Saturday 12 March 2016

Dad's Army

Arthur Lowe described the year he spent in Hereford as the happiest of his life. This was the first year County Theatre, Berrington Street, Hereford hosted a full-time repertory company. Starting with Scandalmongers, on 8 October 1946, Lowe performed in a different play every week. A further 42 productions are listed on Dave Homewood’s fan-site. One of these plays was already a rep stalwart, The Ghost Train, written by Arnold Ridley. The Ghost Train was very good for Ridley: it first appeared as a Finnish movie in 1927 and was re-made – in USA, Romania, Hungary, Holland, for Arthur Askey, Germany, Denmark - at least a dozen times during the next 50 years. Lowe worked with his future wife, Joan Cooper, and Dad’s Army creator, David Croft, that season. The County is now a Gala Bingo hall.

Lowe made his movie debut in 1948. You may recall Lowe’s News of the World reporter asking Dennis Price’s Louis for his story during the penultimate scene of Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949). Lowe’s second film, Flood Tide (1948), featured John Laurie. Laurie was already an established movie actor. He’d made his debut in 1929. He’s in Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (1935), opposite Laurence Olivier in As You Like It (1936), in Olivier’s Hamlet (1948) and Richard III (1955), in Powell and Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) and I Know Where I’m Going! (1945), where Laurie also choreographed the cèilidh sequences. The execution scene in The Brothers (1947) is more memorable and macabre than any coked-up-Cockney-caper could imagine. Laurie made radio programmes with Ken Dodd during the 1960s.

By the 1960s Lowe was very busy, in the cast of Coronation Street and one of Lindsay Anderson’s regular company: This Sporting Life (1963), The White Bus (1967, edited by Kevin Brownlow, a guest of Borderlines a few years ago), winning a BAFTA for his three roles in O Lucky Man! (1973), bowing out in Britannia Hospital (1982). O Lucky Man!, Anderson’s Marxist parable, was one of the few Western films allowed on Soviet cinema screens. The comments on YouTube usually read [Something Russian] Helen Mirren. In 1968, the year Dad’s Army began on the BBC, Lowe also appeared in If…., Anderson’s call for public schoolboys to revolt against their predestinations. Other absurdist outings included the very pleasing The Bed Sitting Room (1969), the prescient satire The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer (1970), written by Peter Cook and John Cleese, and the deliciously deranged The Ruling Class (1972), as Peter O’Toole’s foul-mouthed butler. Lowe was first choice for Gielgud’s role in Arthur (1981) but Lowe’s wife vetoed his career in Hollywood. These movies represent a record of a Modern nation looking for the language to explain a period of polite social upheaval to itself. Lowe made his share of simple entertainments too: Theatre of Blood (1973), opposite Vincent Price, being the pick of them.

Graham Lord’s thorough biography of Arthur Lowe makes it clear that his theatre work was very highly regarded. Lowe received better notices than the Knights of the Realm – Gielgud, Richardson, Olivier – he shared the stage with. Of course, to Generation X, Lowe read out the Mr. Men stories and John Le Mesurier, another character actor with scores of movie appearances, narrated Bod, all that Buddhism and a frog choosing his milkshake.

‘Le Mez’ appeared in his first B-movie in 1938 and was on the telly from 1951. He turns up in plenty of British movies perfect for a wet Tuesday afternoon. I doubt he played against type in any of them. The point being that by Dad’s Army Lowe, Laurie and Le Mesurier had more than one hundred years’ worth of comic acting chops.

After its B&W beginnings, which didn’t impress Galton and Simpson, the Dad’s Army series developed into a masterclass of comic construction. David Croft pointed out that its spine was derived from the work of Will Hay. Hay is the unsung genius of British comedy. Variety star, astronomer, engineer and pilot Will Hay worked out the mechanics of a perpetual motion machine that has powered numerous comedies since the 1930s. You take three stupid men: a young (or small) idiot, a middle-aged idiot (with delusions of superiority) and an older idiot (who thinks he knows better). The three devise a plan, it fails, and two pick on the other. These ever-shifting alliances, an unstable centre of gravity, keep the comedy coming. Hay perfected the relationship in Oh, Mister Porter! (1937), its plot inspired by Ridley’s The Ghost Train. The scene where Hay, Graham Moffatt and Moore Marriott argue over the ETA of the next train is hysterical. Hay’s crowning piece of business is magnificent. The other Hay/Moffatt/Marriott movies aren’t far behind. They all feature moments of magic. In real life, Moffatt was elevated from studio call boy to Albert, the nation’s favourite working class lad; he went on to run a pub. Marriott, the archetypal old fool, is the comic equal of Hay: see him play his own father in Ask a Policeman (1939). Their exchanges – just bluster and nonsense – were timed to the split-second.

This triumvirate is at the heart of The Goodies, Last of the Summer Wine, Only Fools and Horses, Father Ted and Top Gear. Many countries have bought the Top Gear format but failed in the casting. It makes an appearance wherever three men bicker: Yes, Minister, Nightingales, Seinfeld, Peep Show.

