Dad’s Army is comedy gold – but the BBC wasn’t always so sure

Dad’s Army is one of our finest ever sitcoms - but in an exclusive interview with Radio Times, creator Jimmy Perry explains how it almost didn't make it to air

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The adventures of Walmington-on-Sea’s creaky Home Guard are the stuff of comedy legend. In its 70s heyday, Dad’s Army attracted more than 18 million viewers, and Saturday-night repeats still regularly recruit two million, almost 40 years after the final episode aired.

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But a new fact-based drama, We’re Doomed! The Dad’s Army Story, recalls the resistance faced by Jimmy Perry and his co-writer and producer David Croft over their Second World War sitcom.

Before the show launched in 1968 the then BBC1 controller Paul Fox wrote in a memo, “I felt slightly uneasy about this series when it was first discussed.” Fox, who had served in the war with the parachute regiment, added, “I think one must be allowed to wonder whether Dad’s Army does indeed ‘advance Comedy’s output into new areas’.”

The background to all this – not mentioned in We’re Doomed! – was that Mary Whitehouse and her National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association had effectively declared war on BBC DG Sir Hugh Greene, with PM Harold Wilson appointing his own BBC chairman. So it was a risky time to introduce anything liable to cause offence.

Executives questioned the taste of a wartime comedy and were nervous about Dad’s Army’s use of archive footage in the titles – which had to be reshot.

A CLASSIC IN THE BALANCE

Talking exclusively to Radio Times, Jimmy Perry, now 92, says, “The BBC was so careful that they got market research involved.” Test screenings of the pilot episode were shown to members of the public, who were then asked for their opinions. Perry remembers, “One woman said, ‘I thought it was rubbish. The public want to forget about the war. They’re not interested. We’re fed up of having the war shoved down our throats… And that old man with the bald head doesn’t know his words!’”

Feedback was compiled and sent to the BBC. The show’s very future was in the balance, but then came David Croft’s finest hour! Perry takes up the story: “The report came in to David’s office – and it wasn’t very good. It wasn’t damning but it was very sort of lukewarm. I said, ‘What are you going to do about this, David?’ And he said, ‘I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. It goes in there…’ and he put it at the bottom of the pile in his in-tray. And as far as I know, it’ll still be there when they’re pulling the place down!”

Perry concedes that, but for his co-writer, who died in 2011, Dad’s Army might never have seen the light of day. “David was brave,” he adds.

THE ALL-CLEAR

Both Perry and Croft lived by the motto “Never take no for an answer” and, as it turned out, the first episode on 31 July 1968 was watched by seven million viewers. Critics were cautious but still predicted success – and a wise Radio Times gave the show a helping hand by saying, “although Dad’s Army is set firmly in wartime – the fun itself is timeless”. Eight months later that initial seven million had doubled. In 1970, after series three had aired, even Paul Fox wrote to Croft to thank and congratulate him for “a great hit”.

The show ran for nine years and 80 episodes, and was followed by three more Perry and Croft classics: It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, Hi-de-Hi! and You Rang, M’Lord?

David’s wife, Ann Croft, laughs at the memory of the in-tray incident. “That was true, yes!” So did David get frustrated with the BBC? “A little bit,” she says, “but he ran his own little kingdom in his own way and he never ever got angry. That’s why people liked working with him so much. And when he did come out with a statement, everybody did what they were told.”

A MEETING OF THE MINDS

We have Ann to thank for introducing the Lennon and McCartney of situation comedy, as they have been dubbed. Perry, a bit-part actor back in 1967, was frustrated at his lack of a breakthrough and wrote a sitcom based on his teenage experiences in Watford Home Guard. Ann was Perry’s agent at the time, and sent him for a role in a TV show being produced by her husband.

“My first impression of David was ‘He looks a bit strict’,” recalls Jimmy Perry, who seized the moment to present his scripts for The Fighting Tigers, as it was then known. “One thing I’m no good at is titles,” laughs Perry. But Croft liked the comedy immediately and they began working on it together. “We got on well,” adds Perry. “If he didn’t like something I suggested and I didn’t like something he suggested, we wouldn’t do it.”

The then head of comedy, Michael Mills, suggested the title change, but casting threw up a number of sticking points. As well as writing the show, Perry had wanted to play the part of the spiv character himself. It was Croft who talked him out of it, later claiming, “I wanted my co-author in the production box beside me when the show was being shot.”

