Friday 10 October 2014

Dad's Army

Earlier this year the BBC broadcast a dramatised adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's 1936 novel Jamaica Inn. In a combination of directorial daring and technical incompetence the lighting was so sepulchral that the viewer couldn't tell where the mumbled and inaudible dialogue came from. The word 'furore' wasn't used (it seems to have disappeared from the tabloid lexicon) so we got 'anger' and 'outrage' - is this the best the tax-payer funded BBC can do?

I didn't watch it (not having a telly) but enjoyed a clip on YouTube last night and the critics were absolutely right - I couldn't see a thing and barely understood a word. It's as if the cultural visibility and audibility of the novel had been set below human levels of reception. The transmission if you like, was flawed.

This was an unusual lapse for the BBC, which (even Daily Mail hacks will be forced to admit) has a pretty good track record when it comes to what used to be called 'light entertainment', our shared collective memory.

News that a big-screen version of the perennial BBC favourite Dad's Army is being shot in Yorkshire fills me with gloom. Because unlike Jamaica Inn, this looks likely to be too loud, too bright, overbearingly visible and audible.

I grew up watching and admiring the ensemble cast of the 1970s original: Arthur Lowe as the pompous blimp Captain Mainwaring, John le Mesurier as Sergeant Wilson, his serene subordinate (but - and this is what made their relationship so excruciatingly funny - his social superior), John Laurie as the sepulchral Scottish undertaker Frazer and the lovely Arnold Ridley as Private Godfrey, the querulous and incontinent medic. Add in the camp adenoidal Vicar (Revd. Timothy Farthing, played by Frank Williams) and his very strange churchwarden, Mr Yeatman (Edward Sinclair) and you have the most accomplished roster of comic actors ever assembled in a single cast. I mean ever.

Each episode I saw in my childhood is etched fondly in the memory (and I can't have seen them all, or even more than a fraction of the total). There was a wonderful warmth to it all, and a gritty gentleness. Clive Dunn's one-note Corporal Jones aside ("Don't Panic! Don't Panic!") they all seemed to be coasting along (in a good way). I didn't much care for the callow Pike (too close to home) and nobody liked Hodges, the Air Raid Warden played by Bill Pertwee, but the rest of the very loveable cast struck me then, and still, as perfect.  

So, hearing that a film version is in the offing makes my heart sink. That it is scripted by Hamish McColl (the lack of brains behind the overblown and charmless Rowan Atkinson vehicles Mr Bean Goes on Holiday and Johnny English) and directed by the man who perpetrated the coarse-grained 'updating' of the St Trinian's movies only adds to the misery. That the new film features a glittering cast (Michael Gambon! Albert Finney! Bill Nighy! Many Others!) bodes ill, as it misses the amateurish quality of the telly platoon, which of course reflected the makeshift nature of the Home Guard itself, our last line of defence against the Nazi menace - old men and boys.

The thought that it will be inevitably be aimed at the usual twenty-something demographic also makes me shudder. Concessions will surely be made, with a consequent loss of the gentleness and slow-burn  cumulative silliness that enriched and defined the original. There will, I expect, be some swearing (or what the British Board of Film Classification refers to as 'Mild Language'). Will they feature snatches from 1940s songs between scenes or (more likely) impose updated hip-hop versions by Dizzee Rascal? Will they have feisty female characters rather than dolly-bird barmaids and battle-axes? The answer to the latter appears, alas, to be yes, with the casting of Catherine Zeta-Jones as a 'glamorous journalist'. This sounds simply awful. The women in Dad's Army (and the clue is in the title) were always entirely peripheral - Pike's fussy mum (who seemed to be conducting an illicit relationship with Wilson, who gave her his ration book), Corporal Jones's predatory widow Mrs Fox and Joe Walker's string of brassy girlfriends. The most fully-realised female character was never seen - the invisible and terrifying Mrs Mainwaring. What we wanted, what we got much of the time, was the men of the shambolic Walmington-on-Sea Home Guard on parade in the church hall, with occasional cutaways to Mainwaring's pokey office and the blissfully fruity exchanges between the Commanding Officer and his Sergeant. Just watch and savour this superbly written and beautifully acted scene. It will make you laugh like billy-oh.

How will the film-makers manage without audience laughter (which was real, be it noted, not canned) and the huge wave of anticipation and affectionate approval which greeted every catch phrase (and every leading character had one, reliably deployed in every episode): "I wonder if that's wise, sir?", "They don't like it up 'em. They don't like it up 'em", "Might I be excused?, "We're all doomed! Doooomed I tell ye!" and, of course, the ritual withering of Pike as "Stupid boy". Best of all was Arthur Lowe's Mainwaring, caught out yet again by wits sharper than his own, complacently bluffing: "Ah yes. I was wondering which of you men would be the first to spot that."

There has of course already been a Dad's Army film, featuring the original cast. This wasn't bad but lacked the charm of the original, set as it mostly was in a couple of studio sets with the odd (and incongruous) location work on a Norfolk estate. One wasn't used to seeing the actors in a larger setting. They seemed diminished, and the script wasn't up to television standard, despite being by David Croft and Jimmy Perry, the show's creators.

All those involved in this project might take a look at what happened when Steve Martin tried to step into Phil Silvers' shoes as the immortal Sergeant Bilko, a film version so jaw-droppingly bad that I suspect not even the director has sat through it. Everything about it was wrong, from the first script meeting to the last syllable of the credits. The rest of us can in the meantime reflect cooly on the ill-fated attempt by American producers to remake the programme for US audiences. Watch, with your eyes shut, a mercifully short clip from The Rear Guard.

To be briefly topical - the election of the first UKIP member of parliament, representing Clacton-on-Sea (surely the real-life equivalent of Walmington), is to democracy what the forthcoming film of Dad's Army is to popular culture. 

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