Currently enjoying its golden anniversary, and still going strong with repeats on BBC2 and Gold, Dad’s Army has comedy’s midas touch. The catchphrase-rich, character-driven wartime sitcom appeals to young and old alike – and has done since it first aired on 31 July 1968.
Everything viewers love about the show is now contained within a fast and funny touring show, the Dad’s Army Radio Hour.
Three of the TV stories by Jimmy Perry and David Croft were adapted for radio in the 1970s by Harold Snoad and Michael Knowles.
David Benson and Jack Lane perform those stories – My British Buddy, When the Balloon Went Up and The Deadly Attachment – as if for a radio recording, complete with sound effects and musical scene-changes, the difference being that they play ALL the characters.
That sounds ambitious at best and foolhardy at worst, but it’s such a smooth and skilful production – directed by Owen Lewis with sound design by Tom Lishman – that it all works like a dream. You’d be a fool to have doubted it for a single second.
It’s not just that Benson and Lane’s voices are so accurate; there is also joy in seeing them inhabit the characters so fully – the “what an awful drag” dab of the fingers to the Wilson forehead, for instance, or the “oh no, I can’t be doing with all that sort of nonsense” dismissive hand from Mainwaring.
Benson as Private Frazer rolls his eyes and his “R”s with equal gusto, while Lane whistles through his teeth to perfection as Lance Corporal Jones. And yes, we even get appearances from Mrs Fox, Mavis Pike and the Wendy Richard character, Shirley.
The Dad’s Army Radio Hour enjoyed a run in London following a sell-out stint at the Edinburgh Fringe, and has been touring nationally since last month – I caught up with it at the Norden Arts Centre in Maidenhead.
The three stories they perform are a good blend – an American visit causing a kerfuffle among the men and women of Walmington, some knockabout business with a rogue barrage balloon, and the famous tussle with a German U-boat crew, which enables the entire audience to join in with “Don’t tell him, Pike”!
There were 67 radio adaptations of Dad’s Army between 1973 and 1976, which are still being repeated to this day on Radio 4 Extra. They led to a radio-only sequel by Knowles and Snoad called It Sticks Out Half a Mile, set in 1948, in which Hodges applies for a bank loan to renovate a derelict pier. It starred Ian Lavender, John Le Mesurier, Vivienne Martin and Bill Pertwee (below).
The Dad’s Army Radio Hour taps into both the heyday of wireless comedy, and the golden age of studio sitcoms on television, and has received rave notices during its run.
“We have been stunned by the response to the show,” David Benson told RT. “As well as the usual gales of laughter, we’ve found people get very emotional about it – we had one man come 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. Barry Cryer has been twice!”
Benson came up with the idea for the stage show after being cast in a stage show based on the long-running radio series The Men from the Ministry, done with the actors holding scripts as in a radio studio.
“While Dad’s Army has recently been done as a full-cast stage show and as a movie,” adds Benson, “the brilliance of Harold Snoad and Michael Knowles’ 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.”
Catch the show while you can – David Benson and Jack Lane’s two-man Army are a comedy force to be reckoned with.
Dad’s Army Radio Hour continues on the road until 23 June. For further details go to www.seabrights.com/dads-army-radio-hour.
Dad’s Army is being celebrated by Radio Times, too: The 116-page bookazine Dad’s Army at 50! A Radio Times Tribute to the Classic Series, price £9.99, is available to buy from WH Smith. You can also order it by calling 03330 160 730, quoting RTBKS.