What is Dad’s Army?
Dad’s Army is a classic British sitcom which ran from 1968 to 1977 on BBC 1. The show, set during the Second World War, was based around the activities of the Home Guard (formerly Local Defence Volunteers) a reserve army unit established to slow down landing German troops in the event of a land invasion which, in 1939 and 1940, was a very real threat. The Home Guard had been largely forgotten by the time the show was conceived by writer Jimmy Perry. However Perry had been a Home Guard member in his teens (before joining the regular Army) and believed it could form the basis for a sitcom which he hoped (wrongly) might revive his flagging acting career.
The characters in Dad’s Army are mostly in late middle-age or older and this was reflected in the cast which consistent of a number of extremely experienced older actors. Whereas at this time sitcoms usually featured comedians or actors with a comedy pedigree, actors such as Arthur Lowe, John le Mesurier and John Laurie had a strong pedigree in serious drama and film. Only Clive Dunn and Bill Pertwee (whose character, Hodges, was initially a minor role) came from a comedy or variety background. The strength of this experienced ensemble cast is often credited for Dad’s Army’s success and enduring appeal. In addition the series launched the career of a young Ian Lavender, in his first job out of drama school.
The characters evolved during the development of the series, with writer Jimmy Perry admitting that many of the characteristics of the cast were absorbed into the roles they played: Arthur Lowe really was pompous, John le Mesurier was fey and helpless, John Laurie had Frazer’s tendency to predict doom and Clive Dunn was a ditherer. As Perry said, in time “Captain Mainwaring became Arthur Lowe and Arthur Lowe became Captain Mainwaring.”
Dad’s Army was the first in a series of comedy collaborations between Jimmy Perry and co-writer and producer David Croft. They would go on to work together on series such as It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, Hi-De-Hi and You Rang M’Lord all of which had historic settings, large ensemble casts (with many actors appearing in more than one of the series) and a character-driven style of comedy. They wrote the episodes independently, sharing each only when complete and it is a testament to their writing partnership that it is impossible to tell a Perry script from one by Croft – indeed there is no record, and both writers have claimed to be unable to remember, who wrote which. However there are distinct differences between the style of the comedies that Croft wrote with Perry and those he wrote with his other long-term collaborator Jeremy Lloyd. The programmes written with Lloyd (Are You Being Served, ‘Allo ‘Allo) are arguably much less subtle and depend more strongly on repeating catchphrases than those written with Perry.
Which is not to say that Dad’s Army lacked catchphrases; in fact the programme created a number which are remembered (and often used) to this day. From Captain Manwaring’s withering put-down ‘you stupid boy’ always directed at Pike, to Jones’ hysterical cry of ‘don’t panic’ and Frazer’s gloomy outburst ‘you’re doomed!’ the programme has given the language more than a few catchphrases. By the time the programme had reached its peak all the major characters and several of the supporting cast have gained at least one catchphrase to take out on patrol onto the streets of Walmington.
Although it was shot largely in Norfolk, Dad’s Army is set on the south-east coast of England in the fictional town of Walmington-on-Sea (though in the initial scripts of series one it was called Brightsea). The precise location is never made clear but from the description and reading between the lines it is likely it was somewhere towards the west of Kent or in East Sussex, placing it directly in the likely path of invasion should there have been a German invasion from northern France. The seaside town we see in exterior shots was generally land-locked Thetford (the few sea-front scenes were shot in the studio or on the Norfolk coast). We have a separate page devoted to Walmington-on-Sea.
Dad’s Army came to an end after 9 series and 80 programmes in 1977 with the episode Never Too Old – although when it was shot no decision had been made to stop filming, it was clear that this was a real possibility and Perry and Croft took the unusual step of having the cast break the fourth wall to address the viewers directly in raising a closing toast ‘to Britain’s Home Guard’. Before the series had ended there had already been a number of side projects – with specials, guest appearances on numerous other TV shows and Royal Variety Performance spots. There was also a fully staged musical adaptation which toured extensively throughout the UK. Not directly connected was the radio comedy series Parsley Sidings that ran from 1971 to 1973 and featured Arthur Lowe and Ian Lavender as the pompous station master of a sleepy railway station and his naive and gormless son – the parallels are clear. After Dad’s Army came to an end a sequel for radio was devised – It Sticks Out Half a Mile. The programme was to have featured Lowe, le Mesurier and Lavender reprising their roles in ‘a postwar saga of pier perpetuation’ as they try to salvage Frambourne Pier from dilapidation. However, shortly after recording the pilot episode Arthur Lowe sadly died. The writers then adjusted the concept, bringing in Bill Pertwee to reprise his role of Hodges, and 13 further episodes were recorded. In 1987 this concept was migrated back to television once again, in the form of ITV sitcom High and Dry though this had no involvement from anyone directly connected with Dad’s Army. Our favourite Dad’s Army spin-off is our very own tribute, The Peacetime Diaries of George Mainwaring.