Dad's Army: the making of TV's finest, funniest half-hour

A scene from the 1971 Dad's Army film - Eyevine
A scene from the 1971 Dad's Army film - Eyevine

This piece on the creation of Dad's Army first ran in 2008, and has been republished to mark the show's 50th anniversary. Series creators Jimmy Perry and David Croft passed away in 2016 and 2011, respectively

The funniest Dad's Army episode, by common consent, is Deadly Attachment - the one with the captured U-Boat crew. It has the best one-liner ('Don't tell him, Pike'); the best comedy Nazi ('I do not vont nasty soggy chips. I vont my chips crisp und light brown'); the best hand-grenade-down-the-trousers-scene (poor Corporal Jones, inevitably); and many of the choicest character vignettes, such as the moment when brash, rude Air Warden Hodges is held at gunpoint by the Nazis, causing Private Frazer to observe: 'That's a terrrrible decision you've got tae take, Captain Mainwaring. But you must admit - you never liked the man.'

But to get to the heart of Dad's Army's lasting popularity, I'd recommend an earlier, less well known episode called Branded. It's the personal favourite of co-writer Jimmy Perry, and if you've seen it, I think you'll understand why.

Only Blackadder Goes Forth can match it for tear-inducing poignancy; and I doubt any sitcom before or since has managed to fill the viewer with quite so intense a mix of joy, mirth, misty-eyed nostalgia and heart-bursting pride.

It's the episode where the dear, gentle, weak-bladdered valetudinarian Private Godfrey (Arnold Ridley) is ostracised by his comrades after having revealed to an appalled Captain Mainwaring that he was a conscientious objector in the last war.

Never mind that Mainwaring himself only got to the Western Front in 1919 after the war was over (unlike urbane Sergeant Wilson, incidentally, who served with the Royal Artillery at Loos and Gallipoli) - it's a point of principle. If everyone took Godfrey's lily-livered approach, who would be left to stop the Nazi jackboot trampling all over Britain?

A scene from the Dad's Army 1971 Christmas special - Credit: BBC
A scene from the Dad's Army 1971 Christmas special Credit: BBC

As ever in Dad's Army, this crisis is resolved in the most charming and satisfying of ways. During a fire drill gone wrong, Captain Mainwaring is heroically rescued from a burning shed by none other than 'that damned conchie' Godfrey. Later, Mainwaring is puzzled to find a photograph of Godfrey in First World War uniform.

Godfrey explains that he volunteered as a non-combatant for the Royal Army Medical Corps. Then Mainwaring notices the Military Medal which, it turns out, Godfrey won for bringing back countless wounded men under heavy fire on the Somme. He never wears it, he says, for fear of seeming 'ostentatious'.

There is, of course, no shortage of other reasons why Dad's Army remains possibly the best and certainly the most enduring of all British sitcoms. The catchphrases: 'Don't panic!', 'Are you sure that's wise, sir?', 'We're all dooomed','Stupid boy!'. The inspired slapstick: Corporal Jones - again - being jabbed in the bum by the revolving metal figures in the town clocktower. The exquisitely nuanced relationship between the pompous, chippy middle-class bank manager Captain Mainwaring and his suave, smirking upper-class underling Sergeant Wilson (shown to best effect in the episode in which Wilson becomes an Hon. and, unlike Mainwaring, is suddenly welcomed into the golf club).

But perhaps its greatest advantage over the opposition is its perfect sense of time and place. Its wartime setting means, says Ian Lavender (Private Pike), that it has remained 'timeless' in a way contemporary sitcoms such as The Likely Lads or The Good Life haven't. What's more, it means that every episode is infused with a marvellous sense of heartwarming nostalgia. However rubbish Britain may have grown since, the underlying message runs, here at least was an era when it was truly, indisputably great.

'Well it was, wasn't it? It was our finest hour,' says Joan Le Mesurier (widow of John). 'It was the last time we were all united, and Dad's Army captures that spirit perfectly: the loyalty, the patriotism, the courage, as well as the jealousy and the cowardice. Nowadays greed seems to be the thing, with everyone wanting to be rich or famous. Back then we had only one object: to beat the Hun and stay free.'

