50 years of Dad’s Army, East Anglia’s own show
- Credit: PA Archive/PA Images
Before Dad’s Army even began, there were warnings at the BBC that it might be doomed. But creators David Croft and Jimmy Perry pressed ahead, the very first episode went out in July 1968, and the rest is TV history.
The show has proud East Anglian links, with most of the external scenes in Walmington-on-Sea having been filmed around Thetford and the surrounding area. Many people from the region met the cast over the years and even became extras.
Fifty years on, enthusiasm for the show is still as strong as ever, and episodes are regularly shown both on BBC2, drawing two million viewers on Saturday nights, and on weekdays on the Gold TV channel.
The sitcom was the first smash hit for the team of producers and writers David Croft and Jimmy Perry. Perry had the original idea for the show, based on his personal experience as a young member of the Home Guard (like Pike) during the Second World War.
He approached Croft, who was producing comedies for the BBC, and the pair decided to write the programme together. David Croft lived in Suffolk for most of his life, at Honington Hall, near Bury St Edmunds, and famously arranged for his hit television series to be filmed in East Anglia so he could work from home. As well as Dad’s Army being filmed around Thetford, another classic series, Hi-de-Hi! was later filmed at Dovercourt in Essex.
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Both locally and nationally, there are a whole army of fans who have seen every episode and have a huge knowledge of the show, including everything from its catchphrases to filming locations. And, as well as the old guard, younger generations are also becoming fans.
Alastair Baker, manager of Bressingham Steam & Gardens, said that people of all generations come along to the Dad’s Army events held there, such as the 1940s day which was held last weekend, and many younger people say they watch the show. So what’s the secret of its success?
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“I think Dad’s Army appeals across the generations and across time because it was so well written and well acted, by actors who had learned their craft in the theatre,” he said. Mr Baker also paid tribute to the way the show has an almost panto and slapstick quality at times.
“I was with a friend last night, and his children, who are aged six and eight, always demand to see it - they love it, although they probably don’t know why they love it!”
Before the first episode went out, on July 31, 1968, some of the BBC hierarchy had expressed reservations, being worried about the idea of a comedy set in wartime. The opening titles even had to be reshot late on to remove archive footage, with the now iconic arrows only being added at that stage.
The first episode was watched by seven million, but numbers soared, with episodes regularly drawing more than 18 million viewers. The show finally ran for nine years - lasting far longer than the Second World War itself.
The final episode, which went out in 1977, ended with a poignant toast to the real Home Guard.
The cast was headed by Arthur Lowe as the blustering Captain George Mainwaring and John Le Mesurier, who grew up in Bury St Edmunds, as the ineffectual, put-upon Sgt Wilson, also known as Pike’s “Uncle Arthur”.
Lowe’s best-known previous role was as Leonard Swindley in Coronation Street. He had to fight off competition for the role, with other actors such as Leonard Rossiter being considered, while Robert Dorning was considered for the Wilson role.
At one time the producers considered making Le Mesurier the captain and Lowe the sergeant, but luckily they decided it was funnier to cast them the other way round.
The other main platoon members, who all became household names, were Clive Dunn as old soldier Lance Corporal Jack Jones, the butcher, James Beck as the spiv, Private Joe Walker, John Laurie as grumpy Private James Frazer, Arnold Ridley as Private Charles Godfrey, and Ian Lavender as the youngest member of the platoon, the hapless Private Frank Pike. Bill Pertwee played irascible ARP warden Hodges,
Now 72, Ian Lavender has maintained links with East Anglia, living near Bury St Edmunds and supporting the Theatre Royal. He opened Diss Museum for its new season last year.
The show quickly gave birth to a host of catchphrases - including, “Don’t panic”, “Stupid boy,” “Do you think that’s wise?,” “We’re all doomed,” and Godfrey’s plaintive “May I be excused?”
Top episodes include Something Nasty in the Vault, with a bomb in the bank vault, Mum’s Army, where the platoon starts a women’s section, Branded, Jimmy Perry’s personal favourite, where Godfrey’s past is revealed, and Battle of the Giants, an hour-long Christmas special from 1971.
But the most popular episode of all was Deadly Attachment, the one with the U-boat crew and the great line, “Don’t tell him, Pike.” This scene was voted the funniest TV comedy scene of all time in one poll, just ahead of Del Boy falling through the bar in Only Fools and Horses.
Unfortunately, three episodes from the series are lost, because in the early 1970s, the BBC used to record over programmes or simply throw old tapes out. Some episodes which were once missing have since been found, following appeals to anyone who might have a copy - but there are three which are still missing - Under Fire, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Walker and A Stripe for Frazer.
However, the audio track of A Stripe for Frazer has been found, and the BBC made an animated version of this, which is available to buy as a download.
A Dad’s Army feature film with the original cast was made in 1971, with some differences from the original series, including the casting of a different actress as Mavis Pike - Liz Fraser took the place of Janet Davies. Another change was that, instead of filming in Thetford, the film crew used Chalfont St Giles in Buckinghamshire.
