With great responsibility comes great pressure.
When film-makers embarked on a new drama about the creation of Dad’s Army, they knew they were tapping into a large and loyal band of followers.
But by the same token, the details of any re-creation had to be spot-on. As executive producer Charlotte Surtees tells RT, “We were acutely aware that we had our hands on the BBC’s crown jewels. There was never a sense that we had to do the dirty, or ‘Where are the skeletons in the wardrobe?’, anything like that. We always knew we wanted it to be an unashamed romp – but a romp with heart.”
Shane Allen, controller of BBC comedy commissioning, says, “Dad’s Army is one of the true greats. Its legacy is enormous. It’s also testament to the ingredients and the alchemy that you need for great comedy: the writing, the production and the casting. [Writers] Jimmy Perry and David Croft found each other at the right time in their careers. They became the sort of Lennon and McCartney of comedy of their day.”
Despite a few areas of artistic licence, We’re Doomed! is firmly based on fact, charting the tug-of-war that Perry and Croft had with TV high-ups in bringing Dad’s Army to the screen in 1968. Casting proved to be one of the many sticking points back then, and although the process has been much smoother for this new drama, its cast was still keen to get details right, from mannerisms to hairdos.
By their own admission, “It was a very busy wig wagon”, although in the case of John Sessions, who plays Captain Mainwaring star Arthur Lowe, the shoot meant a shaved head. “It’s just great to play him,” Sessions tells RT. “It’s very unnerving to play someone you know… you’re taking your life in your hands a little bit.”
Lowe has been Sessions’ hero since he watched him playing Leonard Swindley in Coronation Street in the 60s and appearing in Lindsay Anderson’s film trilogy (If…, O Lucky Man! and Britannia Hospital).
“There’s great pressure because he’s a national treasure,” adds Sessions, who researched the part by watching footage of Lowe on YouTube. “He had a very beautiful voice, Arthur, it’s quite sonorous, even though he would fumble the lines. It was astonishing to look at the old recordings [of Dad’s Army] – he’s fluffing constantly, tripping on words, but it didn’t somehow matter. He was just so wonderfully Captain Mainwaring.”
Paul Ritter used the same research method for the role of Jimmy Perry, as did Richard Dormer who plays Perry’s co-writer and producer, David Croft.
Ritter (Friday Night Dinner) “leapt at the chance to be involved” in a biopic about Dad’s Army, which has the blessing of both Perry, now 92, and the Croft estate – David died in 2011.
“They were the odd-couple success story,” Ritter tells RT. “They had very different qualities. David was a politician and knew how to get the damn thing made. Jimmy was the ingénue but he was irrepressible. Both of them were really enthusiastic. They had a first-hand appreciation of what the war did to their generation, good and bad.”
Game of Thrones and Fortitude actor Dormer adds, “They found each other at the right time and they were two personalities that were waiting to meet and when they did, as you will see, they just kind of clicked.”
And just as the original cast generated an esprit de corps, so too did the actors playing them. They include Julian Sands as John Le Mesurier (who played Wilson in Dad’s Army), Mark Heap as Clive Dunn (Jones), Shane Richie as Bill Pertwee (Hodges) and Kevin Bishop as James Beck (Walker).
“We all got on extremely well as a company,” says Sessions. “Shane Richie and Kevin Bishop are two of the funniest guys I’ve ever met in my life and had me almost rupture myself… so incredibly funny.”
Ritter agrees that they were in entertaining company for the shoot in Northern Ireland: “There was a truly heavyweight clash of the anecdote-meisters”
Although We’re Doomed! is light in tone – as well as very funny – it makes subtle comparisons between the BBC of the 60s and today’s Corporation.
The background to Dad’s Army’s genesis – not mentioned in We’re Doomed! – is that Mary Whitehouse and her National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association had effectively declared war on BBC director-general Sir Hugh Greene, with Prime Minister Harold Wilson appointing his own BBC chairman. So the late 60s was a risky time to introduce anything liable to cause offence. Today, of course, the BBC is still under fire.
Back in 1967 the notion of a Home Guard comedy just 20 years after the Second World War ruffled feathers in the BBC hierarchy. It was felt to be in dubious taste and changes were suggested: to casting ideas, to the pilot episode and to the credit sequences.
But as We’re Doomed! producer Brett Wilson points out, “It’s striking how true and consistent the basic process is, which is that someone has an idea and then they have to go and sell that idea. In the production process there are no certainties – and that is still essentially the same.”
Wilson concedes that it’s easy when watching the film to view the bureaucratic BBC as the bad guys but, he adds, “It’s their job to be sceptical, to interrogate new ideas and make sure they are spending the public’s money wisely. That’s still true today.”
Actor John Sessions applauds director Steve Bendelack for his “astonishing job” in making We’re Doomed! on a tight schedule, and is openly critical of today’s hierarchy: “If the BBC hadn’t lost their marbles and decided to set the BBC in Salford… there might be a bit more money going around.
“I just wish the executives would stop building buildings. They are obsessed with building buildings. It makes me very cross because we have to try and do our job under much more pressure than we should have to deal with. The management culture at the BBC has become so pervasive and so money-monopolised that we’re ordering these things [programmes] on ridiculous schedules.”
Sessions claims the management structure has got “completely out of hand”, adding, “All these people with Swiftian job titles like Head of Television and Communications, whatever, drawing ridiculous sums of money. This is a public broadcasting company. It is not a PLC. The more it is treated like a corporation, the better it will be and the more chance it will have of surviving.”
So, how much has changed in the past 50 years…?
When Perry and Croft were sweating to bring Dad’s Army to the screen, the BBC top brass was so worried about the show that it even commissioned Audience Research. Before the pilot had aired, it was shown to three separate audiences who then gave their feedback, much of it negative. The resulting report was sent directly to David Croft’s office where, as We’re Doomed! shows, he buried it at the bottom of his in-tray. The report would never find its way up the chain.
It was a courageous action – hard to imagine happening today – but one that showed Croft to have the right instinct, as Dad’s Army’s subsequent elevation to classic status proved.
But there’s so much more to We’re Doomed! than a series of television in-jokes. There’s the fun of seeing a comedy classic slowly coming together, the poignancy of revelations about elderly cast members who’d been badly affected by the war themselves, and the genuine affection of a love letter to British creativity.
Shane Allen commends the writer of We’re Doomed!, Stephen Russell, for the drama’s multi-faceted approach. “You could have done a very one-dimensional 1960s W1A about this – and what Stephen has done has given it a richness and a depth to show what was at stake for all of the people at this point in their careers.”
As for why people are still watching Dad’s Army, John Sessions puts it down to “innocence. People remember their youth when they watched it the first time round. It’s a very gentle, kind comedy.”
Paul Ritter adds, “Perry and Croft created characters that leapt out at you but they also knew what to do with them… The inversion of Wilson and Mainwaring’s social status with their professional status both at the bank and the Home Guard… So simple but it’s absolutely brilliant.
“As for the question of whether Dad’s Army would survive today’s trials, tribulations and commissioning processes, I absolutely think yes because the ideas were so good.”
We’re Doomed! The Dad’s Army Story is on Tuesday 22 December at 9.00pm on BBC2