'It captures a time when the British had something to be proud of,' says Jimmy Perry, who based the series on the period he spent aged 15 with the 19th Hertfordshire Battalion of the Home Guard. 'A time when we were right. When we were the good guys.' Or, as his co-author, David Croft, puts it: 'It's about a historic moment in our lives when we all did exceedingly well.'

Jimmy Perry at home in London, 1969 - Credit: alamy
Jimmy Perry at home in London, 1969 Credit: alamy

With hindsight, it seems strange that Dad's Army's patriotism could ever have been in doubt. Yet such was the predominant fear among BBC executives in the months leading to the show's first broadcast on 31 July, 1968. It might have been the era of LSD and Paint it Black but for many, if not most, of the BBC's audience, the Second World War might have happened yesterday. 'Are we making mock of Britain's Finest Hour?' the BBC's Head of Light Entertainment Tom Sloan wanted to know.

Though his answer, once he'd read the scripts, was 'No', this didn't stop a nervous BBC taking further precautions. The first episode begins with a clunky flash-forward to the 1968 present where the now-elderly platoon members are gathered in front of a Union flag at an 'I'm Backing Britain' dinner. Only after this hefty nudge - inserted at the insistence of the BBC's controller Paul Fox - was the comedy proper allowed to begin.

It would be an exaggeration to say the show was an instant hit, but critics and audiences at least recognised its potential. 'Liable to bring a smile and a tear to every lover of England and Ealing,' wrote Tom Stoppard in The Observer; 'Nice period style,' said Philip Purser in this newspaper; The Times, however, quibbled that it appeared 'afraid of making too much fun of a hallowed wartime institution'. But after a few more episodes, most doubts had gone. Audience figures grew, from 8.2 million in 1968 to about 16.3 million by the end of 1972. And so it came about, 40 years ago this month, that a comedy legend was born.

The Dad's Army cast in 1973 - Credit: hulton
The Dad's Army cast in 1973 Credit: hulton

The idea was Jimmy Perry's. an impoverished repertory actor with a background including Butlins and wartime concert parties (later used to great effect in the sitcoms Hi-de-Hi! and It Aint 'Alf Hot Mum ), he'd reached 42 and was growing desperate. 'I'd had 20 years of struggle and I thought: "I've had enough of this. I need to write myself a part on TV."'

Within a few years, this act of desperation would make Perry a rich man. 'Not as rich as a lot of people think. But comfortably off. David [Croft] and I own the copyright to nearly 300 shows. We're lucky enough to have signed the old-style BBC contract. You'd never be allowed copyright nowadays.'

It came to him one summer morning in 1967 when, wandering through St James's Park in London, he heard the band playing at Changing the Guard. All of a sudden, he remembered a scene he'd witnessed 26 years earlier: the proud men of the Home Guard in their khaki denim, parading before Buckingham Palace.

Much of the material for the sitcom he planned to call The Fighting Tigers already existed in his memory: the elderly lance-corporal who'd fought for Lord Kitchener against the 'Fuzzy Wuzzies'; the ill-fitting costumes and comically makeshift weapons; the lectures on how to tackle tanks with burning blankets; the callow youth he himself had been with a protective mother ever anxious that he'd catch a cold while out on night manoeuvres.

The part he wrote for himself was that of the amiable cockney spiv, Joe Walker. But much to his annoyance - 'I always resented it. Always' - the BBC had told him he could either act in the sitcom or write it, but not both. By this stage, he'd teamed up with Croft, an experienced director and producer of television comedy who had recognised at once that Perry's idea was 'terrific' but that it needed a pro to tighten it up.

Clive Dunn as Cpt Jones
Clive Dunn as Cpt Jones

They came from similar backgrounds: both had been to public school (and been 'flogged mercilessly', says Perry); both had seen wartime service in the Royal Artillery; both had been professional singers and actors and worked in holiday camps. The main difference was one of personal style: Croft (an ex-major) being cool and disciplined; Perry (an ex-sergeant), warm and excitable. 'David would treat us like a lot of schoolboys,' recalls Bill Pertwee, who played Hodges. 'He was very much the major, and nobody dared take liberties with him. Whereas Jimmy was more the worrier. He'd say things like: 'In that scene he's wearing brown laces with black boots, we can't have that.'

