“FROM BOTH THE ‘PRO’ AND ‘ANTI’ REACTIONS, WE KNEW WE’D TOUCHED
A NERVE.” DAMIAN JONES, PRODUCER
Oliver Parker had his doubts. He’d resurrected St. Trinian’s, a British comedy of even more vintage provenance, but raised an obvious question: “Those characters are so etched in our minds, how do you write for them?”
The internet wasn’t wild on the idea, either. “The fact that there’s a Dad’s Army remake coming out makes me feel sick,” was one of the more measured Reddit responses when the project was announced. “The worst news I’ve had since Mrs. Brown’s Boys was recommissioned,” wailed one tweet.
Like video games and Matthew Perry, British sitcoms have rarely made an auspicious transition to the big screen. You could map out the minefield a Dad’s Army movie would have to swerve just by looking at British films of the ’70s. Even the best of them, Porridge in 1979, was hardly cinematic in scope; the worst, Are You Being Served?(1977), was, in the considered words of one reviewer, “guilty of violating almost every law of film”. Little wonder Dad’s
Army’s fellow comedy hall-of-famers like Fawlty Towers, Only Fools And Horses and Blackadder had never attempted the upgrade. One of the most flawed examples did little more than extend an episode. That movie? Dad’s Army, a 1971 adaptation by Columbia Pictures that united the same cast to tackle the Luftwaffe well, three of its airmen while dressed as choristers. Not so much The Eagle Has Landed as The Eagle Has Stopped In For Tea.
(uninflatable) Nazi spy is at large and on the verge of discovering the deception. McColl’s screenplay pushed and prodded the established characters in perilous new directions. “We wanted to put the men in more jeopardy,” stresses the writer, “to give them the chance to prove their worth and protect their country. The TV show had never really gone there.”
Broadening the story’s appeal, the women of Walmington were given proper screentime and a piece of the action for the first time. Mrs. Godfrey (Annette Crosbie) and Mrs.
Pike (Sarah Lancashire) join Mrs. Mainwaring (Felicity Montagu, aka Alan Partridge’s Lynn), an unseen presence in the BBC sitcom, in the spy hunt.
“Mrs. Mainwaring was just a dent in the bunk bed,” points out Damian Jones of the original series. Her full, physical presence here is a sure sign that he and McColl are thinking of a modern audience for this Dad’s Army. “Hamish asked how we could do something new so we said, ‘Let’s show Mrs. >
producer was holding an ace. The script he’d commissioned captured the spirit of the original Dad’s Army and offered its new recruits the chance to put a fresh stamp on the characters. Screenwriter Hamish McColl, the writer of twin hits Mr. Bean’s Holiday and Johnny English Reborn, shifted the unit from 1940 to 1944, with Hitler in full retreat and the Allies preparing to invade Normandy.
Or is it Calais? A fake, inflatable army the real-life Operation Bodyguard is stationed near Walmington to keep the Nazis guessing. Meanwhile, a real
“We didn’t study the ’70s Columbia movie,” says Damian Jones, “but we did watch it, and it didn’t feel like a feature film. We felt we could do something different.” A new movie treatment demanded a structure that would free the characters from the sitcom convention that they should learn nothing and never evolve, while they had to rely on more than nostalgia.
refused to take Dad’s Army scripts home, declaring “I’m not having rubbish like that in my house,” and had a clause in his contract forbidding any scene in which he might appear without his trousers.
Le Mesurier was a heavy drinker who, during his drier spells, would rely instead on cannabis, and enjoyed frequenting Soho jazz clubs. Le Mesurier was married three times; his second wife was Hattie Jacques, while his third, Joan Malin left him for his pal, comedian Tony Hancock with whom he remained friends. He died in 1983, after uttering the last words,
“It’s all been rather lovely.”
Only 48 when he was cast as elderly butcher Jones (catchphrase: “They don’t like it up ‘em”), Dunn had been playing doddery oldsters since Bootsie And Snudge in 1960. Continued mining the lovable codger seam with kids’ comedy Grandad (1979-’84), inspired by his toxic novelty single of 1970, which looked like being Christmas number one until a strike at the pressing plant saved the nation.
The most genuinely aged of the cast, Somme veteran Ridley was 81 by the time the show ended in 1977. As a playwright his The Ghost Train was a smash hit and was filmed a number of times, but only after the hard-up war hero had sold the rights for a measly £200, forcing him to work almost up to his death aged 88.
Service during World War II owing to ill-health caused by a swimming accident. His distant cousin and fellow actor Jon, later to find fame as Doctor Who, had been offered the role of Captain Mainwaring but turned it down.
Mainwaring, let’s explore the relationships between the different couples.’ The women are instrumental in solving our plot in a Miss Marple-like fashion.”
The Perry-Croft estate was persuaded. So was the director. “I really bought into what Hamish had done,” explains Parker of the set-up. “Our chaps have had four years of helping old ladies across the road and pressing apples, so they start at a low ebb.” McColl, whose father was a former head of MI6 and was well-versed in wartime espionage, likened the process of capturing the voices of Mainwaring, Jones, Godfrey and co. to spending time with a group of favourite uncles. “It was a real joy writing for these characters,” McColl enthuses. “You love one because he shines off the other.”
