Losing none of its spark since it was first screened by the BBC in 1968, the Dad’s Army scripts never grow tired. Meet the gang!
Dad’s Army originally ran for nine series, comprising 80 episodes that were shown between 1968 and 1977. Its familiar theme tune, ‘Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Hitler?’, was Perry’s idea, as he intended it to be a pastiche of wartime songs.
It was said that, initially, the BBC was worried about offending veterans, as the script gently poked fun at the Home Guard in a sleepy English seaside town, but the show went on to become one of their biggest hits of all time, attracting audiences of 18 million viewers each week.
Written by the established script-writing team of Jimmy Perry and David Croft, who also wrote It Ain’t Half Hot Mum and Hi-De-Hi, it was loosely based on a true story. Perry had been only 17 years old when he joined the 10th Hertfordshire Battalion Local Defence Volunteers, later known as the Home Guard, during World War II.
His over-protective mum didn’t like him being out at night on duty and was worried he might catch a cold! He based the character of Private Pike in Dad’s Army on his own experiences during the war.
The original script was called The Fighting Tigers, but it was changed to Dad’s Army to represent the fact that around 99% of the members of the Home Guard in the script were too old to enlist in the armed forces.
The Home Guard operated as a unit of the British Army from 1940 to 1944, with 1.5 million volunteers signing up. They were all either too old or too young to join the regular army, or were in reserved occupations, meaning their job at home was considered so important that they weren’t permitted to join the forces.
Exempt occupations included ship building, farming and many engineering-related trades, as their skills were considered too important to risk losing them on the front line, which could be detrimental to Britain’s war effort.
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Perry had also loosely based other characters on people he had known during the war, such as Lance Corporal Jack Jones, played by Clive Dunn. He was said to be based on elderly lance corporal whom Perry had served alongside in the 10th Hertfordshire.
When Jones told everyone not to panic, it was usually the case that he was the only one panicking! Many episodes featured the unfortunate corporal running around shouting, “Don’t panic!” at the top of his voice and it became his catchphrase.
The other main characters who made up the Home Guard in the fictional English town of Walmington-on-Sea, on England’s south coast, included Captain George Mainwaring, a bank manager, played by Arthur Lowe, who was determined to run the battalion with military precision. This often made him come across as pompous, although he was undeniably brave and patriotic.
His second-in-command was Sergeant Arthur Wilson, played by John Le Mesurier. He was a chief bank clerk who had served during World War I as a captain. He always quietly questioned Mainwaring’s judgment, often asking him, “Do you think that’s wise, sir?”
Private Charles Godfrey, played by Arnold Ridley, was a retired retail assistant who was the platoon’s medical orderly. His only link with the military was working as a shop assistant at the Army and Navy Store in London.
Describing them as a “pompous ass and an old man”, Perry was said to have based the characters of Mainwaring and Godfrey on characters from the classic Will Hay film, Oh Mr Porter.
Other characters included a work-shy Black Market spiv, Private Joe Walker, played by James Beck, who hadn’t joined the regular army because of food allergies, although he claimed to be in a reserved occupation as a wholesale supplier.
Perry had also cited the work of Lancashire comedian Robb Wilton as being among his influences. Wilton had played a lazy husband who joined the Home Guard in comedy sketches during World War II.
Private James Frazer, played by John Laurie, was a gloomy Scottish undertaker and former Royal Navy officer, whose catchphrase was, “We’re all doomed!”
Played by Ian Lavender, Private Frank Pike was a cosseted mummy’s boy, who had to wear a thick scarf to prevent him from catching cold. He is an assistant bank clerk in his day job, working for Captain Mainwaring.
Although Dad’s Army was a comedy show, a lot of the scenarios that were humorous in the series would have been dangerous problems for the real Home Guard.
For example, in one episode, Pike gets caught in barbed wire on the beach, in the middle of a minefield. Army engineers are called out to save him, but when they are late arriving, the platoon decides to try and save him themselves.
In another episode, the ARP headquarters are bombed, so the Home Guard has to share its HQ, the church hall, with the bomb wardens, which doesn’t go down too well.
Some of the lead characters reportedly hated the script, because it took the mickey out of the real Home Guard. BBC chiefs were worried it might be found offensive. However, their fears proved unfounded. Even though the serious subject matter was given a comic slant, nobody took offence and it remains a popular sitcom to this day.
The plot was based on the fact that the person running the show, Captain Mainwaring, really wasn’t suited to his task. The same plot was used in a lot of the greatest sitcoms, such as Fawlty Towers, in which Basil Fawlty should never have been running a hotel, and The Office, where David Brent was the most awful boss imaginable.
Similarly, Mainwaring, for all his enthusiasm and patriotism, really wasn’t cut out to lead a military unit. The bank manager seems to be acting out his fantasy of military command.
Ian Lavender, 72, is now the only surviving member of the original cast. He says that Dad’s Army’s continued popularity is a “continuous pleasant shock.” He thinks it’s because the show was written to have universal appeal, where a lot of today’s shows aren’t meant for all the family and have only a niche market.
The ironic thing was that nobody realised just how great Dad’s Army was going to be when it was first broadcast. In particular, the film critics described it as the “easiest to write ‘gag’ comedy” which was “the quickest-wearing on the ear”, according to the Daily Mail, while the Guardian described it as combining “bland sentiment with humour.”
Thankfully, their opinions were wrong, and the original series ran for nine years. In addition, a Dad’s Army film was made in 1971 by Columbia Pictures, and a second film with a different cast was made in 2016, with Toby Jones as Captain Mainwaring and Bill Nighy playing Sergeant Wilson.
Marking the 101st anniversary of the end of World War I, services at churches and cenotaphs across the UK will be paying tribute to all those brave men and women who lost their lives defending our country.
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