Monday, February 08, 2016

Dad's Army

During the nine years ‘Dad’s Army’ played to hugely appreciative audiences on the BBC, the Nazi threat never got closer to the Home Guard platoon of Walmington-on-Sea than a few cartoon arrows in the opening credit sequence. This was as it should be: the show, at its best, satirises Englishness, cowardice, incompetence and the class system and finds them to be almost incestuously interrelated. The best British sitcoms have always been studies in failure and microcosms of parochialism – ‘Steptoe and Son’, ‘Porridge’, ‘Open All Hours’, ‘Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads’ – and ‘Dad’s Army’ upped the ante with its wartime setting that took a big shiny pin to the translucent balloon of jingoism.

Or, to put it another way, the last thing ‘Dad’s Army’ needed was the Hun. However, 30-minute sitcoms can happily run for season after season and delight their fans simply by having their ensemble casts recreate in comically specific ways to any given situation (that’s why they’re called sitcoms, after all) while a 100-minute film – at least a mainstream one with well known actors in the lead roles and a chunk of studio money behind it – must necessarily have a plot. And thus it is that ‘Dad’s Army’ – the franchise’s first big screen outing since the original cast were assembled for a dreadful mishmash of a motion picture in 1971 – almost inevitably sees them tangle with invading German forces.

The 1971 film, directed by Norman Cohen and mercilessly buggered about by Columbia Studios (who saw fit to junk whole tranches of series creators Jimmy Perry and David Croft’s screenplay), is essentially an origin story – dear God, a ‘Dad’s Army’ origin story! – culminating in the bumbling platoon finally cohering as a unit to rescue hostages taken by the crew of a downed German aircraft. The new film, directed rather more ably by Oliver Parker, has the common decency to raise the stakes and throw in secret codes, D-Day plans and a glamorous double-agent. But does this make it any more successful?

If transferring small-screen situation comedy to a narrative-driven big-screen dynamic isn’t a difficult enough proposition as it is, doing so without the comfort blanket of the original cast presents a whole other problem. ‘Steptoe and Son’ (1972) and ‘Steptoe and Son Ride Again’ (1973) might be woefully inept attempts at film-making, but at least that’s Wilfrid Brambell and Harry H. Corbett up there on screen verbally gouging each other. The biggest pitfall ‘Dad’s Army’ faced from the outset was the potential embarrassment factor of watching a septet of (mostly) A-list movie icons doing impersonations of TV actors.

And, by God, is the cast of ‘Dad’s Army’ its selling point! Here we have Toby Jones as Captain Mainwaring, Bill Nighy as Sergeant Wilson, Tom Courtenay as Lance Corporal Jones. Michael Gambon as Private Godfrey, Blake Harrison as Private Pike, Daniel Mays as Private Walker and Bill Paterson as Private Frazier. By and large, all filter their performances through the audience’s memories of the original actor while bringing enough to the role to reinvigorate it if not (purposefully, one feels) reclaim it. Only Jones seems on a mission to make Mainwaring his own, while Harrison and Mays happily play to the audience’s expectations. Nighy, Paterson, Gambon and – especially – Courtenay fare the best.

It’s the ladies of the cast who really excel, though. Catherine Zeta Jones, as vampish journalist Rose Winter, has more fun than I’ve seen her exhibit in a performance since she cut lose with ‘Hit Me with Your Best Shot’ in ‘Rock of Ages’. Of course, Zeta Jones could play the vamp in her sleep, and the script, by Hamish McColl, doesn’t require her to do much more than smoulder and purr seductive double entendres, but she goes for broke and emerges as one of the film’s greatest assets. Its other assets are: Sarah Lancashire as Mrs Pike, Alison Steadman as Mrs Fox, Annette Crosby and Julia Foster* as Godfrey’s sisters Cissy and Dolly (their double act is priceless), Emily Atack as Walker’s dollybird girlfriend Daphne, Holli Dempsey as Pike’s long-suffering girlfriend Vera and Felicity Montagu as Mrs Mainwaring.

Yes, you read that correctly. Never seen in the show and avoided with almost tactical precision by Arthur Lowe’s Mainwaring, Mrs M not only gets a belated appearance, but leads a corresponding platoon of Walmington’s womenfolk in the climactic action scene. I use the term “action scene” purely as a generic description. It’s actually as geriatric as any of the main cast.

The shoot-out finale is as good an example as anything in the film of how uneven the humour is. There are moments of quiet snobbish one-upmanship, mainly between Mainwaring and Wilson, but also (taking the chain of command up a notch) between actual officer Colonel Theakes (Mark Gatiss) and Mainwaring; the film scores its most effective points during these moments. Slapstick predominates elsewhere, and there’s an extended sequence where various members of the cast dive behind sofas and snag their trousers climbing out of windows, that makes your average Brian Rix farce look like Strindberg. This is offset against the borderline surrealism of inflatable tanks coming loose from their mooring and floating off (one ends up impaled on a church spire, leaking air in a flatulent manner as Mainwaring tries to make a heartfelt speech). There’s also a sequence, early on, where the aforementioned cartoon arrows of the opening credits are recreated as blocks on a map in a German war room; a Nazi officer sniggers that any thoughts of England having the Third Reich on the run are misguided, and asks rhetorically “Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Churchill?” For all I know, it might have been funny as hell on paper; I was a little bit sick in my mouth watching it on screen.

For all its problems, though, I’ll admit to enjoying ‘Dad’s Army’ a lot more than I had any right to. Maybe the tradition of British sitcoms utterly failing as feature-length expositions – the first ‘Dad’s Army’ film, both ‘Steptoe’ attempts, ‘Porridge’, ‘The Likely Lads’ – justifies a certain creative accountancy as regards my usual critical standards. Maybe it’s because it was a cold, wet and miserable evening and a few good belly laughs in a warm cinema auditorium were worth an hour and three quarters of my time. Maybe it’s because Catherine Zeta Jones looks good in a burgundy two-piece and a pillbox hat. Or maybe it’s the unalloyed delight I took in the cameo by Ian Lavender (Private Pike in the original), a piece of reverse-casting that works a treat.

*Meta moment: Julia Foster starred alongside Tom Courtenay 54 years ago in ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner’; there’s a lost episode of ‘Dad’s Army’ called ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Walker’.

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