The makers of the new Dad’s Army film might have guessed they’d have a war on their hands when they got permission from the shows creators for a new big screen version commissioned for production.
Even with a cast including Toby Jones, Bill Nighy, Michael Gambon and Catherine Zeta Jones, was it really wise to pick up where the WWII adventures of Walmington on Sea Home Guard ended on television back on Remembrance Sunday 1977?
The immortal jewel of the BBC’s comedy crown, Dad’s Army, still regularly shines with BBC 2 reruns on Saturday evenings, drawing in healthy viewing figures from anyone who prefers a good belly laugh as opposed to a straight on-ear assault from TV talent shows The Voice orThe X Factor.
I’m an original fan of the series and the magic of Jimmy Perry and David Croft’s scripts have given me much joy, happiness, tears and comfort over my 47 years. Yet even I was worried when I heard a new film was in the making.
Hamish McColl’s screenplay is set in 1944, towards the end of the War, beginning with a scene setter in war torn London with MI5 in pursuit of a Nazi Spy. The opener itself is almost in the same spirit as a James Bond film, and leads the pace neatly into a new Dad’s Army story, gradually revealing the characters, led on manoeuvres by Toby Jones’ Captain Mainwaring and Bill Nighy’s Sergeant Wilson.
The title sequence introduces the characters by name, there are no acting credits here, and clearly it’s every man for himself as the actors have a job on their hands to convince you they are Mainwaring, Wilson, Jones, Frazer, Godfrey, Walker and Pike for the next 100 minutes
Toby Jones as Mainwaring is immediately thrown into comedy action as he attempts to answer a telephone with bandaged spread eagled arms. There are shades of Arthur Lowe, the original Mainwaring, in the ridiculousness of the situation, Jones performance remains funny in its bumbling and authoritative presentation rather than Lowe’s pomposity and clipped air.
Bill Nighy’s Wilson is positively flirtier and a little colder than we know from John Le Mesurier, while Tom Courtenay’s portrayal of Jones takes a while to bed in becoming more madcap and slapstick (as we would have expected from Clive Dunn), as the film progresses.
Michael Gambon and Bill Paterson place themselves into the roles respectively of the gentle Private Godfrey and dour Private Frazer with ease, emulating rather than imitating the templates created by Arnold Ridley and John Laurie, resulting in fine performances throughout.
Blake Harrison has some nicely scripted moments as Pike, getting more to do than Ian Lavender did in the early series. Daniel Mays takes on the role of Private Walker, and although looking slightly younger than James Beck was in the original, carries the spiv persona well enough to have his performances enjoyed throughout the film.
Catherine Zeta Jones has all the qualities of a classic female Hollywood starlet as Rose Winters, a journalist apparently writing an article for The Lady magazine on The Home Guard and also a familiar face from Wilson’s past. Her character though is not all as it seems and soon stirs things up within the platoon’s key members.
The film also brings Walmington on Sea’s lady folk to the forefront, Mrs Mainwaring (previously unseen in the TV series) is brought to life by Felicity Montagu, whose presence becomes more apparent as the film progresses. Mrs Mainwaring leads her own “Mum’s Army” consisting of Mrs Fox (Alison Steadman), Mrs Pike (Sarah Lancashire), Vera (Holli Dempsey) and Daphne (Emily Atack). A believable fighting force alongside their male counterparts, each role has a strong presence in the plot,
Original series stars Frank Williams and Ian Lavender get some worthy on-screen moments too, while Mark Gatiss becomes a new thorn in Captain Mainwaring’s side as Colonel Theakes.
Other familiar elements are the use of the original Jones butchers van, several comical appearances of Godfrey’s sisters, portrayed by Annette Crosbie and Julia Foster, while the Yorkshire village of Bridlington doubles for Walmington on Sea and adds atmosphere to the films World War II backdrop.
The films plot has a beginning middle and end and serves its function for a 100 minute comedy feature film. There are some well paced comedy scenes and strong dialogue and climaxes with an explosive battle scene getting to grips with the Hun on the beaches of Walmington.
Dad’s Army serves as a good indicator of how life for the series characters could have progressed towards the end of the war. Far from been a failure, the film should be appreciated as a homage to the original series. I will certainly look forward to watching it again.
Andy Howells is a freelance entertainment writer.