Don’t tell him, Pike, but the much-loved Home Guard sitcom Dad’s Army very nearly never happened, as tonight’s comedy drama about the making of the show made clear.
Of course, as anyone with a television set or even a passing interest in classic TV will testify, it was made; but the magic of tonight’s film was the way it imbued the story of the creation of the David Croft and Jimmy Perry comedy with real tension.
From the minute Perry (Paul Ritter), frustrated at his lack of acting gigs, has a light bulb moment when he passes a parade of squaddies on training exercise in the park to his meeting with Richard Dormer’s Croft we never felt quite sure. You know, at the back of our minds.
In fact it was only when the cameras started rolling on the adored comedy that it somehow stopped feeling touch and go whether the BBC would overcome its anxieties about making a comedy about the war (which was a fairly recent memory for many people). Strange that.
It was the same with the casting tribulations. We all know that Perry wouldn’t play Walker, a role acted with perfection by James Beck (tonight played by Kevin Bishop) but we wanted him to get the role.
We felt for him when he didn’t get the gig but we understood the reasoning of David Croft, a man who went into the writing game because he was frustrated as a BBC executive. He tells Perry that this was a show where the cast needed to be a company, and if they felt he was giving himself the best lines, discord would have been sown. It was a smart decision.
Other forays into behind the scenes tensions and mishaps also contained the following gem, when Croft’s assistant pops her head round the door to tell him “Jon Pertwee says yes” to the offer of a part. Croft calls back: “Tell him what we’re paying”. She is back in a flash: “Jon Pertwee says no.” It was a joke worthy of Dad’s Army itself.
Tonight’s film was an affectionate take on a well-known story, but there were some bits of creative invention. For one thing, I gather Croft never smoked in his life, but is here shown puffing away in a perfect recreation of a late 1960s fug.
But I totally believed this was a fair representation of the main protagonists, not least because it wasn’t entirely rose-tinted.
Arthur Lowe’s personal failings (he was pompous and rather difficult) made for a perfect Captain Mainwaring, someone who could make you laugh whatever he said. But John Sessions does not skimp at his flaws when fleshing this very fleshy man out.
But there is tenderness there. Grouchy about the amount he was paid, bluff and rather rude with everyone (he initially thinks Perry is the show’s driver and not the co-writer), even Lowe couldn’t help being absorbed into the “company” that was created among the cast. There was a great scene when they are all together in the hotel bar after work and Sessions flicks the switch: Lowe smiles and he becomes the life and soul of the party.
I was also taken with Keith Allen’s Paul Fox, the legendary BBC executive who manages (just about) to rise above his personal doubts to get the show on air; Michael Mills, the supportive head of BBC comedy (and Fox’s subordinate), was played with blasts of gruff charm by Harry Peacock.
But above all this was a love story about a much-loved show. And it allowed you to wallow in its world of glorious, smoke-filled, brown coloured, big spectacled comfort for sixty glorious minutes.