Think of the phrase ‘Dad’s Army’ and it’s likely an image of the bumbling band of men from one of the most popular British TV comedies will sneak into your mind. Or perhaps you’ll recall the catchy theme tune, with its teasing ‘get lost’ message to Hitler.
This month, the largely inept crew of much-loved characters will be revived on the big screen, played by a stellar cast that includes Sir Michael Gambon, Toby Jones, Sir Tom Courtenay and Bill Nighy. But after nine successful TV series, being in the shadow of this classic sitcom surely can’t be easy?
“At first, you think it’s a terrible idea,” admits Toby Jones, who plays the cranky Captain Mainwaring. “You think, I don’t want anything to do with that; it’s a ridiculous idea.
“Those characters and actors are so lodged in the British national imagination. I mean, it’s gone beyond being a TV series into being a kind of legend in this country.
“But, weirdly, having people like Michael and Tom and Bill involved in the show, and seeing the quality of the script and how brilliantly it respected the tradition of the show – but also reinvented it in a way – I suddenly thought, Why would I want to deny myself being involved in that fun, of being with those actors?
“I don’t think it ever went away, the fear that we were desecrating some tradition. But we all had such fun that we were able to forget about it while we were making it.”
The home guard, made up of volunteers ineligible for military service due to their age or profession, was tasked with defending the coast of England from invasion. They are stationed in the fictional town of Walmington-on-Sea and the year is 1944. The men were initially armed only with old shotguns, museum relics, pipes with knives fastened to them and air rifles. They were expected to fight against trained German troops with this basic weaponry, buying the regular army time to form a frontline defence.
“The stakes are both high and very low,” observes Jones. “There’s a war going on [in Dad’s Army], but you’d never know it.”
Michael Gambon, in contrast to his affable and loquacious co-star Jones, is a man of few words. But the 75 year old bellows his deep, gravelly laugh frequently and utters sporadic quips that elicit mirth from those around him.
Asked about his role – Gambon plays the bumbling Private Charles Godfrey – he’s not exactly evasive, but won’t, or can’t, say how he’s reprised the part, paring it down to a simplistic, “He’s just a very nice man who doesn’t say much. I don’t know what he is. I thought the actor playing him originally was brilliant, so I just copied him, really. The same voice and the same pottering around… I don’t know, I can’t really answer the question.”
Gambon and Jones clearly have a strong rapport. When asked whether this chemistry existed on set, Gambon enthuses, “Oh yes, we all like each other and we had great fun and we just did it. It was very happy, wasn’t it?”
Jones agrees, and stresses that an admiration for his fellow actors, many of whom have decades of experience in the business, was key for him.
“It’s not intimidating, but you’re respectful of those actors,” he says. “You quickly realise what makes them so brilliant is that they’re able to relate to younger actors very quickly. So we gelled because there was no standing on ceremony. We all tried to make each other laugh.”
While acknowledging that, at 49, he’s too young to speak personally, Jones believes that, in the years since 1945, there was a nostalgia for the camaraderie that developed during the war, something Dad’s Army reflects.
“The idea that they have huge affection for each other isn’t shown; it’s implied. It’s the idea of a war that one would have liked to be part of – unlikely communities were formed, like this platoon, and you adopt the nostalgia for that time.”
Jones’ character Captain George Mainwaring, famous for his rejoinder, “You stupid boy!”, is a bank manager who lives in fear of his wife.
“She’s the only person he fears,” laughs Jones, who surmises that, as a grammar-school boy, Mainwaring feels inferior to his second-in-command, Bill Nighy’s ex-public schoolboy Wilson, both in the Home Guard and at the bank where they work.
“I think he’s constantly intimidated by that, and the way he deals with it is by attacking,” points out Jones.
“He’s abrasive, so he’s a bit short-ish with everyone. He’s like those guys who aren’t very good at football, but they arrange the football for everyone. Or they arrange the cricket team because they’re enthusiastic about cricket.”
Jones goes on: “People depend on them to set the team up, sort out the tea, sort out the bus and sort out the cars. Then they enjoy the cricket and complain about the guy who’s arranged it all.
“I think there’s that kind of nobility about him – he’s a noble character, but because he’s irascible, he’s often unlikable.
“He’s a classic pompous buffoon and, a bit like me, he likes the sound of his own voice.”
Jones sees parallels between the Home Guard’s war and remaking Dad’s Army. “There’s that sense that although they should take it seriously, they find a way not to take it seriously. There’s the reassurance that you know exactly how each character is going to respond. So it’s gentle in that way; there are no great shocks.
“It’s very reassuring for people and the whole family can watch it; it’s not going to offend anyone. But it genuinely has great moments of slapstick or stupidity or idiocy. The primary thing is that we hope people come out as a family and laugh. It’s like visiting an old friend.”