Their working relationship was never less than excellent. 'It was just us. Jimmy would write one episode, I'd write the next. We'd always see eye to eye,' says Croft.

At a glance | Dad’s Army
At a glance | Dad’s Army

'No, we never had a row,' says Perry, who could write an episode in three days. 'We couldn't afford to. There was too much money at stake.'

By the time the show was ready for casting, several key changes had been made, mostly at the instigation of the BBC's sharp, bearded Head of Comedy, Michael 'Dark Satanic' Mills. The Fighting Tigers was changed to Dad's Army, 'Brightsea-on-Sea to Walmington-on-Sea', and 'Private Jim Duck' to 'Private Frazer'. Now all it needed was an ensemble of game, ageing thespians.

Here Croft was at a huge advantage, being both married to the casting agent Anne Callender, and having a ready-made stable of trusted regulars from his early 1960s sitcoms Hugh And I and Beggar my Neighbour. Among them were James Beck (Walker), Arnold Ridley (Godfrey) and Bill Pertwee (Hodges). Young Ian Lavender, meanwhile, got the role of Pike thanks to the happy accident of having just signed up as one of Callender's clients.

Arthur Lowe and John Le Mesurier during rehearsals for the 1965 Royal Command Performance - Credit: HULTON ARCHIVE
Arthur Lowe and John Le Mesurier during rehearsals for the 1965 Royal Command Performance Credit: HULTON ARCHIVE

For the role of the pompous, fussy Captain Mainwaring, Perry always knew he wanted Arthur Lowe, who had played a similar character in Coronation Street, but Croft needed convincing. An introductory meeting did not go well: 'I hope it's not going to be one of those silly programmes. The sort of show I hate is Hugh and I,' said Lowe to Croft, who had made 80 episodes of Hugh and I. Somehow he still landed the job.

Sergeant Wilson was cast at the behest of 'Dark Satanic' Mills: 'You must have John Le Mesurier,' he said. 'He suffers so well.' Though unimpressed with the fee - his agent haggled it up to £262 10s per episode, £52 10s more than Clive Dunn and Arthur Lowe - 'Le Mez' was intrigued by the idea of being asked to play a sergeant when more usually he was considered officer material. The role was a deliberate piece of anti-stereotyping by Perry. As a sergeant during the war, he'd grown sick of people hearing his accent and then asking: 'But why on earth aren't you an officer?'

Neither Lowe nor Wilson was greatly dissimilar to the characters they played. 'Arthur [Lowe] was the boss, even among the cast. Authoritarian, but with a marvellous sense of humour,' says Joan Le Mesurier. 'And of all the roles John played, Sergeant Wilson was closest to the real John: well mannered, quiet, diffident, charming. He never wanted the limelight. He preferred to be like the bass player in a band.'

Pertwee recalls their different approaches. 'John was always very laid-back. He'd turn up for a morning call having been drinking at Ronnie Scott's till six in the morning, word-perfect. This was maddening for Arthur, who was never too sure of his lines.'

Jimmy Perry and David Croft in 2016 - Credit: PA
Jimmy Perry and David Croft in 2016 Credit: PA

One day, in despair, Croft gave Lowe three copies of the script, so that even if he lost one on the bus and one on the Tube, he'd still have a spare one to learn at home. 'Take the script home?' Lowe spluttered. 'I wouldn't have that rubbish in my house!'

This was typical of the cast's irreverent banter during their filming sessions in London and on location in Thetford, Norfolk. Most had seen military service and soon reverted to bolshie type. 'There was always a competition to see who could be last to fall in for the line-ups,' says Croft.

A series would take 10 weeks to film. 'Everyone took their time. There was no rush to do anything,' says Pertwee. But then, by 1971 the cast's combined age was 524, and there was only so much they could endure. Particularly frail was Arnold Ridley (born 1896), who'd been bayoneted in his left arm at the Somme. 'He never talked about it,' says his son Nicholas. 'So it came as quite a surprise to learn recently that this rather gentle man had been part of a squad whose function it was to bomb and bayonet their way up the German trenches.'

