Back in the last century, when people still watched television rather than computers, I fulfilled the lifetime ambition of every comedy nerd when I finally got to meet David Croft and Jimmy Perry. Whoever said ‘don’t meet your heroes’ clearly never met any sitcom writers. I was working on a BBC series about the history of British sitcom – since eclipsed by countless cheap clip shows, but actually quite a novelty back then – and though the actors were interesting, it was the writers who really shone. Like Galton & Simpson (Hancock, Steptoe) and Clement & La Frenais (Porridge, The Likely Lads), Croft & Perry were enchanting. Clearly, there’s something about writing (rather than performing) comedy in tandem which makes the people who do it very happy. Unlike most performers, the creators of Dad’s Army seemed entirely comfortable in their own (and each other’s) skins.
Apart from their general charm and bonhomie, there were two things they said which stood out. The first was that both men preferred their other masterpiece, It Ain’t Half Hot Mum – a huge hit at the time, but since sidelined by the BBC, allegedly, on account of its political incorrectness. The other thing I remember is what they said about the advance screenings of Dad’s Army. Remarkably, the reaction of the preview audience was very negative. The main criticism, apparently, was, ‘Not another programme about the war! Aren’t people bored of it by now? It was such a long time ago!’
Well, if the second world war was a long time ago back then, it’s a very long time ago today. When the BBC aired the first series of Dad’s Army, the War had only been over for 23 years, as recent as the Gulf War is to us today. It’s now 69 years since VE Day, yet there’s a new Dad’s Army movie in production, with Toby Jones as Captain Mainwaring, Bill Nighy as Sergeant Wilson and Tom Courtenay as Corporal Jones. It’s as if that 1968 preview audience had been shown a sitcom about the Boer War.
Like millions of couch potatoes, I’m a diehard Dad’s Army fan – so why, when I heard about this big screen remake, did I feel my heart sink? Two reasons, I suppose. The first is that our obsession with the second world war seems to encapsulate an endemic neurosis in our national life – a post-imperial nostalgia, an infatuation with an idealised past. The second is that this constant recycling of popular culture feels like the symptom of a society that’s slowly ossifying. Have we lost interest in the here and now? Are we running out of new ideas?
However good this remake is, I fear that if I go to see it the original will never seem the same. When Jimmy Perry was at RADA, George Bernard Shaw came to watch Perry and his fellow students perform. ‘I enjoyed your show tremendously,’ Shaw told them afterwards. ‘But you’ve got to understand one rule of comedy – you must have reality, otherwise it’s rubbish.’ For the original cast of Dad’s Army (and much of the original audience) the second world war was real. They’d lived through it. They’d fought in it (some of them had fought in the first world war too). Perry (the model for Pike) was in the Home Guard. With actors like Michael Gambon and Bill Paterson in the cast, this new movie won’t be rubbish. But unlike the TV series, it surely won’t feel half as real.
William Cook is the author of various books about comedians, including Morecambe & Wise Untold (HarperCollins) and One Leg Too Few – The Adventures of Peter Cook & Dudley Moore (Preface)