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On its 30th Anniversary, Dad's Army's youngest recruit recalls… 'I was a stupid boy, but we just acted ourselves...'

By Tim Walker
Source: Daily Mail, Friday, July 31, 1998

The actor who made his name as gormless, adolescent Private Pike in Dad's Army arrives half an hour late for our appointment, sweating flustered, arms flailing and wittering about traffic, weather and a vital envelope for his accountant that he has somehow managed to leave on a train.

Ian Lavender is now 52, grey haired and paunchy, but the temptation to admonish him with a sharp 'stupid boy' in the way Captain Mainwaring did so often is all but irresistible.


That's the problem with Dad's Army - the mother of all comedy shows which was first broadcast 30 years ago today. We've seen it repeated so many times and feel so well acquainted with the characters that we find it hard to believe that any of them could really have being actors at all. 'In a way we weren't actors,' says Ian. 'I think one of the reasons why Dad's Army made such an impression was that, in a way, we all played ourselves.


'If you look at the very earliest scripts, you'll see that they are very different to the ones that followed. The reason was that the scriptwriters, Jimmy Perry and David Croft had got to know all the actors and they started to write the scripts around our personalities.'

The Post Office is to mark the show's anniversary with a first day cover and there is a reunion today at the imperial war museum in London when Lavender will be joined by, among others, Clive Dunn, 79, who played Corporal Jones and Bill Pertwee, 72, who was ARP Warden Hodges. "There are so few of us left now,' says Lavender, the youngest member of the cast at just 22 when the show was first broadcast on July 31, 1968,'that we could probably have staged the reunion in a phone booth.'

Lavender has a mature, thoughtful outlook on life that contrasts starkly with his alter ego. A failed marriage to actress Sue Kerchiss and cancer of the bladder diagnosed in 1993, have both been formative experiences. He married his second wife, the American-born Miki Hardy, who is three years his senior, just six days after his illness was discovered. 'We had being living together for 16 years and it was something I should have done a long time before, ' he says. 'These things change you, they help you to see what is important in life.' The growth was operated on successfully and, although Lavender has a check-up next week, doctors seem confident the cancer will not return. He considers himself a lucky man, conscious, perhaps, that James Beck (Private Walker) died Aged just 44 during surgery for a suspected stomach ulcer.

Lavender is naturally determined to make the most of the rest of his life (he is to appear shortly in a production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), but he looks back on Dad's Army - and Pike - with enormous affection. 'Obviously typecasting has been a bit of a problem but I really can't complain,' he says. 'What actor could possibly complain about a series that has given so many people so much happiness?' No fewer than 80 episodes of Dad's Army were made over ten years and what's so extraordinary is the way they seem so funny, intelligent and compulsive as the day they were first minted.

The series is enjoying a huge success in its current run on BBC2 on Tuesday nights. But its finest hour unquestionably came in 1996 when, pitted against Baywatch on Saturday night prime time, it attracted almost ten million viewers against its sexy rival's 7.1 million. What could a show about a group of geriatric old men trying to guard a sleepy seaside town have on Pamela Anderson? 'In a Word, quality,' Lavender says. 'You always know when you settle down to watch Dad's Army that you are going to be entertained.

'The actors and the scriptwriters never let themselves down and they seemed to have a never ending supply of great ideas so there was never any need to resort to violence or bad language. Perhaps there's a lesson in that for the Programme makers of today.'

The show's legions of fans headed by the Queen and the Queen Mother - will be intrigued by his assertion that the characters were inspired by the actors who portrayed them. You wonder if Arthur Lowe was really as pompous as Mainwaring and whether he felt uneasy around John Le Mesurier (Sergeant Wilson) because of the fact in real life as well as in the series gone to public school? Was John Laurie (Fraser) mean and cantankerous and Frank Williams (the Vicar) just ever so slightly limp wristed? And was Pike really a dim mothers boy? Lavender allows himself a few moments of introspection to consider, 'Well, it's true that I was closer to my mother than my father and there were occasions when she would come onto the set and I always valued her opinion,' he says.

