Dad’s Army is a British sitcom about the Home Guard in the Second World War. It was written by Jimmy Perry and David Croft and broadcast on BBC television between 1968 and 1977. The series ran for 80 episodes in total, plus a radio series, a feature film and a stage show. The series regularly gained audiences of 18 million viewers during the 1970s and is still repeated today on BBC Two.
The British Home Guard consisted of local volunteers otherwise ineligible for military service, usually owing to age, and as such the series starred several veterans of British film, television and stage, including Arthur Lowe (1915–1982), John Le Mesurier (1912–1983), Arnold Ridley (also a veteran playwright; 1896–1984) and John Laurie (1897–1980). Relative youngsters in the regular cast were Ian Lavender (b.1946), Clive Dunn (b.1920), who was made-up to play the elderly Jones, and James Beck (1929–1973), the last-named dying suddenly part way through the programme’s long run despite being the second youngest cast member.
In 2004, Dad's Army was voted into fourth place in a BBC poll to find Britain's Best Sitcom. Previously, in a list of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes drawn up by the British Film Institute in 2000, voted for by industry professionals, it was placed thirteenth. The series has had a profound influence on popular culture in the United Kingdom, with the series' catchphrases and characters well known. It is also credited with having highlighted a hitherto forgotten aspect of defence during World War II. The Radio Times magazine listed Captain Mainwaring's "You stupid boy!" among the 25 greatest put-downs on TV .
Perry wrote the first script and gave it to David Croft while working as a minor actor in the Croft-produced sitcom Hugh and I, originally intending the role of the spiv, Walker, to be his own. Croft was impressed and sent the script to Michael Mills, Head of Comedy at the BBC. After addressing initial concerns that the programme was making fun of the efforts of the Home Guard, the series was commissioned.
In his book, Dad's Army, Graham McCann explained that the show owes a lot to Michael Mills. It was he who renamed the show Dad's Army. He did not like Brightsea-on-Sea so the location was changed to Walmington-on-Sea. He was happy with the names for the characters Mainwaring, Godfrey and Pike but not with other names and he made suggestions: Private Jim Duck became Frazer, Joe Fish became Joe Walker and Jim Jones became Jack Jones. He also suggested adding a Scot to the mix. Jimmy Perry had produced the original idea but was in need of an experienced man to see it through. Mills suggested David Croft and so the successful partnership began.
The first episode, "The Man and the Hour," began with a scene set in the 'present day' of 1968, in which Mainwaring addressed his old platoon as part of the contemporary 'I'm Backing Britain' campaign. The prologue opening was a condition imposed after initial concerns by Paul Fox, the controller of BBC 1, that it was belittling the efforts of the Home Guard. After Mainwaring relates how he had backed Britain in 1940, the episode proper began; Dad’s Army is thus told in flashback, although the final episode does not return to the then-present. Later episodes were largely self-contained, albeit referring to previous events and with additional character development.
Since the comedy was in many ways dependent for its effectiveness on the platoon’s failure to participate actively in World War II, opposition to their activities had to come from another quarter, and this generally showed itself in the form of Air Raid Precautions (ARP) Warden Hodges, although sometimes the Verger of the local church, or Captain Square and the neighbouring Eastgate Home Guard platoon. However the group did have some encounters related to the war such as downed German planes, a U-boat crew, parachutes that may have been German, and German mines.
The humour ranged from the subtle (especially in the relationship between Mainwaring and Sergeant Wilson, who also happened to be his deputy at the bank) to the slapstick (the antics of the elderly Jones being a prime example). Jones had several catchphrases, including "Don't panic!", "They don’t like it up ’em", "Permission to speak, sir", and talk about "the Fuzzy-Wuzzies". Mainwaring said "Stupid boy", in reference to Pike, in many, if not most episodes. The first series occasionally included darker humour, reflecting the fact that, especially early in the war, members of the Home Guard were woefully under-equipped and yet still prepared to have a crack at the German Army. A poignant moment to this theme occurs in "The Battle of Godfrey’s Cottage" episode, during which the platoon believes an invasion to be taking place. Mainwaring and three volunteers decide to stay at the cottage to delay any German advance, to give the rest of the platoon time to warn the town; "Of course, that will be the end of us", says Mainwaring. "We know sir", replies Frazer, before getting on with the task in hand.
The show’s theme tune, “Dad's Army#Theme song” was Jimmy Perry’s idea, intended as a gentle pastiche of wartime songs. It is not uncommon for people to assume the song dates from the war (as other music in the series does). Perry wrote the lyric himself, and composed the music with Derek Taverner. Perry persuaded one of his childhood idols, wartime entertainer Bud Flanagan, to sing the theme for 100 guineas. Flanagan died less than a year after the recording.
The version played over the opening credits differs slightly from the full version recorded by Flanagan; an abrupt but inconspicuous edit removes, for timing reasons, two lines of lyrics with a different tune: “So watch out Mr Hitler, you have met your match in us/If you think you can crush us, we’re afraid you’ve missed the bus.” Bud Flanagan’s full version appears as an Easter egg on the first series DVD release. Arthur Lowe also recorded a full version of the theme.
