You may not know it, but a minor TV miracle takes place on BBC2 most Saturday nights. While much of the nation divides its attention between all-screaming, all-dancing talent circuses, a loyal platoon looks elsewhere for its entertainment. Specifically, the well-intentioned failures of a group of old soldiers. And the fact that up to two million tune in for a 46-year-old show is nothing less than astonishing.
To put that in context, that’s more than a new QI, an episode of Vic and Bob’s latest sitcom House of Fools or the finale ofThe Bridge.
But that figure is no surprise to fans of Walmington-on-Sea’s bumbling lionhearts. Dad’s Army is one of Britain’s best-loved sitcoms, its creator Jimmy Perry a national treasure. So when Perry invited us to chew the comedy cud, RT jumped at the chance.
Twinkly eyed and sharp as a pin, 90-year-old Perry proves a genial companion, a mine of information and a master raconteur.
He lives with his partner, Mary Husband, a costume designer on big BBC shows including some of Jimmy’s, and The Two Ronnies. Their west London flat carries the reminders of their impressive collected body of work, and of the massively popular series Perry wrote with David Croft: a bronze statuette of Captain Mainwaring, a framed RT front cover of Hi-de-Hi!, the Special Award he and Croft were given by Bafta in 2008…
Perry admits to being bowled over by the continuing success of his Home Guard comedy: “Isn’t it amazing? Let me tell you, I’m overwhelmed.”And not just on television but stage, too. “There’s never a week goes by that an amateur production of Dad’s Army isn’t done – all over the country.”
He adds, “People used to fight to get on Dad’s Army. It was a great compliment to David and myself. And it was just a wonderful time to make it come true.”
For more than 25 years, Perry and Croft were hard at work co-writing a string of overlapping hits: Dad’s Army, which ran for nine years and 80 episodes until 1977, then It Ain’t Half Hot Mum (1974–81) followed by Hi-de-Hi! (1980–88) and You Rang, M’Lord? (1988–93).
And for all those landmark programmes Perry drew on his life experiences: being in the Home Guard in the Second World War, sent to India and Burma with the Royal Artillery in 1945 and working as a Butlin’s Redcoat. His grandfather’s stories from when he was a butler informed much of You Rang, M’Lord?
Such authenticity is vital to Perry, who remembers the time he was at Rada, rehearsing with fellow actors, when a secret onlooker turned out to be George Bernard Shaw. “He said, ‘I enjoyed your show tremendously. I laughed a lot. But you’ve got to understand one rule of comedy: you must have reality, otherwise it’s rubbish.’”
Perry’s love affair with showbusiness began in his youth. Born in 1923, Perry was educated at independent schools in Hammersmith, London, not far from where he lives now. “The masters were all terrible derelicts from the Trench warfare. I always say rather than do my school days again I’d go through the war again – with exceptions. And there is nothing more unpleasant than 12-year-old boys. Especially middle-class ones. Arrogant little b******s. Because I had such a bad time at school my father and I would go to the Chiswick Empire, the Chelsea Palace, Hammersmith Palace, Shepherd’s Bush Empire... My mother wasn’t too keen. She liked the straight theatre.”
So Perry Sr, an antiques dealer by trade, passed on his enthusiasm to Jimmy, whose idols included “Cheeky Chappie” Max Miller and Cheerful Charlie Chester. Jimmy would later pastiche the latter’s act in a Dad’s Army cameo as stand-up Charlie Cheeseman.
“I was 14 when I was doing stand-up myself. I used to say, Don’t applaud, just throw petrol coupons. My billing was ‘Jimmy Perry: not very funny but a lot of charm’!”
Perry joined Watford Home Guard at the age of 16 – he subsequently based the character of Private Frank Pike on himself. “You stupid boy”, the put-down Pike often found himself on the wrong end of, is what Perry’s father said to him when he declared his ambition to be an actor or comedian. But he loved his time with the Home Guard, when he was taught by First World War veterans, and later joined the Royal Artillery.