Dad's Army came at just the right time for Ridley, who had had a huge West End hit in 1925 with his play The Ghost Train, only to lose everything after his film company went bust, and he was forced to sell the rights to the play to avoid bankruptcy. 'Throughout my childhood we were extremely strapped financially,' says Nicholas. 'That £62 he was suddenly getting per episode completely transformed his life. It gave my father and mother the financial security they needed in their old age.'

For others, it was a comedown - or so John Laurie (Private Frazer) used to pretend. 'I've played every great role in the Shakespearean canon, apart from Henry VIII, because I'm too thin. I'm considered the finest speaker of verse in the country. And I end up becoming famous for doing this crap!' he'd often half-jokingly complain.

For some it was a means of revenge. Clive Dunn had wasted four years in a POW camp in Austria, which, he once said, had given his performance as the Nazi-hating, bayonet-jabbing Corporal Jones 'an added grrr'. For others it was the opportunity of a lifetime.

The 1972 episode Brain Versus Brawn - Credit: PA
The 1972 episode Brain Versus Brawn Credit: PA

'I was 21 and surrounded by these gods and demi-gods, all of them with such wonderful stories to tell,' says Lavender. 'We came from every possible acting background - music hall, variety, television, film, the classics and, in my case, nowhere. I remember David Croft saying, early on: "If only these seven men can somehow get on, we've got a hit." What no one could have banked on in those early days was just how big a hit. Perry and Croft cautiously wrote the first six episodes as a self-contained, one-off series covering the months from May to August 1940, from the formation of the Local Defence Volunteers to the Battle of Britain. 'If I'd had any conception that the show was going to run for nine series,' Croft has said, 'I would have moved things forward at a slower pace,'

But having so much space to fill over the years left the writers free to head off at all sorts of interesting tangents, allowing their scriptwriting to achieve new levels of character detail, variety and sophistication. Croft's favourite episode - and it is indeed another classic - is Mum's Army, where henpecked Mainwaring experiences his own Brief Encounter moment via a platonic affair with the fragrant Fiona Gray (Carmen Silvera). Inevitably, they part with unbearable poignancy on a steam-filled railway platform. 'Look, Fiona, I've never begged anything from anybody in my life, but I'm begging you not to go,' pleads Mainwaring. 'I'm sorry, George,' says Mrs Gray.

Ian Lavender, photographed in 2018 - Credit: Andrew Crowley
Ian Lavender, photographed in 2018 Credit: Andrew Crowley

By the mid-1970s the show was a national institution with audiences sometimes in excess of 18 million. 'I knew we'd truly made it when we were asked to appear at a Royal Command Performance,' says Perry. 'We were lined up afterwards and Prince Philip came up to me and said: "What marvellous chaps they all are. Do they play the giddy goat, do they?"'

John Le Mesurier, who'd been telling friends from the start that the show was bound to be a flop ('It was a reverse superstition he had,' explains Joan. 'Always expect the worst because then it might not happen'), was forced to revise his judgment after 10 years of constant success. By that stage, unfortunately, he'd been ordered off alcohol on strict doctor's orders - an issue he found especially inconvenient when he had to join the rest of the Dad's Army cast at a Bafta awards ceremony. To cheer himself up, he arrived instead with a large pre-rolled joint which he smoked at his table. 'It's all right darling,' he said, when Joan expressed her concerns. 'No one's going to bother when they see it's me.'

What surprises the surviving members is how popular the show remains today. 'I still get 10 or 12 letters a week, most of them from children,' says Pertwee.

'Everywhere I go these days I'm hailed like the Second Coming,' says Perry.

But, I asked Ian Lavender, has it not made everything afterwards seem a bit of an anti-climax? 'If you went to any young actor and offered him the chance of appearing in a series which was not just a huge hit in its time but which people would still be talking about 40 years later, I think he'd say: "I'll risk that anti-climax."'