The reservations held by Toby Jones and Nighy lasted only as long as it took them to read McColl’s screenplay. “Hamish had done a very smart thing,” remembers Jones, “which was to create enough of a story for the comedy to
have legs. You can’t just have laugh after laugh like in a 30-minute episode, and in those gaps you see the cost of their buffoonery.” Rounding out a mini-.ffarry Potter reunion was Michael Gambon as the doddery Godfrey, plus Daniel Mays (the spiv-like Walker), Tom Courtenay (the bellicose Lance-Corporal Jones) and Bill Paterson (as stormy Scotsman, Private Frazer). Blake Harrison was the obvious choice to play the baby of the unit, Private Frank Pike. As an Inbetweener, he brought cheering proof that not every TV comedy was doomed on the big screen. “I had slight reservations about playing a character that’s similar to (his Inbetweeners character) Neil, but Pike is a little softer,” Harrison explains.
“He’s a big movie buff who wants to be living in Casablanca or Seahawk, but the reality doesn’t quite live up to his expectations. It was about creating my own Private Pike, not doing a carbon copy of the original.” It was exactly what the filmmakers had in mind.
“It wasn’t about casting big comedy actors,” stresses Parker, “but paying characters the respect of great performers doing something fresh and nuanced.”
Adding star wattage as one of the new characters, urbane journalist Rose Winters, Catherine Zeta-Jones was persuaded to swap Manhattan for Walmington. “It was only tempting because of this plethora of fabulous actors and my absolute love for the TV series,” she tells Empire.
Damian Jones glowingly describes his quickly assembled ensemble as Lowe’s, but no less funny. “He’s more of a lost clown [than Lowe], who was incredibly remorseless in his portrayal,” notes his director admiringly. Versatile enough to switch from Marvel terror group Hydra to the Home Guard, the former Arnim Zola led from the front the seafront, on one occasion.
“I had to go into the North Sea,” laughs the actor of one icy sequence, “and when they got me back in the trailer, they said, ‘You won’t be able to do another take, because technically you’ve got hypothermia.”
IF, AS CO-STAR BILL
Paterson puts it, making this Dad’s Army movie was like trying to repaint the Sistine Chapel, Jones’ comic artistry offered a dependable undercoat. With a cast of this calibre, it’s clearly a loving revival rather than a cheap cash-in
Captain Mainwaring’s Boys D’Movie, this definitely isn’t but it still needs to connect with modern moviegoers.
“Why now?” ponders Damian Jones. “There’s no simple answer to that, but these are characters people love, [it has] a set-up people still find amusing, [it] deals with class, which is timeless, and we have actors to pull it off now. And it’s funny. If we can deliver on all that, the time is always right.”
Surprisingly, Jones reveals that even the early negative buzz gave him hope. “From both the ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ reactions, we knew it had touched a nerve,” he explains. “It was something people felt strongly about.” The impact of another Bill Nighy movie hadn’t gone unnoticed, either. “We’d had the success of [The Best Exotic] Marigold Hotel and all the talk of the grey pound, and there was lots in the pot that made me think we had the right ingredients to capture that audience.” The dream scenario of attracting not just Mum and Dad but the whole family won’t be hurt by an awards-season release spot. In a forest of worthy Oscars fare, the sight of Toby Jones being chased by a bull offers a cheery alternative. “It was always a summer movie that slipped to winter,” says Jones, “but it still plays as a summer movie.”
Like its irrepressible characters, this Dad’s Army 2.0 is aiming for timelessness. “Everyone always wondered if this film was a really good idea or a really stupid one,” laugh Jones. “Hopefully it’s the former.”
“a formidable comic cast”. His director puts it more bluntly. “The next thing I knew [everyone was] up for it,” he says, “and it’s, ‘Oh, fuck! Now we’ve got to make this thing.’” A chance flick of a channel-changer had turned into a movie… And a national news story.
media,” shudders Daniel Mays of October’s official cast announcement. In case its recruits were under any illusions, a fresh Dad’s Army movie was a headline-maker. The sight of their heads cut and pasted onto the bodies of the original cast members offered a ghoulish reminder of the project’s profile. “We’d say, ‘Oh my God, have you seen the paper today?’” laughs Mays of the rehearsal period. But even dyed-in-the-wool Daddies had to acknowledge the canniness of the casting. The faces fit. With the Dad’s Army Appreciation Society throwing its support (and, later, some enthusiastic extras) behind the movie, there was abundant goodwill
to carry into a 35-day shoot that spanned the calendar’s coldest months. But goodwill alone doesn’t translate into a good movie, and Parker had designed a pre-shoot boot camp by which he hoped the casting alchemy would result in on-screen gold. Under the watchful eye of a military advisor, the cast learned to parade, square-bash and handle rifles. Really, really badly. “It wasn’t your two-month Band Of Brothers thing,” stresses Mays. “The characters aren’t very good at drilling and we certainly embraced that.” Gambon was a serial offender, although admits Courtenay, “None of us were very good.”
Yet they did bond. When Empire visits the Yorkshire coast, standing in as Walmington-on-Sea, on Day 15 (May 8, 1944), there is ample evidence of the cast’s chemistry, with Gambon’s ad libs sparking outbreaks of corpsing. Also in evidence is Toby Jones’ impressive take on Mainwaring, informed by a training in physical theatre in Paris, that is milder and more pratfall-strewn than Arthur
Clockwise from left:
New-model army (l-r): Frazer (Bill Paterson), Pike (Blake Morrison), Mainwaring, Godfrey (Michael Gambon) and Wilson (Bill Nighy); Mrs. Pike (Sarah Lancashire), Mrs. Mainwaring (Felicity Montagu) and Mrs.
Fox (Alison Steadman) join the ranks; Catherine Zeta-Jones ruffles feathers as the sophisticated Rose; Pike and Mainwaring in their civvies.
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