Sublime take on Mainwaring and fowl jokes

Dad's Army
June 7, 2002

Captain Mainwaring is one of those chosen by the President of the Immortals to walk the arcades of the Pantheon of the national imagination. He joins a special group there in which fictional and historical characters mingle indiscriminately. It is a group of tubby, bossy, vivid, gourmandising and gregarious characters - much respected, much loved, much laughed at and well recognised for their psychotic awfulness as well as their paternal congeniality. They include Falstaff, Dr Johnson, Mr Pickwick, Winston Churchill and perhaps Chesterton or William Hardcastle.

The honest captain dominates this marvellous book, as well he might. But beside him, necessary as the secret sharer, as much his other half as Holmes to Watson, Jeeves to Wooster, Sancho Panza to the Don, insinuates Sergeant Wilson - oblique, insolent, courteous, splendidly casual.

As Graham McCann demonstrates with characteristic force and subtlety, the endless class struggle of middle England is played out in their crafty jostlings for a thin edge of advantage and in their complex reversals and inversions of status and its resentments, all held in the strong and admirable comedy of suburban patriotism that this wonderful programme pictured for our ten-year edification.

McCann has a range of such handsome celebrations behind him, but this is his masterpiece. His natural disposition is towards cordial and eloquent appreciation rather than the piercing identification of aesthetic fault and moral blemish. His study of Marilyn Monroe is a candid, even innocent, labour of love, his biography of Cary Grant a swift, affectionate acknowledgement of the solace that the best of Grant's performances bring to their audiences.

With these qualities, he comes to praise Dad's Army . Praise is almost inaudible from the dour priesthood of cultural observance, but McCann is none of their number: no contortions here over "representation", not even inverted commas around "English"; only plain prose as good as bread and a gripping story.

He begins with a potted history of the Home Guard (Churchill's phrase), and then with the origins and casting of the series, full of juicy details: Jimmy Perry and David Croft persuaded the titans to take the script; Huw Wheldon saw the crux in the Mainwaring-Wilson axis; Jon Pertwee turned down the lead; the average audience was 16 million. The players built characters as dense and wrought as life out of the characters they were in life, until they richly earned the tribute Dickensian, and stood easily alongside the throngs of Nicholas Nickleby .

The book has its staid passages. McCann has interviewed all survivors and read all the memoirs, but one could wish he had quoted them a bit less fully and, perhaps, need not have gone quite so evenhandedly through the career and contribution of each member of the cast. But then one might have missed the sublime moment when Arthur Lowe, out of role, was driving the 1935 butcher's van full of the cast back from filming, and mowed down a cockerel in a country lane. Being, as Clive Dunn said, a perfect gent, he knocked on the farmer's door and, inevitably addressing the farmer as "my man", offered to "replace your cockerel". "Well," the farmer replied, "please yourself. The hens are round the back".

It is a detail of practice not easy to theorise, and typical of the work. McCann's preferred mode is a mixture of those popular genres the social history, the biography and the essential discipline of practical criticism. He returns therefore, as a good teacher should, to the facts of the text, bringing out for us its quiet, jocular solecisms, its innocent triumphs, forgivenesses and important self-delusions: "We can deal with tanks. We can kill with pikes. We can make them all sneeze with pepper - and after all, even the Hun is a very poor fighter with his head buried in a handkerchief." He restores to us, in a delicate reminiscence, the beautifully written farewell at the railway station, between Mainwaring and Mrs Gray.

Then he takes graceful farewell of his heroes, sympathetically watching John le Mesurier drink himself gently to death ("if he couldn't have a drink with his friends, then he would just as soon be dead"), reporting Lowe in 1982, a new series on its way, dying with his boots clean from a stroke in his dressing-room, cursing the journalists who made up trouble among the cast.

If this is not really an academic book, then so much the worse for academies. McCann might have done more to measure the match between feeling and frame - between the shape of the narrative and the passions and the memories of the people it contained on either side of the screen. But he knows what he is doing; he is celebrating and confirming, against the grain of superciliously unintelligible criticism, his vocation to comprehend those forms of popular art that bring out the best in us, as Tolstoy says, "long slumbering... joyful and youthful in our soul".

Fred Inglis is professor of cultural studies, University of Sheffield.

Dad's Army: The Story of a Classic Television Show

Author - Graham McCann
ISBN - 1 84115 308 7
Publisher - Fourth Estate
Price - £16.99
Pages - 292

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