Manoeuvres With Dad's Army
Iain F. McAsh
ABC Film Review; January 1971
ATTEN-SHUN!' roared out the voice
of the Regimental Sergeant Major in a typical Army camp somewhere
in England. Camouflaged tents, a cookhouse and various military
vehicles added vital wartime realism to the scene. Yet several
of the faces in the assembled platoon looked strangely familiar
beneath their forage caps. Despite the air of World War II urgency,
something seemed to suggest that these 'old sweats' would have
been instantly recognisable to millions of televiewers in the
1970's. Then a voice called 'Cut! I'll buy that one', and
the movie cameras stopped turning.
secret was out. They were shooting another scene for the film
version of Dad's Army, one of BBC-1's most popular comedy programmes,
now transferred on to the big screen in colour as a John R. Sloan
Production for Columbia. Then, removing their packs and rifles,
came 'The Magnificent Seven' themselves, as they are affectionately
known. The team consists of John Le Mesurier (Sergeant Wilson),
Clive Dunn (Lance-Corporal Jones), John Laurie (Private Frazer),
James Beck (Private Walker), Arnold Ridley (Private Godfrey) and
Ian Lavender (Private Pike), all under the pompous command of
the bustling Captain Mainwaring, played by Arthur Lowe. All the
old familiar Home Guard 'regulars' from the famous TV series are
playing the same roles, which have made them household names on
the fireside screen. We were not in a real Army cam, of course,
but in afield which forms part of the back lot at Shepperton Studios,
watched for a while as twenty members of the 'awkward squad' slept
huddled together in a field blanket, the older men snoring while
some, like 24-year-old Ian Lavender, only sucked their thumbs.
'No wonder we need wide-screen for this lot,' cracked Arthur
Lowe from somewhere beneath his blanket. 'We could never get
scenes like this on the small TV screen.'
I spent a day with the cast at Seaford, the Sussex coastal town
near Brighton, where the seaside exteriors were filmed of the
gallant Walmington-on-Sea platoon preparing to defend their village
against imminent Nazi invasion. Scenes of portly German General
(Paul Dawkins) and his subordinates surveying the English Channel
through binoculars from the French coast were shot from a helicopter
at Seaford Head. Heavy rain began to fall just about lunchtime,
and the unit scurried off to a shelter in a large marquee, which
had been erected by the location caterers. I drove back to the
company's headquarters at the Mercury Motor Inn, Seaford, and
found six of the stars dressed in their Home guard uniforms impatiently
awaiting their call to action whenever the rain stopped. It seemed
the ideal moment to find out what were their reactions to the
characters they played, and how their roles affected them as individuals.
Lowe was the most forthright in his views. 'For seven years
now I've been closely identified with two characters I've played
on TV,' he explained. 'My problem has been that to an
extent these roles have taken me over. 'When I was in Coronation
Street complete strangers used to stop me and address me as
Mr. Swindley, the North country shopkeeper I played in the series.
They seemed to think I only existed as this particular character.
It was like living with a Siamese twin. It eventually reached
the stage when there were times I actually hated Swindley, and
could cheerfully have killed him off. '
happened again, although to a lesser extent when I started playing
Captain Mainwaring in Dad's Army,' he continued. 'People
still come up to me, dig me in the ribs and say, "Well Mainwaring,
how are your men behaving today?", or something equally ridiculous.
Mainwaring certainly performed a rescue act for my career. After
playing him for two years on TV, and bringing him to the big
screen for this film, I think I can now pronounce Swindley dead
and buried. 'You see, Swindley was very much a character with
whom people could identify themselves. Captain Mainwaring, on
the other hand is not the same kind of character. He is not
somebody they can identify with in the same way as they could
with Swindley. He's a product of the thirties, of the war period.
People find him a figure of fun. He's a caricature who always
seems to be coming out of trouble with egg on his face.'
felt that the camaraderie of the Dad's Army team would be hard
to beat. 'None of us had ever worked together as a team before,'
remarked James Beck, who plays the shady wartime spiv, Private
we all hit it off right from the start. I think this is part
of the success of the TV series, as well as this film. We've
been working together for three years now, and we know each
other's ways, mannerisms and are able to respond accordingly.
'For myself, I didn't find there were many difficulties transferring
the television characters to the cinema. It's like asking an
experienced tennis player to adapt from hard courts to grass.
If he's good he should be able to play on both.'
mentioned to Clive Dunn who plays Jonesy, the village butcher,
that he seems to have made a specialty out of playing men years
older than himself on TV and on the stage. 'How did I first
get to play older men?' he reflected.
don't really know. I've played every kind of part of course,
and it just seemed to happen. The character I play in Dad's
Army was supposed to have served in the Boer War. I'm 49 now;
I had always wanted to be an actor, ever since I used to be
in amateur productions once a term at school. Although I love
playing Jonesy, it would be nice to play a character around
my own age - just for once!'
Clive goes on location or film studios, the cry goes up 'Where's
the wig?' For he has only one grey haired wig which he wears
to transform himself into Lance-Corporal Jones. I asked Clive
his reactions to the spate of nudity and permissiveness on today's
stage and screen.
just say that when I was a POW in Greece back in 1941, the Nazi's
marched the lot of us stark naked through a village. If a director
wanted me to do a scene like that for a film it would be alright
with me, because it would be true and realistic. But to do it
for the sake of sensationalism - never! It would be quite unnecessary.'
spoke next to Birmingham-born Ian Lavender, who is the 'baby'
of the group as the youngest recruit in Dad's Army. 'Private
Pike, the character I play, is such an idiot,' he told me.
can do nothing right. And he's a bit of a Mamma's boy into the
bargain. I only hope that people don't think I'm really like
him, although I do get fan-mail from girls telling me they like
my looks and kind nature, but that I should stop behaving so
stupidly. 'When I was first picked for the role of Pike, I was
21 and inexperienced, and found it quite nerve-racking to be
the youngster in a cast of senior actors, some of them even
in their sixties and seventies, like Arnold Ridley. But after
three years in Dad's Army, I've settled down now.' Ian laughed
as he added: 'when I first started playing the role I didn't
know that writer Jimmy Perry had modelled Private Pike on his
own Home Guard Experiences back in 1940. Had he told me I'm
sure I'd have been even more nervous!'
seated on a wooden bench while he watched rehearsals, Jimmy Perry,
who is also acting as the film's technical adviser, pulled at
his pipe as he explained to me how Dad's Army was born.
all began when I got thinking of the day I joined the Home Guard
in Watford where we were living in 1940,' he explained.
'I was just a kid of 16 at the time, and therefore too young
to be called up to the real Army. Various people I met during
this period gave me the basic idea for Dad's Army. We had a
commanding officer who became my model for Captain Mainwaring.
Before I'd even written for the first TV episode, I had Arthur
Lowe in mind.'
Army is directed by Norman Cohen who made his debut with the immensely
successful Till Death Us Do Part. Of Dad's Army he said:
a lot of visual humour which arises naturally out of the gags
in Jimmy Perry's script. And we aim to expand those wonderful
opportunities. It's clean, harmless fun. I'm all for family
entertainment Dad's Army may be regarded as old-fashioned by
some because it doesn't call for gimmicks or tricksy camera
work. The natural humour is in the playing, and it's in my job
as director to bring it out and make it work on the big screen.'
may the well intentioned bungling of the corned beef brigade continue
to create spontaneous mirth for young and old. For now Dad's army
seems certain to conquer a vast new audience as they march on
to greater victory in the cinema!
by Andy Howells, with thanks to Iain S Wilson - September 2000
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