It must be one of the most famous title sequences in British TV, even to people who have never watched Dad’s Army.
Before every episode of the classic sitcom, Union Flags clash with swastikas over northern Europe, gradually retreating back across the Channel to reflect the post-Dunkirk situation faced by Britain in 1940, and the creation of the Local Defence Volunteers or Home Guard as they were to become known.
And three years ago a brilliantly witty twist on those credits was put forward by animators working on a project to reconstruct a missing Dad’s Army episode from 1969. Using Radio Times photographs as source material, plus an audio recording that came to light in 2008, the team produced an animated version of A Stripe for Frazer.
The original idea was for the animation to be screened by BBC2, though a change of controller saw the project vetoed. But the commissioning baton was passed on to BBC Store, to whom the completed episode was delivered in early 2016.
During the project, producer Charles Norton came up with the idea of an animated BBC2 ident that the channel could use before screening repeats of Dad’s Army on Saturday nights.
Norton tells RT, “It was put together for me by a visual effects artist called Rob Ritchie, who I’ve also worked with on other things. Rob did some magnificent work on it.”
You can see the sequence below, which has never been seen by the wider world before.
Ritchie confirms: “It’s never been published aside from being stuck on my YouTube channel!”
Norton takes up the story, “When we were making the episode, we had to rebuild the opening title sequence from the original film elements in HD and widescreen. Rob did a lovely job of painting in new picture information to the left and right of the frame, so that we’d get a true widescreen image. We ended up with a really wonderful-looking remaster. It was our first big job together really, as we’d previously only worked on short documentaries for BBC East Midlands.
“Some time after, we were talking to BBC2 and BBC4 about broadcasting the episode and it just occurred to me that the way the original Dad’s Army titles were structured would lend itself well to a BBC2 ident. I thought it would be fun if we were to start in tight on the coastline of the Dad’s Army map and only as the camera pulls back, do we see that it’s actually a giant 2.
“Rob went back into the HD title elements he’d built for the BBC Store animation and spent a lot of time getting the 2 to look just right. It was important that it looked like Britain, but that it also was recognisably true to Lambie-Nairn’s famous 2 logo, which is a very specific typeface.”
Norton adds, “It was very much on-spec. I think I had some half-remembered recollection of some BBC2 Daleks that’d been done a few years before for a Doctor Who season and I think that was essentially where I was coming from with the idea.”
A design sheet provided by kind permission by Robert Ritchie. Lambie-Nairn, a branding agency before it merged into Superunion in 2017, designed the number 2 for BBC2 in 1997
Dad’s Army’s opening titles came from an idea by co-writer, producer and director David Croft. He’d been asked by BBC executives to rethink his initial concept, which featured archive war footage. The sequence was created by Colin Whitaker, a freelance animator, with the help of a BBC graphic designer. The original, 1968 black-and-white titles were reshot twice in colour.
Ultimately, however, the BBC decided not to use the homage to those original opening credits. “They said some very nice things about it and it was clearly something that was under discussion for some time,” continues Norton. “However, they told us that they wanted to move away from content-specific idents on BBC2 and wanted more general idents that could serve all programmes across the channel.
“I think you can perhaps see that in the direction they’ve gone with the new idents that came out last month. They’re all very general-purpose and can serve pretty much any slot. It probably makes financial sense, if nothing else.”
A character sketch of Captain Mainwaring for A Stripe for Frazer by artist Martin Geraghty
On the plus side, the team’s version of A Stripe for Frazer was released to general acclaim in 2016. It’s made in black and white just as the original episode had been. And although BBC Store closed its doors last year, the animation can still be bought as a digital download from Amazon, iTunes and Google Play.
But for Charles Norton, the decision by the BBC to drop the themed ident is a missed opportunity: “I know Rob’s proud of his work on it. And so he should be. He made something really lovely. However, now that they’ve dropped the famous Lambie-Nairn 2 altogether, I suppose that it’s never going to see the light of day.
“It was sad, because I still think it’s a brilliant ident.” And Dad’s Army’s battalion of fans will almost certainly agree.