In 1968, a new sitcom was launched on an unsuspecting world. It was set in the dark hours of the Second World War and its cast was largely made up of elderly men, portraying the bumbling but brave Home Guard of the fictional south-coast town of Walmington-on-Sea.
But despite the reservations of BBC officials, as well as discouraging market research, Radio Times knew a classic when it saw one, and promoted the show with a feature and a confidence-boosting review.
As we all know, Dad’s Army became a smash hit and a British institution; it ran for nine series and 80 episodes, and at its peak drew staggering audiences of more than 18 million.
It also turned actors like Arthur Lowe (who played Captain Mainwaring) and John Le Mesurier (Sergeant Wilson) into massive TV stars.
Now approaching its 50th birthday on 31 July, the show still regularly attracts two million to BBC2 thanks to its Saturday-night reruns, a stunning feat in today’s multichannel world. Gold has joined in the fun by showing repeats on weekdays, and as channel director Gerald Casey says, “Dad’s Army continues to show why it’s considered one of the finest sitcoms of all time, entertaining audiences and continually winning legions of new fans.”
So by way of a tribute to the veteran sitcom written by Jimmy Perry and David Croft, Radio Times has produced a 114-page bookazine (order details below), full of pictures taken at the time by RT’s staff photographer Don Smith, the memories of cast and crew, and reviews of all the episodes and Christmas sketches. There’s even a foreword by Ian Lavender, now 72, who played Private Frank Pike.
Dad’s Army at 50! A Radio Times Tribute to the Classic Series is available from WH Smith from 28 March. Look out for more details about how to order soon
We came across so many warm and evocative images that, inevitably, some had to remain in our extensive archive, such as the following picture taken on 6 May 1968, capturing the cast at ease during the dress rehearsal for the first-season story The Enemy within the Gates.
Don Smith, whose iconic black-and-white images are synonymous with Radio Times, is interviewed especially for the bookazine. Present on set for most of the stories from the very second episode to the final one in 1977, Don became a huge fan of the show. “If something’s funny, it will always be funny,” he told us, adding, “Jimmy and David were a great team, and I admired them both enormously.”
The bunting is going up right around the country to pay homage. In June, Royal Mail is issuing eight stamps depicting the lead characters including, of course, the ever-alert Lance Corporal Jones.
The Dad’s Army Museum in Thetford, Norfolk, reopens on Saturday 17 March, and has hired the Guildhall to provide extra space for its special Second World War exhibition on 28 July; Jones’s van will be on display outside.
Keeping the faith through the years, and crucial to the show’s ongoing success, has been the Dad’s Army Appreciation Society, celebrating its silver anniversary this year. The group has planned special events in May, designed a special logo (below) and is updating a companion book for release on the anniversary date – find out more here.
Paul Carpenter of the DAAS says, “We are very happy to see the programme still receiving high ratings, which shows how good-quality writing and acting can stand the test of time.”
The president of the society is Frank Williams, who played the show’s Vicar, the Rev Timothy Farthing, and when I spoke to him about the series in 2015, he said, “The amazing thing is it’s still so popular, it goes right across the age ranges – children like it and everyone up to their great-grandparents.
“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.”
Dad’s Army was also a popular radio series; 67 episodes were adapted by Harold Snoad and Michael Knowles. They first aired from 1973–5, and are still being repeated on Radio 4 Extra.
And now, two actors are playing a total of 25 characters in an acclaimed staging of these scripts, Dad’s Army Radio Hour. It’s a touring production that runs until 23 June, and the reaction it has had proves how much love people still have for the sitcom.
“We have been stunned by the response to the show,” says David Benson, who voices all the parts together with Jack Lane. “We’ve found people get very emotional about it – one man came up to us in tears after a London performance, with his wife looking rather embarrassed, telling us how much the television series had meant to him and how our show had made him made him ‘feel that they were all back with us again’, which really blew us away.
“People always say that they close their eyes during our performance and feel like the original cast is on stage before them. Joan Le Mesurier, John’s widow, gave us her enthusiastic approval, which meant the world to us. And Barry Cryer has been twice!”
Benson developed the idea after being cast in a stage show based on the long-running radio series The Men from the Ministry, performed with the actors holding scripts as they would in a radio studio. He adds, “The brilliance of Harold Snoad and Michael Knowles’s adaptations of the Croft/Perry TV scripts evoked the world of Walmington-on-Sea in the mind’s eye of each listener using words and sound effects alone. It seemed a perfect way to bring back the show with real immediacy and vitality.”
So how does Benson explain the enduring affection for the programme? “Dad’s Army is deeply nostalgic on many different levels. Not only does it evoke World War Two more vividly than contemporary newsreel footage, but it also shows us a version of ourselves that we cherish: heroism and idiocy combined – stubborn and bloody-minded but laughing at our own failings. In the age of Brexit this is still a very potent self-image!”
Radio Times, of course, was there from the start. And though most of the cast are sadly no longer with us, their fully formed characters still live and breathe and make us laugh every time the programme is on air.