Visiting Ian Lavender’s rural home is a bit like stumbling upon a Dad’s Army location. The pretty Suffolk village, with its timber-framed houses, tea rooms and 12th-century church, is exactly the little England that his famous character, Private Frank Pike, and the Home Guard were fighting for.
In fact, it’s just a few miles from where the cast was filmed grappling with German airmen who’d crashed in a reservoir, and where Jones dangled from a windmill – although most of those sunny location shoots happened across the border in Norfolk, around the market town town of Thetford.
Radio Times is meeting the genial and generous actor, 72, to celebrate Dad’s Army’s 50th anniversary. The wartime sitcom by Jimmy Perry and David Croft ran for 80 episodes from 1968 to 1977, hitting highs of 18.6 million viewers, but fans have kept it alive and repeats continue to play on BBC2 – where up to two million still watch on Saturday nights – and now, aptly, on Gold.
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Its legacy of lovable characters and memorable catchphrases sets it higher on the totem pole than almost any other comedy. It spawned two films, a radio series, biopic, stage play… even a board game. So does the butt of one of British TV’s most famous one-liners (and we’ll get to that) know why Dad’s Army is such a trouper?
“It was the typical show that all the family could watch at the same time in the same room – there are not many of those about at the moment,” says Lavender, who lives with Miki, his wife of 25 years. He has two sons from his first marriage (“Dan’s in Vancouver, Sam’s with Film4”) and two granddaughters.
“It’s TV pantomime really, where there’s something for every gender and every age group to enjoy. And for the kids who keep joining the repeat audiences, there’s a lot of silly old men making fools of themselves.”
Not that the cast in 1968 had an inkling of the success to come. Lavender, living in London then, remembers watching the first episode on BBC1 (Gold is showing it this week on the same date, 31 July, and same time, 8.20pm). “I went down North End Road the next morning expecting people to go, ‘Oh, look, it’s him!’ Not a thing. Not a thing!” he laughs. “And what press there was wasn’t good, was it? It was damning with very faint praise.”
But Radio Times saw the potential immediately, proclaiming, “The fun itself is timeless”, and within eight months the initial audience of seven million had doubled. By 1970 even the initially sceptical BBC1 controller Paul Fox had sent a congratulatory letter to David Croft.
Born in Birmingham in 1946, Lavender was 50 years younger than some of his co-stars (he is the last surviving member of the platoon, though Frank “the Vicar” Williams is still working at 87), but he did have some knowledge of the war: his father was a station sergeant with the police, liaising with both the Home Guard and Army bomb disposal unit.
He appeared in school dramas before attending Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, and his first TV role was an ITV play called Flowers at My Feet in 1968. “It was essentially this three-hander with Jane Hylton, Angela Baddeley and myself. Loved it. Terrific. But they [the producers] then started phoning my agent and saying, ‘Will he change his name?’ ‘No, why should he?’ ‘Well, they don’t want to put Ian Lavender in Flowers at My Feet. Could he change his Lavender?’ ‘No!’ We refused. But I had no idea it was the leading role and whoever it was that dropped out, I’ve always been terribly thankful to him.”
The making of Private Pike
That same year came Lavender’s date with destiny, auditioning as mollycoddled Home Guard recruit Frank Pike. “I was sent to meet this man, [co-writer and director] David Croft, and I went back three times to see him. We went from one to two to three foolscap pages. In retrospect, I think what David did was to put the lines from every episode onto three pieces of paper.
“I had a phone call to contact my agent, and she said, ‘You’ve got it!’ ‘Oh, lovely!’ The engagement was for one series only at that stage. “It meant I didn’t have to take a job going into rep in Leicester, and I could stay in London with my girlfriend and friends. But it was a bit of a shock that it was a comedy. I’d only ever done restoration comedy at school.”
And Lavender remembers another shock that was delivered by his agent, Ann Callender. “She said, ‘David Croft is my husband. You got the interview because of me; you got the part because David wants you. But remember one thing: he can always write you out!’ So, I have been able to say all along that my agent was sleeping with the director. Quite successfully – they had seven children!”
