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Permission To Speak, Sir?

By James Green

Source: Saga magazine, February 1992.

Probably best known for his portrayal as a doddery Home Guard Soldier in the eternally funny TV series Dad's Army, veteran comedian Clive Dunn appeals to all ages

Don't panic, Mr. Mainwaring! Britain's best known and funniest old soldier, Lance Corporal Jack Jones, the (they don't like it up 'em) butcher of Walmington-on-Sea, is now guarding Portugal's Algarve coast.

The bespectacled and doddery Home Guard veteran of the comedy classic, Dad's Army, may never have frightened the Germans or the Fuzzy Wuzzies, but when he dons his shorts during the hot summer months, he swears his knees frighten the ladies. The invading army of tourists invariably recognises him, although some mistake him for Mr. Pastry - the late Richard Hearne - and ask where the platoon is or can they have "permission to speak"? Clive Dunn, of course, is the comedy actor who created the Old Sweat, and after more than 50 years of show business, television and touring has decided on semi-retirement in the cool country hills above Vilamoura.

Why has he chosen to settle in the Algarve? "The weather is a major attraction, " he says, filling our glasses with delicious £1-a-bottle white wine."It is the best climate in Europe. The Portuguese people are invariably pleasant and tolerant, the cost of living is about the same as England, and the wine is so cheap it could become an alcoholic's paradise. Fish, meat, petrol, and electricity are expensive and I would say a car is essential, but given care it is possible to live cheaply. "We're told that a lot of British residents have returned home due to rising prices, but there are still many of them here. It is a wonderful place for sporty people with all the golf; tennis, swimming and boating you could want. I play golf and tennis once a week, tomorrow I'm horse riding, occasionally I go fishing in my glass fibre boat."

What, if any, are the disadvantages to the lotus life? Clive and his charming ex-actress wife, Priscilla Morgan, answer almost in unison…"The obvious one is that you are away from your Mother country and your friends. But friends will come and visit you. It can also be difficult if you have left a family behind. We're lucky because our two grown daughters, Polly and Jessica, decided to follow us here. So the whole family is in this area." Cilla explains: "We've taken holidays in Portugal for 26 years and we've owned this old farm cottage for 11 years. Had the girls not come over I might have felt I had to go back." Clive takes up the story. "We keep a flat in Shepherds Bush for the odd visit or for when I have to return briefly to work. I really thought I'd retired completely when I came here, except that TV and stage offers still arrive from time to time. I'm 71 now and decided that after a lifetime of entertaining that I'd done all the funny things one man can do. Enough was enough. Why give up this lifestyle in order to tour round Britain in a play? What I will not do is accept something that takes me away from the family for months. But a good script and a short stay still interests me."

Clive Dunn is third generation show business, the son of two comedy artistes, and he remains a modest, unassuming man despite hundreds of television shows and the talent to be a clown, actor, dancer, trick cyclist, and singer. Nobody was more surprised than him to find himself at the top of the Hit Parade and appearing on Top Of The Pops with his record Grandad. It couldn't have happened to a better chap because Clive Dunn as a Trooper in the Queen's own 4th Hussars was captured on the Greek mainland in 1941 and spent four years in a prisoner in a German labour camp. He'll talk about that later but for the present, it is time to go to the restaurant owned and run by daughter Polly, who is also the cook. Called the café royale, the 200-year-old building is found at the top end of Rua Vasco Da Gama in the heart of old Quarteira. Also there when we arrive is Clive's other daughter, Jessica who is a painter with an expanding reputation which may well make her internationally known. With justification, Dad is proud of both girls, even if they have cold shouldered show business careers.

"Polly is a brilliant French chef," he says."The café Royale seats 45, with room in the open during summer for 30 more. All the vegetables used are organically grown by Cilla in our large garden. She grows some 20 or more varieties and she jokes that she's the one who has brought the parsnip to Portugal. We both come to the restaurant two nights a week and we mix and chat with the customers. "The walls are lined with paintings, many nude studies among them, mostly by Jessica, but some are my own work. She paints in differing styles and sells them. They have been shown in various parts of the Algarve and, frankly, with her talent she could achieve anything. While my own paintings are displayed here and at home I do it as a labour of love rather than for money. I've practically stopped selling but sometimes donate one to a local music society." He points to an impressionist-style painting. "That's my copy of a Renoir, I've had an offer for it. I wanted to test my own ability - it took me five days to complete. My friends from showbusiness have dined here and seen the paintings. People like Ronnie Corbett, Anita Harris, and Harry Fowler."