Returning from India after the war, Perry recalls the reaction from his officer on his determination to become an actor. “He said, ‘That’s rather dodgy, isn’t it? I mean, what sort of life is that?’” Nevertheless he got into Rada (“on a subsidy of six pounds, ten shillings a week”), along with Joan Collins, Lionel Jeffries and Robert Shaw.
But it was another Rada student, Ann Callender, who was to prove most influential to Perry’s career. As well as becoming Perry’s agent, she married David Croft, a TV producer. “She used to drag him along to see me sing in some musical or other. I don’t know if it was out of sympathy but I got into a series called Hugh and I.” This was a comedy starring Terry Scott and Hugh Lloyd that Croft produced for the BBC.
Now on Croft’s radar, Perry gave him scripts for a new show he’d thought of. Croft liked them and Dad’s Army was born. It was to have been called The Fighting Tigers but the then head of comedy Michael Mills changed it.
Although Perry says the BBC was “tinged with snobbery”, he insists that it was a liberating environment to work in. “Young writers could work without being harassed. We were left alone.”
As an aside, Perry recalls that David Attenborough was controller of BBC2 at the time Dad’s Army came together. “I was in his office one day. He said, ‘Jimmy I’ve had enough of this, I must get back to the field.’ And he loved being in the jungle. He is without a doubt the nicest person I ever met in my life. He’s not smarmy, just a genuine guy."
“But Dad’s Army was so easy to work on,” continues Perry, who speaks with affection of his dream cast of players. “I liked them all. After about ten episodes, people drifted into the parts as themselves… and it worked.
“Dear old Arnold Ridley [Private Godfrey]. He had this terrible bayonet wound right up his arm [from fighting at the Somme in the First World War]. He couldn’t put any pressure on it. And we used to film him from a special angle... look after him. David Croft was so good like that. He always looked after old artists.
“John Le Mesurier [Sergeant Wilson] was such a nice man. But if I said, ‘John, pick it up a bit’, he’d say, ‘Oh don’t nag me, dear boy’.
“I got on very well with Arthur Lowe [Captain Mainwaring]. He and I had done years of weekly rep that don’t exist now. Arthur loved his food.We had location caterers. About 4 o’clock, we would break for tea. But before that time they’d start laying out the teas. Anyhow Arthur said, ‘James, just one thing: make sure we have Mr Kipling cakes for tea. Last time that boy didn’t order the cakes and had to go down to the village and get some from the bakery. They were very poor quality. I can’t have that sort of thing.’ Amazing man. He could be very grumpy but I was very fond of him.
“John Laurie [Private Frazer] used to say, ‘You know, James, you’re illiterate! I suppose you went to one of them Sassenach schools.’ I loved him but he never stopped insulting me. And he had it in for Arthur. We were so privileged to have John in our team, reinforcing it.He said, ‘I’ve had a wonderful career, I’ve worked at the Old Vic with Ralph Richardson, I’ve played Hamlet, I’ve done everything, I’ve made 100 films and I have to wait till the age of 73 to become famous playing in this crap.’”
And Perry is never less than generous when talking of his co-writer, who also produced the show. “He was an amazing man, David. We got on well together.”
Not that it was always plain sailing. “I must be honest: sometimes he got on my nerves. But never did we have a row.” To draw a parallel, Perry talks of Gilbert and Sullivan and their 50/50 ownership of London’s Savoy Theatre, and when one ordered a carpet that the other objected to, it led to a court case. “Whenever things got a bit difficult between us, David would say, ‘I hope this isn’t going to be another Savoy carpet.’ I said, ‘No it isn’t, David, because we’re both earning too much money together!’”
As for the actual mechanics of writing TV comedy, Perry and Croft would set up a tape recorder on a table to record their discussions and they took it in turns to write them up. “We always wrote by hand.
“We had a rule, that if I wanted something he didn’t like, I wouldn’t push it. And if he wanted something that I didn’t like, he didn’t push it.” And the key ingredient was basing the action on fact. “I don’t understand why other comedy writers don’t do what David and I did. What do young writers do who haven’t done any living? They’ve got nothing to write about. I never sit down with a blank sheet of paper unless I’ve got plenty in my head. And I always steer away from people who think it would be a good thing to be a comedy writer because of the money.”
