What was it that made me immediately want to see the new Dad’s Army film, despite misgivings about the modern attempt to recreate the comedy classic about the antics of a Home Guard platoon in World War Two? It wasn’t the suddenly higher profile that the old TV series has been getting recently, what with Star Wars star Daisy Ridley being revealed to be the great-niece of Arnold ‘Private Godfrey’ Ridley, or the BBC drama entitled We’re Doomed! The Dad’s Army Story about the behind-the-scenes story of this much-loved TV comedy which ran from 1968 to 1977. It wasn’t even my love for the original series, though that was a significant part of it.
No, it was the cast: Toby Jones playing the pompous Captain Mainwaring; Bill Nighy as the daydreaming Sergeant Wilson; Tom Courtenay as the panicky Corporal Jones; Michael Gambon as the geriatric Godfrey; and Bill Paterson as the grumpy and cowardly Private Frazer. A survey of available talent confirmed at once that this was the ideal set of actors to perform these nationally-treasured roles: who else but Bill Nighy, for example, could capture the bemused diffidence that John Le Mesurier had portrayed so effortlessly?
As long as you see the film as a tribute to the old series, you can avoid thorny comparisons. Of course, no one was trying to be ‘better’ than the originals, that would have been folly - but to pay homage to them so wonderfully, using these golden names, that was more hopeful. And I think it worked.
With Catherine Zeta-Jones adding a bit of zest as a journalist writing a feature about the Home Guard for 'The Lady' magazine, and the plot being constructed farcically around a vital piece of information about D-Day which has somehow been lost in Walmington-on-Sea, the audience has enough to hang onto as they watch to see just how well the film can evoke the magic of the original. This film is suitably far removed from the days when films were trotted out to cash in on TV series’ popularity to be enjoyed as something different, with an atmosphere of its own.
Key elements of humour are still there, especially the middle-class Mainwaring’s sense of frustration with and jealousy of slightly-more-upper-class and Oxford-educated Wilson. They both become infatuated with Catherine Zeta-Jones character, and comically at one point are found concealed behind a sofa together when their attraction for her is at risk of being revealed. Nighy’s ‘Sir…?’ on spotting his pompous boss coming out of hiding is perfectly matched by Toby Jones’ matter-of-fact ‘Wilson’ in acknowledgement, as though they had just met in the street. In fact, Jones and Nighy pull off an almost ideal match to Lowe’s and Le Mesurier’s Mainwaring and Wilson -so much so that you don’t really want to compare.
Michael Gambon’s depiction of the senile Godfrey is also magnetic to watch, as is almost everything that Gambon does. One feels that Gambon digests a role much as Godfrey would consume a biscuit, meticulously and with great relish.
It’s been said that the film is ‘pointless ancestor worship’. I’d agree that there is an element of ancestor worship, but disagree that it is pointless. It manages to evoke the humour and style of the original, if not its pathos and occasional moments of genuine feeling. And I think that that was all it intended to do, and all that one could expect of it.