He was 22 when he joined the cast of well-known faces and voices. “It was terrifying,” recalls Lavender. “I knew them all, except Jimmy Beck, and I thought, ‘Bloody hellfire, I’m going to be working with them!’ I was so green I didn’t know we weren’t going to come back from filming that night. That we’d actually be staying in this place called Thetford. So I had to rush home and pack a bag.”
But Lavender struck gold with such experienced mentors: “They looked after me right from the word go. Literally I would sit at their feet. I was the sprog, I was the junior. After dinner in the hotel, four or five people would sit in the lounge, and the circle enlarged as people came back, and sometimes there would be 30 or 40 people in a circle. I would sit on the floor, listening to their stories, about life and the theatre.”
Although he found John Laurie (Private Frazer) “a bit dour” on their first meeting, he adds, “He was a glorious man, I loved him. I suppose of them all he was the one I was closest to.” Lavender lapses into Laurie’s Dumfries burr to re-enact one exchange during a filming break: “‘Son, what’s this crap you’re doing?’ ‘It’s the crossword… the Telegraph.’ ‘I want you to buy The Times, and we will meet in the café at ten o’clock and I will teach you how to do it.’
“So I’d meet him for a cup of coffee and he taught me. It was like a crossword version of your father teaching you to ride a two-wheeler bike – you think he’s still holding it and he’s let you go… ‘You see! You’ve done it! You don’t need me any more.’ Oh, he was absolutely gorgeous.” Such was their rapport that Laurie later became godfather to Lavender’s sons.
A tip from the top
The young actor was also fond of Captain Mainwaring himself, Arthur Lowe. “In the second series, Arthur came to me in rehearsal and said, ‘Don’t worry if the late nights aren’t there. They’ll come. In the meantime, get yourself a funny costume and stand by me.’ Lavender remains astonished at the leading man’s generosity. “Photobombing it’s called now, isn’t it?”
When looking for that funny outfit for Pike, Lavender chose a scarf from the BBC costume department, one that reflected the actor’s boyhood allegiance to Aston Villa FC. “It was just a link with where I came from. I honestly didn’t know – this is how much I knew about football – that other teams would have that colour. Burnley, West Ham, Scunthorpe… but I was quite vociferous that it was a Villa scarf!
“It’s treated like a sort of relic now,” he adds, describing the time he showed the prop to audiences for his one man show. “The scarf got a round of applause. I have to work an hour just to get a round of applause but I just bring the scarf out and it gets one straightaway!”
Such was Lavender’s comedy rapport with Lowe that they would conspire in the engineering of a fan favourite: Mainwaring’s trademark skewed cap and glasses. “We’d get such fun out of it… he’d fall over or stumble into my arms, he’d do the glasses and I’d do the hat. That became as much of a running gag as ‘They don’t like it up em’ or whatever.”
The fall guy
In early episodes Pike comes across as eager and bright, so was a decision arrived at to make him the fall guy, the “stupid boy” that creator Jimmy Perry’s father had called him when he was young? “I don’t think so. I always maintain that Pike wasn’t an idiot, he was naive. And that more often than not, he was right.
“I talked to David when particular things came up: ‘Why have you got me suddenly sucking my thumb? I’ve never sucked my thumb in any other episode and now there’s an episode with me sucking my thumb.’ And he looked at me and said, ‘Because it’s funny!'”
And it was clear that if a more energetic stunt was required, then that task would befall the younger members of the cast. “Bill Pertwee and Clive Dunn and I had our wetsuits brought in the costume wagon when we went off filming. ‘Is there anything involving water?’ we would ask. ‘No, we put it in just in case!’”
Do tell us, Pike!