As we drive back to the Dunn's home, Clive laughed and said he should be in the Guinness book of records - he's had 16 agents during his career and he thinks that is more than anyone else. He cites Sir John Mills' comment that changing agents is like changing deck chairs on the Titanic. "Now lets have a look at the place," he suggests. "We're away from tourism, with peace and quiet, and this cottage is everything we want. Cilla has done a lot of the redesigning and' as I said, works hard growing the veggies. Our dog, Bella, came from a dogs home." There's a ploughed field, a small swimming pool, and a half-walled studio that Clive built at his studio where he paints. "I also paint walls, lay down paths, and work in the garden or the field. All summer we can sleep out on a balcony under the stars. The one failure has been that we tried to press wine. We had 60 vines but the ground isn't suitable. A friend of ours has a total of three bottles; one broke and the other two exploded, so that's a none starter.

"We see Portuguese TV, and some English shows on Sky. It's great that adults know me as Jack Jones the wartime butcher, while the children associate me with the Grandad TV series in which I starred. That's a wide age range, and both Dad's Army and Grandad have been seen recently in repeats. Not that we could see them. But we do have some videos of them that we play now and again. "I've just heard that ITV are doing a rerun during '92 of the Bootsie and Snudge series I made as Old Johnson with Alfie Bass and Bill Fraser. It was a small cast, I must be the only one left alive." He chuckles…."Its handy that there is a cemetery down the road." Perhaps because of his wartime hardships and imprisonment he is not full of his own importance, although he is naturally proud and grateful to have made his mark.

He was offered the OBE more than once but turned it down a few times, so what made him change his mind and accept the award eventually? "I thought my mother would love it," he explained. "I'd begun as a concert party performer and anything which dignifies actors, comedians and the like is helpful. I felt I didn't deserve it and millions of others did. It doesn't mean much, OBE - officer third class, I ask you! When the Queen presented it to me she said 'This is a great pleasure for all the fun you've given us'." Clive was in the army for seven years, four of which he spent in Austrian labour camps. "The lowest point of my life came when I was 21 and we were stuck in cattle trucks going across Europe as prisoners. We were so packed you had to take it in turns to lie down on the floor. We all got dysentery, that was awful. You were treated like dirt, you were nothing. You couldn't get lower than that. But you learn to get philosophical. It was a hard life - up to my backside in snow in winter, but youth and companionship made it bearable and raised the spirits. "I was interested that when he was released. Terry Waite said the same thing about the value of companionship. I really got worried when the Germans reached the outskirts of Moscow. I had visions of being a POW for 40 bloody years and had to throw that thought out of my mind. We had 20 men to a room and were locked in from Saturday midday until Monday morning. I devised some rude sketches, others sang, and we tried to make a little entertainment. At another camp I played the female lead in Novello's Glamorous Nights, wearing strange gear and the socks for a bust! Nobody took the Mickey out of a man playing a woman because they all wanted to believe what they were saying."

It all seems a long way removed from the foolery of Lance Corporal Jones. He thinks for a moment, then says, "Dad's Army was magic because it was true farce, World War Two was an enormous canvas, also you had the menace and evil of Hitler and the Nazi's about to invade. And you had a handful of guys in a small village or town who were trying to prevent this monster rolling across their land. They were all serious and not trying to be funny, and that's where the humour came in. David Croft picked some outstanding character actors, in particular Arthur Lowe as Mainwaring. Jonesy is my favourite of all my roles, along with Frosch in Die Fieldermaus with the English Opera North. "As for seemingly to play a lot of old men, it was simply something I could do. I'm slightly bandy anyway. It began with the old gardener in the original Hancock shows and it provided a decent living."

"Clive and I met at the players theatre,"
explained Cilla. "We married within three months. His work as Old Johnson in Bootsie and Snudge kept us solvent - we were penniless and Polly was about to be born when he got the part. We'd had to sell our car and then came two years of security with that ITV contract. What a blessing." They've been married for 32 years. Cilla's acting career pettered out only three years ago. Clive refills our glasses and reflects, contentedly: "I've got two shows to do at the Leeds city of varieties Theatre in April and I know that I've been lucky. Not too much to complain about.

"The reason I came to Portugal originally was through seeing Greta Garbo in the film Queen Christina. In the script she was going to the South West corner of Europe, full of sunshine, where warm breezes blew. The final shot shows her on her way to Portugal and I thought if it's good enough for Garbo it's good enough for me."

Transcribed by Andy Howells, with thanks to Iain S Wilson for supplying the Interview - October 2000

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