Perry is amused at the memory. “I wanted to do every bloody thing! So I gave in and said, ‘Well all right, you chaps will have to get somebody else won’t you?’ And they got a man named Jimmy Beck and he was very good in it [as Walker]. But I was very cross.”

We’re Doomed!, written by Stephen Russell (Coronation Street, Shameless and Hattie), is clearly a passion project, but everyone involved knew they had to get it right. Executive producer Charlotte Surtees says, “We were acutely aware that we had our hands on the BBC’s crown jewels ­– a national treasure. We always knew we wanted it to be an unashamed romp, but a romp with heart.”

Ann Croft has seen the film and says that, despite some areas of artistic licence, “They did a beautiful job.” Richard Dormer (Fortitude) plays David Croft – the resemblance in some shots unnerved Ann at times, though she says he never smoked – while Paul Ritter (Friday Night Dinner) plays Jimmy Perry.

BARMY ARMY

As for the cast of Dad’s Army itself, the new drama shows how it could have been very different. From the beginning, Jimmy Perry wanted Arthur Lowe for the lead role, but the execs stalled, reasoning that Lowe was an unknown at the BBC. Other names in the frame were future Doctor Who Jon Pertwee and – though it is not widely known – Leonard Rossiter, who later found fame as Reginald Perrin. (Other could-have-beens include Robert Dorning as Wilson and Jack Haig or even David Jason as Jones – imagine Del Boy shouting “They don’t like it up ’em!”)

Lowe’s eventual casting still caused problems, as Harold Snoad, Croft’s production assistant on Dad’s Army, explains. “Arthur was a bit pompous. I remember the first day we went filming, we stayed overnight at the Bell Hotel at Thetford. He was the last person on the bus because he was complaining about his bacon or something, or the way it was cooked. He got on the bus and the extras at the back shouted out ‘Morning Arthur’, and he sat down beside me and said, ‘Arthur? Well, that’ll have to change.’ That’s the sort of person he was. And he was very bad about learning the script. But on the whole he was fine.”

John Le Mesurier, hired to play laid-back Sergeant Wilson, was another happy collision of character and actor. “John was very nice but he was terribly impractical,” says Snoad. “He just didn’t know how to do anything at all. I remember the first time I met him I said, ‘John, your watch has stopped,’ and he said to me, ‘Oh. Could you wind it up for me?’

“Clive Dunn [Jones] was lovely. He was great fun and very popular with everybody,” adds Snoad, who was location scout for the show, directed eight episodes and adapted 66 for radio.

Lowe, Le Mesurier and Dunn of course became household names – along with Arnold Ridley (Godfrey) John Laurie (Frazer), Ian Lavender (Pike), Bill Pertwee (Hodges) and Frank Williams (the Vicar, below right).

MORE TEA, VICAR?

Williams was one of the first actors Jimmy Perry had in mind to star in the sitcom, although the Vicar didn’t actually join it until 1969. But what was it like working for Perry and Croft? “I’ve known Jimmy from the days when he was running the repertory theatre at Watford,” says Williams, now 84, “and the great thing about him was he was always tremendously positive. If things went wrong around him he was still bouncing around and saying it would all be fine.

“David was quieter. He just kept things calm. They were both tremendously loyal to the people who worked for them.”

And which of the cast was Williams especially friendly with? “In a funny sort of way the unholy trinity of the Vicar, the Verger and the Warden! Bill Pertwee, Teddy Sinclair [the Verger] and myself did become enormously good friends. But the whole cast in my view got on well together. I wasn’t aware of any frictions.”

Williams regards the filming sessions in Norfolk as “a rather idyllic time. David Croft was known for having some sort of command over good weather!

“The amazing thing is Dad’s Army is still so popular, and it goes right across the age ranges. It does show that Jimmy and David were great writers. People have often asked me whether there was a lot of rewriting? No there wasn’t because there wasn’t any need to. They produced the goods and it was perfect.”

Jimmy Perry remembers the exact moment he knew Dad’s Army was going to work. “Bill Pertwee and I were having a drink in a pub opposite the rehearsal rooms and John Laurie was there, and we were talking about the whole series and John said, ‘Rubbish, sheer rubbish. It’ll be off within a week.’ And Bill said, ‘Well you’re wrong. This is going to be a hit… a big hit.’ And I’ve always been thankful to Bill Pertwee from the very beginning.”

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We’re Doomed! The Dad’s Army Story is on Tuesday 22nd December at 9.00pm on BBC2