And then, of course, there’s Dad’s Army’s most famous episode, The Deadly Attachment, in which the Home Guard are detailed to keep a German U-boat crew under armed guard, and Pike, balanced on a stepladder, covers the prisoners with a tommy gun. The gag that tops the bill, “Don’t tell him, Pike”, has entered sitcom immortality. Declared the funniest comedy line ever in a 2017 poll, it’s also just been voted the show’s best moment in RadioTimes.com’s online poll.
But what does Lavender remember of the scene, recorded on 22 June, 1973. “We were all agreed it was one of those lines you can’t do a retake of. I went to David Croft after the camera rehearsal and said, ‘Please can you cut away to somebody else? I can’t keep a straight face.’ And he said, ‘I will happily go somewhere else if you can tell me where… No, I have to come to you, I can’t go anywhere else. It’s got to be you. Do your best.’”
On the night, the situation was compounded by a small mistake. “Arthur started to fluff the line before it – ‘Not like the… not like the cheerful discipline of our own jolly jack… jack tars’ – it’s because he knows this punchline is coming up and he doesn’t want to mess up. So I start to grin [mimes biting his cheek], and in the end the blood did flow, purely because I found it so funny.”
Does Lavender feel lumbered by the line? “Only to the extent that people say to me, ‘Go on, say the line.’ What line? I didn’t say anything! Or they get the line wrong: ‘Don’t tell him your name, Pike!’”
So does he have a favourite episode? “It’s got to be Ring Dem Bells I suppose. Because I got to dress up; it was great fun. For a week John Le Mesurier and I had these comfortable costumes. It was great fun. And David said, ‘Just stick your head out of the van. Do what you want.'”
It was around this time that Lavender met Michele (Miki) Hardy, whom he later married in 1993. “We met on the stage show of Dad’s Army. She was choreographing as Sheila O’Neill’s assistant and she said, ‘Why have we got all these old men?’ She’d never seen it!”
The A team
One thing that annoys Lavender is any suggestion that there were feuds between cast members. The relaxed rehearsal shot below, for instance, taken for the first-series episode The Enemy within the Gates in 1968, gives the lie to the notion that John Laurie (Frazer) and Arnold Ridley (Godfrey) did not get on.
Ian Lavender elaborates: “In the hotel while we were filming, you’d turn round and they were sitting in the corner, just the two of them at a table, head to head. And I think you could guarantee that 75 per cent of the time they were talking about the First World War. They both had terrible wars. I mean, John told me things that he’d not even told his wife or his daughter.”
Indeed, both Laurie and Ridley fought in the terrible carnage of the Somme – the latter was wounded three times before he was discharged in 1917.
A soldier’s farewell
Lavender remembers the moment they knew Dad’s Army was all over. Just a month after recording what proved to be the final episode, Never Too Old in 1977, Edward “Teddy” Sinclair, who played the Verger, died. “We were all at the funeral, and at Teddy’s house, standing at the French windows looking into the garden. David was there and he said, ‘I think that’s it, don’t you?’ And we all said yes. We’d gone through losing Jimmy Beck [in 1974] and a lot of us didn’t think we could really totally get over that.”
Does Lavender like the Dad’s Army films that were made? The first, released in 1971, featured most of the same cast but Columbia Pictures replaced Janet Davies, who played Pike’s mum in the series, with Liz Fraser. “None of us really liked the first movie. I knew Liz well and nobody had a thing against her, but why wasn’t Jan playing my mother? She was lovely.”
He is more of a fan of the 2016 big-screen Dad’s Army, even though all the main roles were taken by other actors: Mainwaring by Toby Jones, Wilson by Bill Nighy and Pike by Blake “The Inbetweeners” Harrison. Lavender did make a cameo, however, as a brigadier, while Frank Williams reprised his TV role as the Vicar.