Recognition for their work came in 1978 in the form of OBEs. Croft died in 2011, aged 89.
Music is something that runs through much of Perry’s comedy. With help from a musician he wrote the theme tunes to all his hit series (Dad’s Army even won an Ivor Novello Award), and in the 1990s he wrote a stage musical called That’s Showbiz, for which he tried to multi-task. “It was at the Wimbledon Theatre for a week and lost me a lot of money. But that was my ego – I never did that again – to try and do everything.” And prior to Dad’s Army he ran the Palace Theatre Watford and had his own company, which included a young Glenda Jackson.
But what does Perry think of today’s sitcoms? “I love Mrs Brown’s Boys because it’s so showbizzy. They break every rule in the book. And that one with two old queens bickering, Vicious. Also Count Arthur Strong. It’s so funny when he keeps going through his turn.” As for drama, EastEnders impresses him, even though “they’re all so bloody cross with each other.”
From his own CV, however, Perry’s favourite is not Dad’s Army but It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, based on his experiences in the regular Army. “I was a sergeant in the Artillery in the Far East”. Stationed in Deolali, India, he was then moved to Burma, and ended up in a Forces concert party. “My time in India was amazing.”
Although disappointed at the BBC’s failure to repeat the show, which ran for seven years and attracted 15 million at its peak, he refutes suggestions the sitcom is politically incorrect. It courted controversy for employing an English actor, Michael Bates, to play an ethnic character (Rangi Ram) with the aid of make-up, a common practice in the 1970s. In fact Bates was born in India and spoke fluent Urdu. Perry is sad the series falls foul of modern sensibilities and that the show he considers the funniest is the one he can’t talk about. “You might as well be in Stalin’s Russia. You don’t want to upset anyone,” he laughs.
But Perry will talk about his enthusiasm for the show’s top brass, and writing domestic-style scenes for them. Colonel Reynolds and Captain Ashwood, played by Donald Hewlett and Michael Knowles, were his favourite double act. “That’s why I loved It Ain’t Half Hot Mum. They weren’t gay, they were just ordinary guys but because they were stuck out there in India they were turned into a husband and wife. I loved writing for those two.”
Other Perry favourites? The scene in which a pantomime horse rides a real horse in Hi-de-Hi! is the gag he likes the most. His favourite single character was Charlady Mabel from You Rang M’Lord? played by Barbara New. That series was something of a departure for Perry and Croft. Episodes were 50 minutes long rather than 30, the characters were often unsympathetic and it was more like a comedy drama. “I think You Rang M’Lord? was the best thing we did. We had something to say in it. Maybe they’ll bring it back.”
And then there’s the TV sitcom that never aired…
The fact that Jimmy is the same age as Radio Times reminds him of 2LO Calling, a series he wrote about the beginnings of the BBC in the 1920s. “It’s the one that got away; it could have been another Dad’s Army.” Four episodes aired on Radio 2 in 1994 but an attempt to transfer it to TV foundered. “That’s the one I was most proud, but the BBC said it was a bit old-fashioned.”
Even at 90, the creative impulse still burns bright. He’s keen to develop a script about composer Ivor Novello (“a super bloke”) as a film, and has assisted BBC2 with a series of forthcoming documentaries on his and Croft’s comedy classics.
But what of their most successful work, Dad’s Army, which drew 18 million in its heyday? Apart from a big-screen outing in 1971 and an American pilot in 1976, there have been attempts to revive it including an Australian version. “But it wouldn’t have worked. They wanted to make a funny soldier show.” More recently, he reveals, Pathé put up the money for a film but withdrew in January.
In any case, thanks to its successful repeats – and modern comics like Miranda Hart using the trademark Perry and Croft “You Have Been Watching” caption in her own series – Dad’s Army is guaranteed immortality. But to what does Perry attribute our enduring love of Captain Mainwaring and co?
“It’s because we reminded the British people of their finest hour. It had wobbly back projection and cardboard scenery, but also the truth… and great artists that brought it to life.”