Reliving the birth of TV classic Dad’s Army with scriptwriter David Croft
To mark the 50th anniversary of Dad’s Army’s arrival on our screens Arts editor Andrew Clarke revisits his extensive interview with Suffolk scriptwriter David Croft to mark the launch of his autobiography
Dad’s Army creator David Croft was one of the great television scriptwriters of his generation with hits such Hi-de-hi, ‘Allo, ‘Allo and Are You Being Served to his name as well as being the producer of the Frankie Howerd cult classic Up Pompeii.
However, Dad’s Army remains his masterwork. In 2004, when he published his autobiography, I spent the day with him at his home Honington Hall, wandering through his library of first generation typed scripts with hand-written annotations and additional dialogue. It was a glorious experience. I even got to hold a genuine Dad’s Army script – an original script that had come from David’s typewriter rather from a BBC duplicating machine.
As I was admiring his extensive archive he told me of a late-night expedition to his former offices at BBC TV centre to rescue these first generation scripts. A friend who still worked at the corporation told him of redevelopment plans for his former offices and how his old scripts were going to be dumped in a skip. Under cover of darkness he drove his Rolls Royce up to London and brought his classic scripts home to safety.
Much of our conversation revolved around Dad’s Army. The idea for the series came from a young actor called Jimmy Perry who David had cast in a series with Reg Varney called Beggar My Neighbour. During a recording break Jimmy approached David about a series he had been trying to develop called Fighting Tigers, all about the Home Guard.
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David said: “I took it to Michael Mills (Head of Comedy) who suggested I write it with Jimmy because he had no experience of writing for television. I talked it over with Jimmy and we wrote half-a-dozen episodes straight away.”
If writing was easy then casting proved a little more difficult. “Jimmy was keen to cast Arthur Lowe as the sergeant while I was searching for a pompous officer and thought about offering it to Jon Pertwee but he turned it down because he was off to do a series in America.
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“Then Michael Mills said: ‘You must have John le Mesurier because he suffers so well. I thought John was an excellent actor but having him as the officer wouldn’t work because he was too laid back – nothing would get done.
“I was wrestling with this problem when one day, in rehearsal, he and Arthur just switched roles and everything fell into place.
“To this day I don’t know how it happened but it just did. We acknowledged the dilemma in a later episode when Wilson takes charge of the platoon for an exercise and makes a right pig’s ear of it.
“I love the tension which comes from the fact that Wilson may be Mainwaring’s subordinate but socially he’s in a completely different world. Wilson’s in the golf club but Mainwaring can’t get in. There’s a mountain of resentment there and it underscores their whole relationship.”
The rest of casting proved easier. The roles of Hodges, the ARP warden, and Godfrey, the elderly first-aider, were written with Bill Pertwee (Jon’s cousin) and Arnold Ridley in mind because David had worked with them before.
James Beck, another actor David knew, played Private Walker, the spiv, which put Jimmy Perry’s nose out of joint, as he wanted to play the role. Michael Mills suggested RSC actor John Laurie as dour undertaker Frazer while David Croft wanted Jack Haig as Corporal Jones but the actor, who eventually went on to star in ‘Allo, ‘Allo, refused to commit to the role of the old campaigner because he didn’t believe the series would be a success.
Clive Dunn was David Croft’s second choice but even then had to wait a long time before the versatile actor would sign on the dotted line because he was afraid of being typecast as someone who just played old men.
Croft said that by and large the cast of Dad’s Army got on very well. John Laurie could, on occasion, come over as being rather irascible, but it was Arthur Lowe who provided him the majority of his headaches.
“Like his character he could be rather pompous and had to be treated with kid gloves. He also had firm ideas on what he would and wouldn’t do – this included the bizarre habit of never taking his script home which meant he was never terribly certain of his lines.”
As the years went by there was a blurring of the line between actor and character. “I also enjoyed throwing in moments of pathos or pure drama which also informs the comedy.”
Even though the series is now regarded as a classic, in 1968 it was touch and go whether the series would make it on air.
“There were certain sections of the BBC hierarchy who thought it was wrong to get laughs from Britain’s finest hour. Fortunately Bill Cotton (head of variety) backed us and once the series was on air, the objections died away as the ratings went up.”