As Dad’s Army reaches 50, ANTHONY CLAVANE assesses what the show tells us about British exceptionalism, globalisation… and Brexit
As ever, the best-laid plans have gone awry in Walmington-on-Sea. The idea had been to stage a short play about the town’s past next to a life-size bronze cast of Captain Mainwaring but, as a middle-aged man in period costume explains, there has been a last-minute switch. As he walks along the riverfront announcing the change, the temptation to shout ‘Don’t panic! Don’t panic!’ at bewildered passers-by must be overwhelming.
Simon Kirk doesn’t think that’s wise. ‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ he calls out in his best, silkiest, John Le Mesurier tones, ‘if there’s anybody waiting for our play we’ve decided to do it over on Butten Island. We’ve got blankets so it’s nice and comfy.’
This being Walmington-on-Sea – or, at least, Thetford, which stood in for the fictional resort for filming purposes and has since become its real-life ‘twin’ – I’d expected the performance to be a scene from Dad’s Army, the nice-and-comfy television show which put the picturesque Norfolk town on the map.
After all, at the end of this month the classic comedy will be 50 years old.
To commemorate this anniversary, the Royal Mail unveiled a series of stamps, featuring catchphrases such as ‘Don’t panic’, ‘Do you think that’s wise, sir?’ and ‘Do you think I might be excused?’
The BBC series, which aired 80 episodes between 1968 and 1977 – and at its peak drew audiences of 18 million – is etched on to our national consciousness and has, for some, become a symbol of Brexit.
Kirk, who heads the theatrical company Time Will Tell, shoots me a withering, ‘stupid boy’ look.
His play, he explains, most certainly commemorates Thetford’s past, but it is set in Victorian times not wartime Walmington-on-Sea. And it is part of the Festival of Thetford and Punjab, a celebration of the town’s multicultural heritage – specifically Maharaja Duleep Singh, who lived at the nearby Eleveden Hall as an English aristocrat but never got over losing the kingdom of the Punjab.
I ask Kirk if he is a Dad’s Army fan. ‘I’m not a devotee,’ he confesses. ‘It’s the product of its time and the time it’s portraying. I’ve been to the museum here. It’s a seminal comedy. But what is the myth we’re playing into here? That in 1940 we stood alone against the Nazi hordes that had conquered everybody else? It’s been appropriated by the right. It portrays an age where there wasn’t much diversity but Thetford is a place that has experienced immigration for years.’
Being, myself, a devotee of the legendary sitcom I was still hoping that he would say, in Sgt Wilson’s louche fashion, ‘gather round men’ when we reached the idyllic green banks of Butten Island, just over the metal bridge. This is where the rivers Thet and Ouse join up. As do the two narratives of Thetford, indeed post-referendum Britain, itself.
Standing in front of a statue of Duleep Singh, an actor playing a mid-19th century factory worker expresses fears about the coming of the railways to the sleepy market town.
‘Perhaps we don’t want loads of strangers coming here,’ he says. ‘Interfering and changing the way we are.’ Apart from telling the fascinating story of the last ruler of a Sikh empire, the company seems to be promoting the idea of an outward-looking Britishness which embraces multiculturalism.
Just over the bridge, next to Marigold’s Tea Rooms – where you can enjoy 1940s-style ‘wartime recipe cakes’ and a cuppa poured from British-made Brown Betty teapots – the 11-year-old Dad’s Army museum is an homage to the counter myth of British exceptionalism, with the blustering Mainwaring and his plucky Home Guarders presented as all that stands between us and continental tyranny.
I still love watching the antics of the dysfunctional unit but I worry about the national obsession with a period appropriated by eurosceptics.
According to the commentator Jonathan Freedland, the recent cinematic remake – which starred Toby Jones as Captain Mainwaring and Bill Nighy as Sergeant Wilson and was released just a few months before the 2016 referendum – suggested ‘a nation still yearning for the days when it stood alone… those opening titles showing this sceptre’d isle beating back the invading arrows of the continent. The essential message: keep away, Europe, we’re better off alone.’
To transpose the isolationist wartime conditions of Britain’s darkest hour to our globalised, interconnected, 21st century world represents the worst kind of distorted, self-delusional triumphalism.
This is not to minimise the bravery shown during that existential crisis, but there are two vital points missing from this narrative.
Firstly, this country eventually needed both the Russians and Americans to come to its rescue. And secondly, as the Punjab festival reminds us, even when ‘standing alone’ it was able to call on its then vast empire.
To help me find my way to the museum, where I hope to gain a better understanding of the exceptionalist myth, I ask a passer-by for directions. ‘Dad’s Army?’ he repeats.
‘Is that a place where fathers can help and stuff like that?’
The charms of the hapless platoon might have passed Goncalo by, but the Portuguese landscaper knows his local history.
He knows that Thetford is associated with not only Duleep Singh but also revolutionary writer Thomas Paine and Roman-botherer Queen Boudicca. He knows it is dotted with beautiful 12th century buildings, Polish and Lithuanian food stores and traditional pubs. He also knows that things haven’t quite been the same since a mob of drunken English fans besieged one of those pubs, then under Portuguese ownership, during Euro 2004 after Ronaldo’s lot had the temerity to knock the Three Lions out of the tournament.
He also, as luck would have it, knows the way to the Old Fire Station, the building which houses a vast collection of Dad’s Army memorabilia, many iconic props and a short film about the locations used in the town. ‘There’s often a lot of cameras around there,’ he says. ‘I wasn’t sure why.’
