Mark Perryman argues that Dad's Army was the most popular front of them all
U-Boat Captain Your name will go on the list! Vot is it?
Mainwaring Don't tell him, Pike!
It's nigh on impossible to read those words and not summon up a smile. A smile of remembrance too, as this week the last surviving member of the Dad's Army cast, Ian Lavender, aka Private Pike, passed away.
The very first appearance of Private Pike and the rest of the Walmington-on-Sea volunteers featured Lance Corporal Jones the butcher sabotaging any threat of a Nazi invasion by reversing the road signs ‘To the town’ and ‘To the sea’. The result was obvious, a local motorcyclist stops, takes now 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. 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, the 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 Farage and his like – 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. Never mind, the fierce and heroic resistance is obvious 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 benefitting 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, then and now, that we lose the meaning of that moment. Mainwaring, Wilson, Jones, Frazer, Godfrey Pike & Walker were in their own way the most popular Popular Front of them all.
But a near-constant 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, 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 borne out of ignorance is that? The RAF was never 'from England' and in this most heroic of its battles alongside Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish, there were pilots and aircrew from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Australia, Canada, South Africa and more.
World War Two memorialising has become translated into a petty anti-Europeanism framed by a resentment at France or most particularly Germany, and not Britain being the dominant forces in European politics. Dad’s Army gives us an alternative model. Unlike Allo Allo, that other long-running BBC comedy set in World War Two, 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 Thatcher that Europhobia, or more accurately Germanophobia, came to define the Tory Right and would eventually create the basis for UKIP’s growth too.
Given Farage's heartland support lies in England’s left behind coastal towns – he's considering standing in Clacton apparently – 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. 'Don't tell him, Pike' is hilariously funny but they are also words of resistance against the Nazis. You have been watching? The people vs fascism.
Philosophy Football's Don't Tell Him Pike, T-shirt, designed by Hugh Tisdale, is available from here