A newly cast, big-screen outing for the Home Guard of Walmington-on-Sea has been a long time coming, but the balloon finally went up at a rainy but A-list world premiere in London last night.
The trip from script to screen has been full of head-shaking and tutting, and newspaper stories about how distasteful the trailers made it look. “Do you think that’s awfully wise?” came the cry.
Could it really be as bad as the press led us to believe? With a British cast as jaw-dropping as that? Well don’t panic, because there is much to enjoy in the 2016 vintage of Dad’s Army…
It’s 1944 and morale in the (reassuringly inept) platoon is low. But the men are soon perked up by a visiting journalist, Rose Winters (Catherine Zeta-Jones) from The Lady magazine, and also by the prospect of some action when reports are issued about a German spy operating in the area.
This time Toby Jones’s Captain Mainwaring and Bill Nighy’s endearingly Nighy-esque Sergeant Wilson head up the platoon of geriatrics, plus one shirker and a stroppy teen. And what a vote of confidence that cast is, with Tom Courtenay as old campaigner Jones, Bill Paterson as gloomy Frazer, Daniel Mays as ducker/diver Walker and Blake Harrison as soppy cineaste Pike. But frequently stealing the show, as the trailers suggested he might, is Michael Gambon as smiley dodderer Godfrey. Such benign otherworldliness.
Knowing that its core audience is the two to three million who watch the BBC2 repeats every Saturday night, the film-makers offer numerous treats to sweeten the deal: many of the catchphrases (delivered a little sheepishly); a cameo from the Jones the Butcher’s van; the original Pike (Ian Lavender) appearing as a brigadier; and the original vicar Frank Williams turning up as… the vicar!
There are certain things that never happened in Jimmy Perry and David Croft’s TV sitcom. For instance, you never saw Mrs Mainwaring – she was only ever a bulge in the bunk-bed, an ominous creak on the stair.
But the film is happy to break a few rules, and why not if it means having stronger female characters? To add to blowsy Mrs Fox (Alison Steadman) and a now less strident Mavis Pike (Sarah Lancashire) is an actual flesh-and-blood Mrs Mainwaring, played by Felicity Montagu as her husband’s comrade in Churchillian resolve.
Annette Crosbie and Julia Foster are delightful, too, as Cissy and Dolly Godfrey, a pair of sibling Miss Marples.
But, bearing the brunt, Toby Jones reminds us what a fine lead he is. As inhabited by Arthur Lowe, Captain Mainwaring was and remains a comedy colossus. But courageous Jones plays him his own way – less pompous but still deluded. The man just has funny bones.
As directed by Oliver Parker and written by Hamish McColl, Dad’s Army is fond, flag-waving and family-friendly, if faulty. The humour is as broad as Norfolk, not that that’s a bad thing – the TV series often came close to pantomime – but the sitcom could be subtle and poignant, too, and I wish the film had also embraced those quieter moments.
Plots twists are heavily rationed in a surprisingly comic-strip plot and there’s little sophistication on parade, but the film slowly warms to its task of celebrating a very British institution, with some genuine peril in the third reel.
The Leicester Square premiere, attended by nearly all the main cast, and guests of honour Jimmy Perry, 92, and the family of David Croft, who died in 2011, was warmly received, and seems to have gone down well with devotees. Paul Carpenter of the Dad’s Army Appreciation Society, says, “The film is written by someone who is plainly a fan of the series, and has treated it with respect for the original. If you are expecting to see Arthur Lowe and the others, then you will be disappointed. If you want to see Mainwaring and his platoon getting involved in another scrape, then sit back and enjoy.”
Dad’s Army is released in cinemas 5th February. You can read a full interview with the stars of Dad’s Army – and get a free book about the show’s history – in this week’s Radio Times, available in shops and on the newsstand…