“I really liked it. The gathering together of such a cast was an enormous compliment to the whole thing. I’m not sure about them actually meeting the enemy in anger. My jury is still out on that…”
Another kind of Square bashing
On stage Lavender went on to appear in musicals (The Rocky Horror Show and The Mikado) and with Dustin Hoffman in The Merchant of Venice, while on TV he was in Rising Damp, Yes Minister and Casualty. A high-profile role in the early noughties was EastEnders’ Derek Harkinson, a gay friend of Pauline Fowler (Lavender’s real-life friend Wendy Richard, who’d guest-starred in Dad’s Army).
“I also knew June Brown and Derek Martin… so that was extremely helpful just going on the first day and seeing well-known, experienced actors. Because you’re just dropped in it, there’s no sort of welcome or ‘how do you do?’, just a first read-through and into the show… yes, it made going in very easy, knowing half a dozen of them.
“I enjoyed it immensely. I’ve got nothing but admiration for all the soaps, for the getting on to the screen of three and four episodes a week. The pure discipline of that; everybody’s got to do their job. Sadly, most of the time it’s let down by the actors who haven’t done their homework.”
Lavender returned to Walford in 2016 only to leave again last year. While taking part in Channel 5’s A Celebrity Taste of Italy he became seriously ill with sepsis, and is still in recovery. He has previously overcome cancer and a heart attack. So although he would go back to the soap if asked, he adds, “I don’t think they could get me insured now. A couple of days here and there but not to go in.”
Did Dad’s Army prevent him getting other work, initially? “No. It stopped me getting a type of work. I was typecast. I wasn’t character-cast. Whereas plenty of mates who were in straight series – Z Cars and that sort of thing – couldn’t get arrested afterwards. Even Pat Phoenix when she left Coronation Street to do her own production of Gaslight – and she was wonderful – they didn’t want to know. They wanted to see Elsie Tanner.
“I was expected to be funny; I wasn’t expected to be Pike. Whereas I still get letters about EastEnders telling me to get advice from the woman in the shop – ‘she knows what she’s talking about’.”
But summing up his balmy days in the barmy Army, Lavender says, “I am very proud of it. I am glad to be remembered for it. I have never understood why actors say, ‘It’s not the only thing I’ve done’.” And happily settles one mystery once and for all: “At the end of the last episode, I said to David Croft, ‘I just have to ask you one thing: is Uncle Arthur my father?’ And he looked at me and said, ‘Of course he is!’”
“If I had known before, it might just have coloured a few lines. It matches up with stories that were told to me at home. Just after the war a woman just along the road who had a daughter who was about a year older than me, swore blind that her husband got a weekend pass from the desert – which accounted for the daughter being born while he was in some prisoner-of-war camp!”
What memories make him smile? “Arthur Lowe ordering his bacon – crispy and firm – in the hotel at breakfast every morning. John Laurie just being his impish self everywhere and always, like a naughty little boy. David’s attempts to get Arthur to take his script home at night… Jimmy Perry’s wardrobe – my mother would have called it loud, but nothing could have been louder than his boundless enthusiasm. And, yes, I’m afraid that Arthur and Philip Madoc still make me laugh as they work the line ‘Don’t tell him Pike!'”
Lavender maintains that the creaky effects and occasional fluff are part of the show’s charm. “You look at it now and technically it’s quite archaic. Bits of bluescreen flashing through and so on. But it’s lovely to see bits of mistakes. That’s rather endearing.
“When they came to digitise them, someone I know was given the job of tidying them up and I remonstrated with him. I said, ‘Why have you cut this out, or that out?’ That’s all part of the charm – it’s added in layers!”
Maybe, ultimately, the cast chemistry is the key? “I remember David telling me that he’d said to Jimmy soon after the first recording, ‘If this lot can get on, we could have a hit on our hands.’ Perhaps that’s why. We got on, with ourselves – and the audiences.”
Dad’s Army Night is on Saturday 28 July from 4.35pm on BBC2
First series episodes of Dad’s Army are shown from Tuesday 31 July at 8.20pm on Gold
The 116-page bookazine Dad’s Army at 50! A Radio Times Tribute to the Classic Series is available from your local WH Smith, priced £9.99