The more recent feature film, directed by Oliver Parker and released in 2016, had a great cast, including Toby Jones, Bill Nighy, Tom Courtenay, Michael Gambon and Catherine Zeta-Jones, although critics felt it couldn’t recapture the magic of the original show.
There was some annoyance in Thetford when filming location Bridlington launched a bid to be “twinned” with Walmington - but the film did maintain links with the town. Several residents were extras in the film, including Mick Whitman, who plays the role of Captain Mainwaring at the museum.
“I had to lose rank and become a private to be an extra. It was an excellent experience,” he said. The programme makers also borrowed Corporal Jones’ original butcher’s van from the museum’s collection.
As the 50th anniversary celebrations get under way this year, the Royal Mail is planning to issue a special set of eight stamps featuring the characters in June. The set, which will be released on June 26, includes the different actors with their famous catchphrases, including one showing Clive Dunn, as Jones, saying, “Don’t panic!”
Dad’s Army sights in the region
Every year, fans of Dad’s Army travel from far and wide to visit Thetford, where most of the external filming for the famous series was carried out. The Stanford Battle Area, a few miles north of the town, provided locations for many episodes and for the famous end-credits sequence.
Many buildings in the town also featured in the show, including Thetford Guildhall, which featured as Walmington town hall, and The Bell Hotel, where cast members stayed during filming.
The Dad’s Army Museum in Thetford, set up by a group of enthusiasts, has recently been celebrating its 10th birthday. It has a huge collection of memorabilia, including many genuine props from the original series. When I went along, I was welcomed by enthusiastic members of the museum team in full Home Guard uniform. Their expertise and deep knowledge of the show certainly came across.
The museum, in the Old Fire Station in Cage Lane, also includes Marigold’s Tea Rooms, where you can enjoy a tea served in 1940s style, with wartime recipe cakes and tea from British-made Brown Betty teapots.
One of the most famous landmarks in the town is the statue of Captain Mainwaring, on a bench by Thetford’s riverfront. The life-size bronze statue, created by Suffolk-based sculptor Sean Hedges-Quinn, was officially unveiled by David Croft in 2010, as a focal point for the museum’s walking tours of the town.
Another attraction is the original Jones butcher’s van from the series, which is at the Charles Burrell Museum in Minstergate. There is also a butcher’s shop in Thetford which takes inspiration from Corporal Jones.
The museum is open every Saturday until November 24, and also on Tuesdays from July to September and during Norfolk school holidays. Walking tours are on various dates, and there are also coach tours of out-of-town locations. Tours need to be prebooked.
Bressingham Steam & Gardens is the official home to the Dad’s Army Appreciation Society collection, which has been housed there since 2000.
The exhibition includes a re-creation of Walmington on Sea, with buildings including Jones’ butchers shop, Walmington-on-Sea post office and the church hall, as well as a glimpse of Frazer’s Funeral Parlour and the Swallow Bank.
Although Jones’s original van from the TV series is in Thetford, the van from the 1971 film is on display in Bressingham.
The museum also has vehicles which were used when filming the show, including the Leyland fire engine which featured in the episode Brain Versus Brawn, as well as a steam roller and traction engine.
Celebrations for 50 years of Dad’s Army
Special celebrations of 50 Years of Croft and Perry were held over the weekend, kicking off a summer of Dad’s Army events around Thetford, Bressingham and across the area.
The celebrations started on Friday night, May 11, when the Dad’s Army Appreciation Society and Thetford Dad’s Army Museum joined forces to hold a special evening at the Carnegie Rooms in Thetford, with members of the cast and crew from Croft and Perry series sharing their memories.
Then on Saturday, May 12, Thetford’s Ruby Sisters were singing outside the museum in the town.
On Sunday, May 13, Bressingham joined together with the Dad’s Army Appreciation Society to hold a 1940s Day, on a Dad’s Army and Croft and Perry theme, with actors from Croft and Perry series appearing..
The event also included period vehicles from the Norfolk Military Vehicle Group on display throughout the museum grounds and living history re-enactment groups, as well as music from the era
Also this month, there is a Dad’s Army celebration at the North Norfolk Railway, at Weybourne Station, where the famous Royal Train episode was filmed.
From May 28-29, the station will be taken over by the Home Guard, as the railway joins together with the Dad’s Army Museum from Thetford. Corporal Jones’ butcher’s van will be there, there will be music from Timescape, and the NAAFI will be open to sell supplies.
Lynford Hall Hotel at Mundford, near Thetford in West Norfolk, will be holding a Dad’s Army Experience weekend on June 23 and 24, including a vintage coach tour exploring film locations and a 1940s-style dinner dance.
The Dad’s Army Museum in Thetford is also involved in several more events over the summer, and is planning its own major 50th anniversary event on July 28, with full details still be to be announced. If you are interested in taking part, you can contact the museum via their website.