Croft explained that Private Pike, Private Walker (a role Croft wrote for himself) and Captain Mainwaring: a naive young man, a streetwise middle-aged man and an older authority figure provided the spine. Except that Dad’s Army had a selection of daft old duffers: Capt. George Mainwaring, Sgt. Arthur Wilson, Pte. James Frazer, Pte. Charles Godfrey, LCpl. Jack Jones (though Clive Dunn was 48 years old when the show started). Most episodes concluded that they weren’t so daft and not so bad for a duffer.

It’s difficult to play slow-witted: most people don’t like to laugh at that. In the early seasons of Only Fools and Horses Rodney – and the dialling code for Peckham was RODney – looked up to his brother but suspected he had feet of clay. In later series he’s just thick, ground down. Richard ‘Stinker’ Murdoch’s portrayal of Ron Glum, in The Glums section of Frank Muir and Dennis Norden’s radio show Take It From Here, is masterful. One joke being that Murdoch was a decade older than the actor, 'Professor' Jimmy Edwards, playing his Pa. Moray Hunter’s Callum Gilhooley in Absolutely and Ruth Jones’ Linda in Nighty Night also get it right. It’s not that the lights are on but nobody’s home – it’s just that these characters are wired differently. Pete Townsend, looking back, observed that as long as Keith Moon was alive The Who had someone to blame for their misfortunes. Fortunately, in Pike’s case, his father, Sergeant Wilson, is on hand to protect him. Cleverly, Pike is the only one who doesn’t know that.

Croft stated that, in real life, Wilson would lead the troop because of his class status. Mainwaring, who wanted and was devoted to the job, would have been frustrated. That would have been a tragedy. That these roles are reversed makes it a comedy. Mainwaring’s leadership is fascinating: it teeters on the brink and yet, somehow, they always come good. There are many fictions that leave you wondering why these men continue to follow this man.

Take Gian Maria Volontè’s marvellous performance as El Chuncho Munoz, the Mexican bandit in the superb spaghetti Western A Bullet for the General (1966); a rare case of the comic relief leading the movie whilst its sociopath, Klaus Kinski’s El Santo, provides the comic relief. In The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008) Moritz Bleibtreu plays Andreas Baader in much the same way. Why do the crew of the Black Pig stick with Captain Pugwash? Well, it’s never boring. Who else would do it? In Dad’s Army Frazer knows he could but, in this corner of England, understands where he stands in the pecking order – well behind Sergeant Wilson.

Private Joe Walker does all the heavy lifting. When the plot requires it, he can lay his hands on it. It was a far trickier role in the 1970s than it appears now. There were so many affable male comic actors during this period. The Good Life used two: Richard Briers and Paul Eddington. Richard Beckinsale, in Porridge and Rising Damp, was the most likeable of them all. Rising Damp is constructed like a crane with an extremely heavy counterweight at one end – Beckinsale, Don Warrington and Frances de la Tour – which enables Leonard Rossiter’s Rigsby to go out further than anyone would have dared before. Its imitators are unwatchable because they lack the structure and the talent.

James Beck was in his early 40s; he’d built a career in theatre after National Service. The audience shouldn’t like Walker because someone his age should be serving his country, not having 'A Good War.' Beck gets away with it, in Walmington-on-Sea and in our eyes, because he provides a service. The locals appreciate him and he makes sure he keeps them on his side. Crime always increases during war-time, even and especially in Fascist countries, because the forces of law and order have been called up. In the radio version, made soon after with the original cast, the late James Beck was replaced by Graham Stark. Stark played Walker as a Cockney spiv but mislaid all of Beck’s charm. It shows the difference. Walker is doing nicely – but he knows how precarious his position is. In one episode he does join the Army – and is excited by the opportunities it offers him to steal stock – but the platoon need him more than the Armed Forces do. It turns out that Walker has a legitimate excuse to avoid armed service. I doubt this distinction would need to be established today.

War time throws together men who, under normal circumstances, would rarely cross paths. Dad’s Army yokes together nationalities and regions, social classes, age groups, cornerstones of community – school, money, food, Church and death – and forces them to work together. Godfrey represents what they are fighting for. He’s unproductive, frail and weak, cultured but rumoured to have been a Conscientious Objector during the previous war. An issue covered in another episode. In real life Ridley served and was injured during both world wars. The Nazis would have discarded him as a dead weight - and that makes him part of the Britain the platoon wish to preserve.

Of course, a bunch of old men with kitchen knives strapped to broom handles would not have lasted very long against an invasion. Their Army exercises are a series of adventures in suspended disbelief. The men, by playing soldiers, have created hope where there wasn’t much. A network has been established, small jobs taken care of. Meanwhile, the women were busy growing food, making preserves and knitting balaclavas. Hamish MacColl’s new version of Dad’s Army (Dir. Oliver Parker, 2015) has found more roles for women. I’m not convinced. The joy of Dad’s Army, much like The Last Detail (1973), is watching just how stupid a crowd of men can get when handed a project and left to their own devices.      

Robin Clarke

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