Mark Perryman describes Dad’s Army as the most popular front of them all.
1968 was a tumultuous year. The Tet Offensive, the civil rights movement, the May events of ‘Paris, London, Rome, Berlin/We shall fight, we will win’ and the Prague Spring. This was also the year, 15th April to be precise, that Dad’s Army, Britain’s most loved TV comedy series, was broadcast for the very first time.
Quite remarkably almost fifty years on, never-ending repeats from the nine original series are still being broadcast as primetime Saturday night TV. Over Christmas a drama-documentary closely based on fact, We’re Doomed: The Dad’s Army Story appeared on BBC, again in primetime. And perhaps most amazing of all, Dad’s Army has been remade into a new feature film, not reinvented for a 2016 audience but recreated to be as close as possible to the original version.
That very first appearance of the Walmington-on-Sea volunteers featured Jones the butcher sabotaging any threat of a Nazi invasion by reversing the road signs ‘To the town’ and ‘To the sea’. Of course the result was obvious, a local motorcyclist stops, takes the wrong turning and off camera there is a loud splash. A comedy classic has begun.
It is easy to mock but a decisive connection is made via Dad’s Army with the Popular Front against Nazism which is ever-present amongst all the English slapstick humour. Look at the characters: the bank manager, his hard-pressed chief cashier and the most junior of junior cashiers, the butcher, the miserabilist undertaker who is an English coastline economic migrant from Scotland, the pensioner, the local ducker and diver, the vicar and verger and their precious church hall, the busybody greengrocer. What brought them all together? The defence of Britain and all it meant to them, from all that they feared Nazi rule would do in the name of hate.
Only a few years previously Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists were being cheered on by the Daily Mail ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts’. Despite the best efforts of the stalwarts of Cable Street, even in the autumn of 1939 after the declaration of war, Mosley was still able to attract crowds to his ‘peace rallies’ numbering in their thousands. The mood of appeasement remained ever-present, spearheaded by the Tories’ Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax.
The middle-class, and very English, pomposity of Captain Mainwaring of 1940 is too easily confused with the nasty populism of UKIP 2016 but this is to seriously misunderstand and misrepresent what Walmington-on-Sea’s finest were all about. These were ordinary men (women, apart from Mrs Pike and Mrs Fox are almost entirely absent) doing extraordinary things and in the course of this reinventing what Britain could become. The selfless sacrifice of Mainwaring’s volunteers in the face of a Nazi Blitzkrieg that to date had laid waste to all resistance in its path is remarkable. In 1941 Hitler would launch Operation Barbarossa and do the same to any resistance in his way on the Eastern Front, until Stalingrad started the turning of the tide of course.
The sacrifice is obvious in every episode, the heroism perhaps less so, although when a washed up U-Boat Commander tries to take over their seaside town Mainwaring’s epic instruction when the Nazi demand his young private’s name ‘Don’t tell him Pike!’ creates perhaps the show’s funniest moment of all. But as well as the humour there is fierce and heroic resistance in Mainwaring’s voice and puffed-up chest: no fascist was going to push old Blighty around.
Of course class divisions remain within the platoon, as they did right across the war effort. Although it is the public-school educated Sergeant Wilson who invariably loses out in the battle of will and leadership with the grammar-school educated Captain Mainwaring. It is however on the ideological front that in the fictionalised Walmington-on-Sea and the real Britain of 1939-45 that a battle was being fought, and won. A popular mood of co-operation, the common anti-fascist cause and a wide recognition that a society led by and benefiting solely those most used to being in charge was no way to win either the war, or the peace.
All of this created the basis for Labour’s 1945 landslide including the election of two Communist Party MPs, and the electoral defeat of Churchill’s Tory Party. We’ll never know whether the Walmington-on-Sea constituency went Labour, countless similar seats certainly did, but we can be sure that for at least a time the town wasn’t the place it was pre-1939.
There is a danger in dismissing the cult of nostalgia that Dad’s Army represented both in 1968 and in today’s version that we lose the meaning of that moment. Mainwaring, Wilson, Jones, Frazer, Godfrey, Pike and Walker were in their own way the most popular Popular Front of them all.
Harking back to World War Two has created a peculiar version of English patriotism. The politics of anti-fascism are airbrushed out. The Labour victory in ‘45, despite Churchill’s wartime leadership, is scarcely mentioned. The Battle of Britain reduced to a football chant, ‘Ten German Bombers and the RAF from England shot them down’, what kind of tribute is that?
World War Two memorialising becomes translated into a petty anti-Europeanism framed by a resentment at France or most particularly Germany, being the dominant forces in European politics. Dad’s Army gives us an alternative model. Unlike that other long-running BBC comedy set in World War Two, Allo Allo, the Germans rarely make an appearance and thus their hateful fascism is never trivialised or turned into a misjudged excuse for a laugh. Mainwaring’s platoon are hopelessly funny but never a joke. The opening credits spelt out what was at stake in 1940, Britain versus the swastika making its mark across Europe. This was an anti-nazi war not England vs Germany of ’66 vintage and since.
Dad’s Army was broadcast for 9 years, 1968-1977. Its ending pre-dates the rise and triumph of Thatcherism. It was under Maggie that Europhobia, or more accurately Germanophobia, came to define the Tory Right and would eventually create the basis for Ukip’s growth too. Given Ukip’s heartland support lies in England’s left-behind coastal towns it is too easy to rewrite Walmington-on-Sea’s Mainwaring as Thatcher, or Farage, incarnate. But no, rather this was a platoon of community, common cause and if called-upon no little courage. You have been watching? The people vs. fascism.
This is an amended version of a piece first published in the Morning Star. Mark Perryman is the co-founder of Philosophy Football, www.philosophyfootball.com, who have produced a range of Dad's Army tee shirts.