv” character was your basic con man who was somehow able to get whatever he – or Captain Mainwaring – needed via his charm and perhaps slightly illegal methods. Thus, he’s able to do things like chow down on a steak while the others have to make due with Toad in the Hole. He also seems to have plenty of money in the bank and women who adore him.
Things were not so happy for Beck off screen. His role in Dad’s Army brought him his own series on London Weekend Television called Romany Jones and his career was ready to take off when severe stomach pains led to an operation for a suspected ulcer. During the surgery, however, his pancreas burst and Beck passed away at the young age of 44. This tragic event occurred in 1973, between series five and six of Dad’s Army. His character was never replaced, and though the series went on without him, he was still sorely missed by fans and by his fellow co-stars, who had all formed a great bond.
Perhaps the most endearing member of the Walmington-on- Sea Home Guard was Private Charles Godfrey. Godfrey is the frailest member of the platoon, constantly asking to be excused to use the bathroom or to go to doctor’s appointments.
Godfrey didn’t have a whole lot to do onscreen, but Arnold Ridley, the man who played him, was the cast member with perhaps the most impressive off-screen resume.
After deciding to take up an acting career and training at the Theatre Royal, Bristol, Ridley was called for service in WWI. He fought in France and suffered numerous injuries, including blow on the head that would leave him continually susceptible to serious blackouts.
After the war, he tried to return to acting but his injuries forced him to give him it up. This didn’t keep him from writing, however, and he authored a wildly successful play entitled The Ghost Train. This play would eventually run for over 600 performances in London’s West End and be brought to the big screen on three occasions.
Ridley authored numerous other plays during the 1920s and 30s, but when WWII broke out, he enlisted in the Army again. He never mentioned his wounds from WWI to the authorities, and sadly ended up shell-shocked. Yet the Army’s loss was the theater’s gain.
During the 60s, Ridley appeared on the long-running radio program The Archers as well as Coronation Street. Like his co-star John Laurie, Ridley’s role in Dad’s Army opened up an entire new phase of his career when he was in his 70s. He was eventually honored with an OBE in the 1982 New Year’s Honour List for service to the theater and passed away a couple of years later at the age of 88.
The youngest member of the platoon by far is Private Frank Pike, played by baby-faced Ian Lavender. Frank’s mother is very close to Sergeant Wilson (whom Pike refers to as “Uncle Arthur”) and Wilson indeed keeps an eye out for the youngster. There is even gossip that Frank may be Arthur’s child, but this is never confirmed. Frank is most definitely a naive mummy’s boy, whose frame of reference for what he’s going through is movies or comic books. He is constantly referred to by Mainwaring’s famous line, “Stupid boy.”
Lavender came to the attention of producer David Croft because he was a client of Croft’s wife, Ann. The character of Pike was based on Jimmy Perry himself and his experiences as a teenage volunteer in the Home Guard.
Also important to the cast was Bill Pertwee as the other thorn in Mainwaring’s side, ARP Warden William Hodges. He and Mainwaring are constantly at each other’s throat over use of the office or which of their jobs is the most important. Their relationship is basically one long game of “Can you top this?”
Less visible but no less important are Frank Williams as Reverend Timothy Farthing, Vicar of St. Aldhelms in Walmington-on-Sea, and Edward Sinclair as Maurice Yeatman, the Verger. The Verger is extremely loyal to the Vicar and is possibly the town’s biggest gossip and snitch. He is often caught in the crossfire between Mainwaring and the Warden, usually siding with the Warden.
Jimmy Perry came up with the idea for Dad’s Army because he was an actor and wanted to create a good part for himself. Until this time, he’d only done a small amount of writing, but he drew on his personal experiences for a comedy about a facet of the military that hadn’t been explored before. He finished the first script and went back to acting until his agent, who happened to be Mrs. David Croft, called to offer him a small role in a show her husband was directing. During rehearsal, he took the opportunity to “pitch” his script to Croft, who agreed to co-write and got a green light for the series. The rest is history.
Dad’s Army deserves its place in British television history because like a well-oiled platoon, each soldier worked together for the sake of the whole. Through nine series, a feature film and a radio show, Dad’s Army gave an always funny, often poignant portrait of England and its people as they were and consequently earned a deep place in their hearts.