The closing credits feature an instrumental march version of the song played by the Band of the Coldstream Guards conducted by Captain Trevor L. Sharpe, ending with the air-raid warning siren sounding all-clear. It is accompanied by a style of credits that became a trademark of David Croft: the caption “You have been watching,” followed by vignettes of the main cast.
The series is also notable for genuine wartime songs between scenes, usually brief quotations that have some reference to the theme of the episode or the scene.
The television series lasted nine series and was broadcast over nine years, with 80 episodes in total, including three Christmas specials and an hour-long special. At its peak in the early 1970s, the programme regularly gained audiences of 18.5 million. There were also four short specials broadcast as part of Christmas Night with the Stars in 1968, 1969, 1970 and 1972.
Until 1978 the BBC (along with ITV) did not have proper archives for programmes recorded on video tape. This, combined with the cost of 2 inch Quadruplex videotape reels and no appreciation of future commercial possibilities, resulted in significant amounts of material being wiped after they were transmitted (contractual agreements at that time often allowed for one repeat showing before being wiped).
While the BBC has recovered many recordings from overseas broadcasters and private collectors, many are still missing. Dad's Army is less affected than most, but three second-series episodes are lost, and one third-series episode was filmed in colour but only exists in black and white. Two further series-two episodes were believed lost until 2001. Two lost episodes have since been performed as part of the latest stage show.
As with many British sitcoms of that era, in 1971 Dad’s Army was made into a feature film. Backers Columbia Pictures imposed arbitrary changes, such as recasting Liz Fraser as Mavis Pike and filming outdoors in Chalfont St Giles rather than Thetford, which made the cast unhappy. The director Norman Cohen, who was also responsible for the idea to make the film, was nearly fired by the studio.
Jimmy Perry and David Croft wrote the original screenplay. This was expanded by Cohen to try to make it more cinematic; Columbia executives made more changes to plot and pacing. As finally realised, two-thirds of the film consists of the creation of the platoon—this was the contribution of Perry and Croft—and the final third shows the platoon in action, rescuing hostages from the church hall where they’d been held captive by three German pilots.
Neither the cast nor Perry and Croft were happy with the result. Perry spent time arguing for changes to try to reproduce the style of the television series, but with mixed results.
The film’s UK première was on 12 March 1971 at the Columbia Theatre, London. Critical reviews were mixed, but it performed well at the UK box office. Discussions were held about a possible sequel, to be called Dad’s Army and the Secret U-Boat Base, but the project never came to fruition.
In 1975 Dad’s Army transferred to the stage as a revue, with songs, familiar scenes from the show, and individual “turns” for cast members. It was created by Roger Redfarn, who shared the same agent as the sitcom writers. Most of the principal cast transferred with it, with the exception of John Laurie (he was replaced by Hamish Roughead). Following James Beck’s death two years earlier, Walker was played by John Bardon.
Dad’s Army: A Nostalgic Music and Laughter Show of Britain’s Finest Hour opened at Billingham in County Durham on 4 September 1975 for a two-week tryout. After cuts and revisions, the show transferred to London’s West End and opened at the Shaftesbury Theatre on 2 October 1975. On the opening night there was a surprise appearance by Chesney Allen, singing the old Flanagan and Allen song Hometown with Arthur Lowe.
The show ran in the West End until February 1976, disrupted twice by bomb scares, and then toured the country until 4 September 1976. Clive Dunn was replaced for half the tour by Jack Haig (David Croft’s original first choice for the role of Corporal Jones on television). Jeffrey Holland, who went on to star in several later Croft sitcoms, also had a number of roles in the production.
The stage show, billed as Dad’s Army—The Musical, was staged in Australia and toured New Zealand in 2004-2005, starring Jon English.
In April 2007, a new stage show was announced with cast members including Leslie Grantham as Private Walker and Emmerdale actor Peter Martin as Captain Mainwaring. The production contained the episodes "A Stripe for Frazer", "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Walker", "Room at the Bottom" and "The Deadly Attachment".
Many TV episodes were remade for BBC Radio 4 with the original cast, although other actors played Walker after James Beck’s death. These radio versions were adapted by Harold Snoad and Michael Knowles and also starred John Snagge as a newsreader who would set the scene for each episode. Different actors were used for some of the minor parts; Mollie Sugden played the role of Mrs Fox and Pearl Hackney played the role of Mrs. Pike for example. The pilot episode was actually based on the revised version of events seen in the opening of the film version rather than the TV pilot. The entire radio series has been released on CD.
Knowles and Snoad also developed a radio series It Sticks Out Half a Mile, which told what happened to some of the Dad’s Army characters after the war. It was originally intended to star Arthur Lowe and John Le Mesurier reprising their Dad’s Army roles, but Lowe died shortly after recording the pilot episode, and Bill Pertwee and Ian Lavender were brought in to replace him for a 13-episode series.
Jimmy Perry wrote a radio sketch The Boy Who Saved England for the Last Night at the Paris evening broadcast on Radio 2 on 3 June 1995. It featured Ian Lavender as Pike, Bill Pertwee as Hodges, Frank Williams as the Vicar and Jimmy Perry as General Haverlock-Seabag.
