Reading Andy Sharp’s brilliant, bonkers The English Heretic Collection, I discovered – among the more predictable meditations on J.G Ballard, Witchfinder General and the numerous secret army bases dotted around England – this pearl of wisdom regarding the opening credits of everyone’s favourite Home Guard sitcom:
“They are on manoeuvre towards their ultimate fate. Corporal Jones, stumbling, looking over his shoulder for some imaginary Hun; neurasthenic from his experiences in the trenches. Jones’ much-loved catchphrase Don’t Panic! isn’t comedy gold, but a projection of the PTSD that riddles the minefield of his memories. He’s clearly triggered by the slightest emergency.”
Like all genuine pearls of wisdom (Coldplay aren’t very good, Corbyn was stitched up by the right wing of the Labour party in cahoots with the pro-Israel lobby) this is immediately obvious when pointed out to you. The penny drops. Jonesy – the terminally unfunny one – isn’t MEANT to be funny. He is a tragic figure among the parade of comic characters.
Another obvious stroke of genius, when you think about it, is that half the cast had actually been to war. Clive Dunn, who plays Corporal Jones, and John Le Mesurier (Sergeant Wilson) had both fought against the Nazis, while Arnold Ridley (Private Godfrey) and John Laurie (Private Fraser) had seen action in WWI. Ridley alone had fought in both wars (AND then, like Laurie, joined the Home Guard!) No pacifist Private Godfrey he.
Dunn, at least, was a socialist, which pissed off the Conservative Arthur Lowe/Captain Mainwaring no end. Dunn, having flirted briefly with Oswald Mosley, saw the light and voted Labour at the end of the war, thus joining the tidal wave of servicemen and women whose postal ballots brought Clement Attlee’s government to power and gave us the NHS so beloved of Boris Johnson. In a weird portent of the 2020 US election, many Tory voters – including J.G. Ballard’s grandparents – felt that the election had been stolen in some way and a putsch of sorts carried out by Labour.
Alcohol played a big part in the lives of the Dad’s Army actors. The “pompous and bumbling” Lowe was a card-carrying Tory alcoholic, which made him perfect material for Lindsay Anderson’s increasingly right-leaning trilogy of surreal satires, If, O Lucky Man and Britannia Hospital. He also gets his head sawn off by Vincent Price in the high camp horror movie sans pareil, Theatre of Blood. But it is as the lower-middle-class bank manager and military buffoon Captain Mainwaring that we remember him, just as we remember John Le Mesurier as his social and intellectual superior Sergeant Wilson.
Le Mesurier based the character of Wilson on himself, writing that he “always left a button or two undone, and had the sleeve of my battle dress slightly turned up, issued commands as if they were invitations and generally assumed a benign air of helplessness.” His second wife Hattie Jacques said his calculated vagueness was the result of his fondness for cannabis (heretic!) although Le Mesurier claimed he only smoked weed when he was off the sauce, which wasn’t very often. He plays much the same reluctant, avuncular functionary in Terry Gilliam’s criminally under-rated debut movie, Jabberwocky.
Of course, Private Pike (Ian Lavender) actually calls Sergeant Wilson “Uncle” Arthur in Dad’s Army, because Wilson is shagging Pike’s mum, and the surrogate father/son dynamic is another stroke of genius in a series constructed around profoundly real and recognisable – if slightly heretical – relationships. In real life Le M followed his marriage to the dipsomaniac June Melville by setting up home with Hattie Jacques, living in an odd (and for Le M quite painful) menage a trois with Hattie’s driver, John Schofield. He then embarked on his own affair with Joan Malin, but she left him for Tony Hancock. Talk about bad luck! Hancock was also an alcoholic – seems like you kinda had to be in those days if you wanted to do comedy – and was physically abusive to Malin, who, after attempting suicide, went back to the ever forgiving Le M. She then resumed her affair with Hancock (heretic!) and made plans to follow him to Australia, but had to put them on hold permanently when Hancock topped himself. Never mind, there was always the long-suffering John to turn back to. Despite the turmoil of his private life, Le M’s last words were “It’s all been rather lovely”, which seems to be overstating the case somewhat. But perhaps, through the fog of alcohol and weed, it had been.
As a kid, my favourite Dad’s Army character was the draft-dodging spiv Walker, played by James Beck, who drank himself to an early grave. I was only nine when he popped his clogs and after a suitable period of mourning (no, really) I switched my affections to the doddery, anti-war Private Godfrey, whose beautiful (but scarcely acknowledged) friendship with the feisty, no-nonsense, defiantly SCOTTISH Private Fraser offers a lower-rank parallel to the equally contrasting characters of Mainwaring and Wilson.
Private Godfrey was played (superbly) by playwright (and son of Bath) Arnold Ridley, who studied at Bristol University and wrote his much-loved, twice-filmed play The Ghost Train after being stranded at Mangotsfield railway station.
Laurie, for his part, was a prolific thespian (heretic!) appearing in all three of Larry Olivier’s Shakespeare films, as well as the Powell/Pressburger movies Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and I Know Where I’m Going. Allegedly, while on the Dad’s Army set, he told Ian Lavender (Private Pike) that he’d been “considered the finest Hamlet of the twenties and now I’m famous for doing this crap.”
But why be ashamed? If, O Lucky Man, Henry V, The Ghost Train, Colonel Blimp, Jabberwocky…. these are all fine British movies, cultural touchstones even, but what are any of them compared to the subtly heretical undermining of our national myths at play in Dad’s Army? Keep calm and carry on. Don’t panic. Our darkest/finest hour. The Battle of Britain. We have new enemies now, across the channel, across the pond, in our midst. Enemies both human and viral. Perhaps, some twenty or thirty years from now, if anyone is still alive, there will be a sitcom worthy of these times. A sitcom half as good as Dad’s Army.