'I don't think Pike was dim, though, any more than I was. I would say we were both naïve. Dad's Army was virtually my first job out of drama school and I hardly knew one end of a TV camera from another. I remember moving furniture around once and someone telling me to stop it, as there'd be a strike as it was against union rules.

'The "Stupid boy" tag was never in the script. I think Arthur once said it to me in rehearsals and it stuck. The peculiar facial tic they gave me in one episode came from something the scriptwriters had being doing between takes. 'The long scarf I wore was also mine - but I didn't wear it because my mother was worried about my croup. I was doing a play at the time and needed to disguise the long hair the part required.'

Of the relationship between Lowe and Le Mesurier, Lavender says: 'I wouldn't say they were bosom buddies. Arthur was a pompous little man and John was a bit vague, but a bit of an old charmer who had an eye for the ladies and liked a drink.

'Arthur was very conscious of his position. He saw himself as the senior man on the set, as he was in the platoon, and once rejected a script because it had a scene in which somebody put their hand down his trousers. He wouldn't have anyone do that to him. He felt it was beneath his dignity. 'John, of course, didn't care. I remember him once doing a scene in his underwear.'

Lavender says he saw no evidence of Le Mesurier's public school education grating with Lowe, who had, in real life, left school at 16. It might have had more to do with the fact Le Mesurier was initially paid more than Lowe - £262 to his £210 per episode. Arthur Lowe was nevertheless, kind and hospitable. He often invited members of the cast aboard his beloved steam yacht, the Amazon, on its stately trips up the Thames, when Lavender's most enduring memory of Lowe was behind the bar, providing an endless supply of drinks. John Laurie was not mean, but he was cantankerous. 'I remember he once had to spend the entire day sitting on a rather frisky horse on a river and was a bit rude to me when I asked him how he was.' Lavender recalls. 'I thought on reflection that it was hardly surprising. He was an old man who'd just had an awful day.

'I remember him saying once that he'd played just about every major role in Shakespeare on the stage but he knew he would be remembered only for Dad's Army. It sounded like he was a bit contemptuous of it, but the fact is that he had as much fun as the rest of us.'

As for the other members of the cast, Lavender says Arnold Ridley (Private Godfrey) did not suffer from incontinence, though he remembers, embarrassingly, an assistant once going to some lengths to give him a dressing room which was within easy reach of a loo. 'We had to explain that he had to make a distinction between what actors were like in front of a camera and what they were like in real life.

'I had a lot of time for Arnold who was in continual discomfort, not from needing to go to the loo but as a result of wounds he had sustained during the First World War. 'He and John Laurie were the oldest members of the cast and there was a lot of good-humoured rivalry between them. John used to tell him: "I'm not going to be the first one written out of the show."

' However, Clive Dunn, who played Corporal Jones, was a bit of a panicker. 'He would worry about things and I would get hold of his arm and say, "Stop it". 'I remember he hated saying "They don't like it up 'em" because he thought it was a bit vulgar.'

James Beck was, Lavender says, a bit of a spiv. ' He was something of a wideboy. He always wanted to be the life and soul of the party and he never bought his own fags.' As for Frank Williams, the Vicar, Lavender says 'He was a very funny man. People used to say he gave people the worst possible impression of vicars but in real life he was a lay preacher and a member of the General Synod.

'In the days when Dad's Army was being made no-one thought of people being gay, they just thought of people being a bit fussy. We got away with an awful lot because we were able to imply things.'

Lavender says that, for all the individual peculiarities of the cast, they got on surprisingly well. 'I think it was the fact that we were all really theatre people. Knowing your lines, being on the set at the right time and doing the best you could were all marks of pride. I don't remember anyone ever calling in sick, which was quite an achievement for an elderly cast.' Inevitably most of the actors - Lowe, Le Mesurier, Ridley and Laurie - are dead. The fact that Lavender has aged and matured in the years since the platoon last fell in on Remembrance Day 1977 often comes as something of a shock to the fans who seem to imagine him preserved in aspic.

"The fan mail still keeps coming in even now but they don't want pictures of me as I look now, they want to see me as I looked when I was in the series,' he says. ' I tried sending out up-to-date pictures but they didn't seem to understand who this grey-haired old man was.'

Transcribed from the original article by Andy Howells.

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