New Dad’s Army casts are like buses: you wait ages for one to come along, and then when two turn up at once they don’t like it up ‘em. While it’s never been far from the public consciousness, the sitcom about the Home Guard of Walmington-on-Sea seems to have experienced a surge in popularity over the last few years, with repeats on BBC Two having become a Saturday night staple – only a few weeks ago, it was the programme with the highest Appreciation Index for the whole of a Saturday which included Strictly, The X Factor, I’m A Celeb and the Doctor Who finale. And with the new Dad’s Army film starring Toby Jones and Bill Nighy set for release in February, it’s the perfect time to look back at the show’s origins.
We’re Doomed: The Dad’s Army Story chronicles the early days of the writing partnership between Jimmy Perry and David Croft, who would go on to be responsible for some of the BBC’s biggest sitcoms, including It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, Hi-de-Hi and, of course, Dad’s Army. It’s the tale of how Perry, a flamboyant bit-part actor, made the difficult transition from being in front of the camera to behind it. Coming up with his first script, The Fighting Tigers, he found himself paired up with strait-laced comedy producer Croft, and Dad’s Army was born.
Not that it was plain sailing; Perry and Croft faced all manner of problems getting the show made, from a channel controller who immediately took against the idea, fearing it was making a mockery of the war, to a cast of actors led by Arthur Lowe, a difficult man who suffered from constipation while filming and struggled to remember his lines.
Though the disclaimer at the top of the film points out that some scenes have been imagined, many of the stories here have been well-documented over the years, and though there may be little new for die-hard sitcom aficionados, for most it should prove an eye-opening account of the troubled circumstances behind a classic sitcom.
Captain Mainwaring and his merry men loom large over We’re Doomed, but the film is far more about the relationship between the two men than the intricacies of production. Much as 2013’s An Adventure In Space And Time used the early years of Doctor Who as a hook on which to hang the story of William Hartnell, so We’re Doomed uses the same smoky BBC corridors and swinging sixties backdrop to tell its odd couple tale.
That this works as well as it does is largely down to the two actors at the heart of the piece, Richard Dormer as David Croft and in particular Paul Ritter, who fills his Jimmy Perry with a tragic, barely contained frustration. From the outset the film plays on the differences between their characters, cutting between Perry’s nervous, overkeen audition and Croft’s more sombre meeting with the BBC’s head of comedy. Their contrasting (but not conflicting) personalities make for a likeable partnership, and any fans of writing montages who didn’t get their fill from Bill this year will enjoy the extended sequences here, which solidify the men’s friendship and contain at least one neat nod to their future work.
Naturally, a lot of the attention around this drama will be focused on the actors playing the Dad’s Army regulars, and quite fairly. There are a number of actors in the ensemble of that show whose lives could have easily formed the backbone for this sort of docudrama, in particular Arthur Lowe and John Le Mesurier – the latter of whom has already been a supporting character in two BBC biopics: Hancock And Joan in 2008, and 2011’s Hattie.
John Sessions leads the ensemble with a spot-on impersonation of Arthur Lowe, who comes across here as likeable and difficult in equal measure; he’s the heart of the gang in much the same way as Captain Mainwaring was. However, there’s also a frailty to the man, and Sessions does a great job of capturing this amongst his bluster.
Though none of the other recreations are quite as uncanny (Except perhaps Kieran Hodgson’s Ian Lavender), they’re also never less than excellent. Only Shane Richie feels slightly miscast as Bill Pertwee, but his role is such a minor one that it’s easily forgiven. The cast is rounded out by some wonderful comic actors, including Green Wing stars Mark Heap and Sarah Alexander as Clive Dunn and Jimmy Perry’s wife Gilda respectively.
As you might expect with such a cast, We’re Doomed is not exactly a grim or serious affair. Even in its darkest moments, Stephen Russell’s script is full of wit and light, and Steve Bendelack has reflected this in his direction, which is full of comic cutaways and montages, and a BBC which feels light a heightened, at times almost cartoonish version of the real one.
We’re Doomed is a real treat for Dad’s Army fans, and feels like a real love letter to the series, right through to the ‘You have been watching’ ending. Though casting direct impersonators for any actual revival would always be the wrong way to go, the small number of scene recreations do make you slightly wish there could somehow be new episodes with this cast. At the very least, they’ll make you want to pop on an episode of Dad’s Army.
But this isn’t just a film for fans of Walmington-on-Sea’s finest; it’s a touching, humorous and ultimately heartwarming piece of television that captures what some see as the golden age of the BBC, when Television Centre was a thriving hub of activity and if execs weren’t sure about a show they’d only give it six episodes rather than twelve. And it’s a tribute to the time in which it’s set, with a swinging sixties soundtrack throughout. All told, it’s a wonderful piece of pre-Christmas television – and it highlights just how unenviable a task the makers of the Dad’s Army film have ahead of themselves when the film launches early next year…