Goncalo, 41, came to Thetford 16 years ago as part of a wave of Portuguese migrants lured by jobs in the surrounding food factories. It is estimated that around a fifth of the town’s 28,000 inhabitants are from Portugal. It is also home to a sizeable eastern European community.
‘There used to be much more of us,’ he tells me, ‘but now with Brexit a lot of people have left. There is more racism after Brexit.
‘I was in the pub when the English fans attacked it because England lost to Portugal. I’ve never seen so much police in Thetford. Is it still as bad? Well, we get used to it.
‘I don’t understand why Britain, one of the most important countries in the EU, one of the first ones, is leaving. Things will change for our kids, for your kids, for mine.’
Outside the Old Fire Station, I am greeted by a familiar figure. Captain Mainwaring, alias Mick Whitman, invites me into his office and I am instantly transported back to a parallel universe of little-England-against-the-world defiance, a romanticised past when Blighty stood up to Johnny Foreigner, everyone stood up for the national anthem and funny-accented pilots dangled from bell towers.
Mick is keen to dispel a few misconceptions about the show. I tell him my favourite episode is Deadly Attachment, the one with the U-boat crew featuring the greatest line in British comedy.
‘A lot of people think Mainwaring says ‘Don’t tell him your name, Pike.’ Doesn’t sound right. It’s ‘Don’t tell him Pike’. And the BBC would have you believe that the German parachutist in Time On My Hands was, indeed, hanging. But he wasn’t. They thought it was too dangerous to have him dangling there.’
Another myth, he says, is that Thetford is a coastal community, just like the make-believe town it once impersonated. ‘We are miles and miles away from any sea,’ he chuckles.
‘It’s all agricultural round here, work on the land and so on. It’s definitely changed quite a bit, though, Walmington-on-Sea.’
Mick, who is in his mid-70s and has been showing people around the museum for the past decade, sports an accent that is more East End than East Anglia, a legacy of the London overspill which helped the town grow rapidly under a plan to clear out the capital’s slums. During the 1960s it tripled its population, with the council houses built for East End migrants now occupied by European migrants.
‘Thetford is now on the map for good things,’ he sighs. ‘When you say to people ‘Thetford’, they say it’s the home of Dad’s Army. But at one time we got a very bad name, didn’t we? The London overspill.
‘And during Euro 2004, the pub in the market square, well it was a bloodbath. It was rent-a-crowd, all orchestrated. Now we’ve got the Mainwaring statue, the Jonesy van [the 1935 Ford Box van used in the series is now kept in the town] and the museum. It’s a huge draw. We get an average of 10,000 visitors a year you know.’
As someone, perhaps the ghost of Warden Hodges, turns the lights out, dropping an unsubtle hint that the museum is about to close, I ask where the others are. ‘Sorry?’ You know, Wilson, Frazer, Pike, Jonesy and Godfrey. ‘Ah, yes, well. Wilson is sometimes here. He gets right up my nose, that man.’ I assume he is telling me this in character. ‘Anyway, we can get a platoon together if necessary.’
I think of joking that resurrecting the Home Guard heroes won’t be necessary because we are all doomed. Doomed I tell you!
But when I mention the shambles that is Brexit he mutters ‘I don’t want to get into that sort of thing’ and, taking the hint, I ask for permission to be excused.
As I walk back to the station, I spot a large photograph of Frazer in a shop window.
It is part of a lovingly-assembled display celebrating the sitcom’s half-century.
When I enquire inside, the bug-eyed, abrasive undertaker appears to have been reincarnated in the form of 79-year-old Thetfordian Neville Lockwood, who was as an extra in the Knights of Madness episode and, like his mate Mick, donned the uniform again in the critically-panned 2016 movie.
‘Yes I’m often mistaken for Frazer,’ he says. ‘I’ve impersonated him at the museum. I knew John Laurie and some of the old stars when they were here. Dad’s Army doesn’t date, does it? It’s still relevant today. That’s why they’ve brought out these stamps. They are still with us.’
This is true. There’s even a tribute act currently residing in Westminster, a ragtag group of oddballs whose best-known catchphrase is ‘Let us go backwards together’.
It would not require a great deal of imagination to replace, on the stamps, the heads of Mainwaring, Jones, Frazer, Pike et al with those of various bungling Brexiteers.
Nor to identify which of them is the huffing-and-puffing, put-upon leader, the barking-mad panic-monger, the charming-but-ineffectual toff and the spivvy opportunist.
‘After the series finished it died a death,’ says Neville. ‘Nobody mentioned it for 20 or 30 years. Now, suddenly, it’s all the rage. People are nostalgic for the 1940s. We have loads of 40s’ events here.’ In fact, he continues, the very first episode was set in the 1960s. Not a lot of people know that. Being a fan I did know that.
It opened at an I’m Backing Britain meeting, a patriotic campaign which briefly exerted a grip on the nation’s psyche in 1968. I also knew that the campaign’s T-shirts were made in Portugal.
Before I take my leave from Walmington-on-Sea I pop in to the Thomas Paine Hotel for a swift half. Paine is also commemorated in a golden statue outside the town hall, which is inscribed: ‘My country is the world, my religion is to do good.’ I have a quick chat with Seema Anand, a storyteller involved in the Thetford and Punjab festival, who tells me about Duleep Singh’s cultural legacy.
‘It’s the first time the town has had a festival like this,’ she says. ‘It’s been terribly successful. It’s about inclusiveness. It’s about connecting to find shared stories and histories. But it’s never going to be as well known as Dad’s Army. Dad’s Army is part of the larger British history.
‘It’s very much part of the consciousness of the British people.’