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On Manoeuvres With Dad's Army

By Iain F. McAsh

Source: ABC Film Review; January 1971

'PARADE 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.

The 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, Middlesex.

I 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.'

Later, 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.

Arthur 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. '

It 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.

'But 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.'

All 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 Walker.

'Yet 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.'

I 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.

'I 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!'

Wherever 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.

'Let's 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.'

I 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.

'He 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!'

Later, 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.

'It 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.'

Dad's 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:

'There's 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.'

Long 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!

Transcribed by Andy Howells, with thanks to Iain S Wilson - September 2000

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