Earlier this year I had a family trip to the cinema to see the new Dad’s Army film. When I got home, I decided it should have been on my Reading List so I added it only to immediately tick it off.
If “Dad’s Army” means little or nothing to you, some context: Dad’s Army is a famous British sitcom that ran from 1968 to 1977 in which time there were 9 TV series and a film. It is set in a seaside town on the south coast of England during WWII and focuses on the exploits of the local Home Guard* platoon. It’s one of the best-loved British TV series of all time and repeats have been shown on BBC2 practically every Saturday night of my life so I’ve been watching it since before I can remember, understanding more and more of the innuendos and double entendres as I got older.
Sadly, since the characters were mainly old men, most of the cast are now dead giving the makers the ultimate excuse in recasting such iconic roles. The two surviving members of the original recurring cast both had cameos in the new film. Ian Lavender who played the teenage boy, Private Pike, now played an old and grandiose Brigadier and, rather brilliantly, Frank Williams reprises his role as the Vicar 40-50 years on. Here it was definitely a case of successful mimicry of the actors who had made the characters so much their own with little question of putting your own spin on it. I was, of course, worried by the prospect of a remake and how they might ruin it but the announcement of the new cast did a lot to soothe my anxieties. They obviously put a lot of effort into getting the right people for the roles, quite well-known and respected actors too: Michael Gambon (aka Dumbledore 2.0, etc.) takes the role of Private Godfrey**, Toby Jones*** does his best impression of pompous but ultimately well-meaning Captain Mainwaring and when I saw Bill Nighy had been cast as Sergeant Wilson I realised (apart from John Le Mesurier, the original actor) no one else could have been more perfect for the part.
The film follows what happens when Catherine Zeta Jones’ glamarous journalist suddenly arrives in Walmington-on-Sea (the seaside town where it’s set). A German spy, the Allied invasion of France and the threat of the platoon’s disbandment are also involved.
The film is stuffed with references, not limited to just the original show. Private Pike, always a fan of ‘the pictures’, becomes an almost permanent walking reference to classic cinema and Godfrey’s sisters are Miss Marple wannabes if ever I saw them. They range from obvious use of the many catchphrases of the characters to more subtle teasing of the show’s theme tune, Who Do You Think You Are Kidding, Mr Hitler?, in the score. A bold move by the filmmakers was to ignore the running joke that Mrs Mainwaring was never seen and introduce her as the leading the women of the local ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service – famous members included the Queen) and, to be honest, that it actually kind of worked is still baffling me. I am sure some references I only noticed subconsciously and failed to actually pick up on, there were so many and the material is so deeply ingrained in my mind that it’s hard to consciously list what the in-jokes etc. were.
Dad’s Army was a homage to the original show. It wasn’t perfect, some things felt off but other things were captured perfectly. I feel the epitome of British reserve when I say they really could have done at lot worse and mean it as quite a high compliment.
The vast majority of all the recurring characters in the original cast died within 10 years of the show ending and I do wonder what they would have thought about this new film being made almost 40 years after the finale, or about how the episodes are still shown again and again around the world. Surely one could never expect to still continuously be appearing on Saturday night prime time all this time later. All this, including the new film, is testament to the original story that they created. Whether it turned out that they told it well or not, it was that story that I was going to see in the cinema so I went prepared to laugh and so I did, I laughed so hard I cried because of a funny, funny story I’ve always known.
*Voluntary organisation that existed during WW2. The platoons consisted of those too old, too young or otherwise ineligible to join the Armed Forces proper. Their main role was that of a secondary defence force in case of invasion.
**Fun fact: Godfrey was originally played by Arnold Ridley who’s great-niece is Daisy Ridley of new Star Wars fame!
***Captain America, Doctor Who, Harry Potter (I will never get over him being the voice of Dobby), Hunger Games – he really should be quite the geek icon.