Arthur Lowe, John Le Mesurier and John Laurie themselves made a cameo appearance as their Dad’s Army characters in the 1977 Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special. As Elton John is following incomprehensible instructions to find the BBC studios, he encounters them in a steam room. On leaving, Mainwaring calls him a “stupid boy.”. Earlier, Le Mesurier, Laurie, Beck, Ridley and Lavender had appeared as guests in the 22 April 1971 edition of The Morecambe and Wise Show on BBC2 playing pirates to Lowe’s captain in the Monty on the Bonty sketch. The cast also appeared in a 1970s public information film, in character but set in the modern day, showing how to cross the road safely at traffic lights.
A pilot episode for an American remake called The Rear Guard was produced by ABC and broadcast on 10 August 1976, based on the episode “The Deadly Attachment.” However, it failed to make it past the pilot stage—probably due to the fact there was never a realistic chance of a German invasion of the United States, unlike Britain.
Le Mesurier and Lowe made a final appearance in Dad's Army garb for a 1982 television commercial advertising Wispa chocolate bars. Clive Dunn made occasional appearances as Corporal Jones at 1940s themed events in the 1980s and 1990s.
As was common with popular TV series, various forms of memorabilia and merchandise were released throughout the run and continued many years after.
During its original television run, Dad’s Army was nominated for a number of British Academy Television Awards, although only won “Best Light Entertainment Production Team” in 1971. It was nominated as “Best Situation Comedy” in 1973, 1974 and 1975. Also, Arthur Lowe was frequently nominated for “Best Light Entertainment Performance” in 1970, 1971, 1973, 1975 and 1978.
In 2000, the show was voted 13th in a British Film Institute poll of industry professionals of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes. In 2004, championed by Phill Jupitus, it came fourth in the BBC poll to find Britain’s Best Sitcom with 174,138 votes.
The characters of Dad’s Army and their catchphrases are well known in the UK due to the popularity of the series when originally shown and the frequency of repeats.
Jimmy Perry recalls that before writing the sitcom, the Home Guard was a largely forgotten aspect of Britain's defence in World War II, something which the series has certainly rectified. In a 1972 Radio Times interview, Arthur Lowe expresses surprise at the programme’s success;
"We expected the show to have limited appeal, to the age group that lived through the war and the Home Guard. We didn’t expect what has happened—that children from the age of five upwards would enjoy it too.
Other productions have included characters resembling members of the Dad’s Army platoon for comic effect. The 1987 movie Hope and Glory includes a scene in which members of the Home Guard, looking like characters from Dad’s Army, bring an escaped barrage balloon under control. Similarly, characters called Mainwaring (Alec Linstead), Wilson (Terence Hardiman) and a clerk similar to Pike appear in a scene set in a 1940s bank in an episode of the 1990s time travel sitcom Goodnight Sweetheart. The central character, Gary Sparrow (played by Nicholas Lyndhurst), who is from the 1990s, is astounded to learn that the three are all members of the local Home Guard platoon, and sings some lines of “Who do you think you are kidding Mr Hitler?” at them. Some of the characters have also appeared in the comic book Jack Staff in flashbacks to the hero’s activities during the war.
Several of Ben Elton’s productions have featured characters inspired by Dad’s Army. In the Blackadder Goes Forth episode “Corporal Punishment,” two minor characters named Corporal Jones and Private Frazer are introduced. Also in this series, the title and credit music are performed by an army marching band (The Band of the 3rd Battalion The Royal Anglian Regiment), as in Dad’s Army. Many of the characters in the Ben Elton sitcom The Thin Blue Line can be compared with those of Dad’s Army. Fowler’s relationship with Grim is very similar to that of Captain Mainwaring to Warden Hodges, in that they are both on the same side yet enemies. Also, Constable Goody is rather like Private Pike in being a “stupid boy” that irritates Fowler. Similar comparisons can be drawn from many of the minor characters. In the episode Rag Week, Fowler is briefly seen walking out of a shop called “Mainwaring’s.”
Bressingham Steam & Gardens in Norfolk, England has a large Dad’s Army-themed display with replicas of the church hall and vicar’s office, Frazer’s Workshop and Funeral Directors, Swallow’s Bank, Jones’ butcher's shop, Post Office and stores, Francis Cupiss printers and David Cooke toyshop. The museum now has many of the vehicles used in the TV series in its collection including Jones’ butcher's van, motorcycles, traction engines and fire engines.
The BBC released two "Best of" DVD sets in October 2001 and September 2002, but it wasn’t until September 2004 that the full series began to be released, with the first series and the surviving episodes of the second series being released first, along with the documentary Missing Presumed Wiped. By November 2007, the entire series had been released, with the final edition featuring the specials "The Battle of the Giants" "The Love of Three Oranges" and "My Brother and I", along with various other appearances including several "Christmas Night with the Stars" sketches. The DVDs also include short individual biographical documentaries about the characters and their actors called We Are the Boys. In addition, the Columbia film adaptation is also available.