Wednesday, 23 December 2015

We're Doomed! Dad's Army & The Real Home Guard

John Laurie as Private Frazer (Wikipedia)
Many readers of this blog will have watched the excellent 'We're Doomed!' on BBC Television last night, which for those who missed it told the story of how David Croft and Jimmy Perry came up with the idea of Dad's Army, the long running and much loved comedy about the Home Guard in the fictional seaside resort of Walmington on Sea, established as in real life, in the dark days of World War 2 when this country faced invasion.

The programme showed the battles faced by the two writers in getting the show commissioned and aired in the face of strong opposition from senior executives at the BBC, who obviously didn't know a good thing when they saw it. The idea was originally mooted by Jimmy Perry, who had served in the Home Guard as a 17 year old awaiting his call up and upon whom some of the characteristics of Private Pike were based, such as having a fussing mother who didn't approve of the 17 year old Perry being out all night in the cold.

The BBC is now very quick to wallow in self congratulation over hit comedy shows such as Dad's Army, The Goon Show and Monty Python, as well as many more but the truth is that all of these shows faced tremendous battles by their creators and casts in the teeth of serious opposition from BBC management, who always seemed afraid to do anything original and outside their comfort zone, perhaps for fear of causing offence, rather than recognizing that they were often dealing with inspired, creative forces.

It was this fear of causing offence that provided much of the initial opposition to Dad's Army, with the then controller of BBC1, Paul Fox being openly doubtful of the whole idea of a comedy show about the Home Guard, for fear of it being seen to be making fun of people who would have willingly laid down their lives in the event of a German invasion. Fox perhaps had a point but the writers insisted that one only had to read the scripts to see that although there was much gentle humour, there was also acknowledgement that despite the occasional bumbling and pomposity, there was indeed recognition that the men of the Walmington on Sea Home Guard would have been prepared to lay down their lives had the need arisen. For example, the series one episode "The Battle of Godfrey's Cottage", finds the platoon believing that the invasion has indeed come and at one point Captain Mainwaring, thinking that the platoon would have to buy time to allow the regular Army reinforcements to arrive, states to his men "It'll probably be the end of us, but we're ready for that aren't we men?" 

On reflection, Fox was probably right to insist on one more change, this time to the opening credits. Perry and Croft had originally planned to show real life archive footage of German soldiers on the march along with refugees fleeing ahead of them. Fox thought it wrong to use archive footage in this way, himself finding it offensive and feeling that others might have similar feelings. He insisted that it be changed and the now familiar simple animation sequence showing the British retreat through France, hotly pursued by three large 'German' arrows, forming the letter 'H', was substituted instead.

The show's characters were beautifully crafted, very well cast and very much reflected the  mixture of ages and backgrounds that made up the real life Home Guard. The platoon was led by Captain George Mainwaring (pronounced Mannering), played with a mixture of pomposity and bluster by Arthur Lowe. Mainwaring was the local bank manager and had not served in the First World War, sometimes much to the disgust of the dour Scot, Private James Frazer played by John Laurie. Frazer was a Royal Navy veteran of the Battle of Jutland and was the undertaker in Walmington on Sea, which suited his sometimes gloomy and pessimistic character.

Capt Mainwaring & Warden Hodges (author's collection)

Mainwaring's second in command was his chief clerk at the bank, the diffident Sergeant Arthur Wilson, played by John Le Mesurier. Unlike Mainwaring, Wilson had served in the Great War as a Captain and had seen action at Mons, Passchendaele and Gallipoli and this, combined with the fact that Wilson had been educated at a public school, caused the snobbish Mainwaring to be resentful of his better connected sergeant. Wilson, although he privately thought Mainwaring a pompous idiot, never allowed this to upset him and he usually went about his duties in a serene manner, preferring to make suggestions such as "Would you mind awfully falling in, please?" rather than shouting orders as a sergeant would do normally.

The remainder of the platoon is made up from a mixture of veterans, such as Boer War and Great War stalwart Corporal Jack Jones the butcher, played by Clive Dunn, who was in reality much younger than the character he played. Jones was a soldier down to his boots, although his age usually caused him to be a split second behind the rest of the platoon when conducting 'drill' on parade. He often told long, rambling and ultimately pointless stories about Lord Kitchener and 'Fuzzy Wuzzies' in The Sudan and was an exponent of the use of the bayonet - "They don't like the cold steel up 'em sir!" - as well as frequently reminding people not to panic in times of crisis, even though he was invariably the first to get excited!

Another veteran (and probably the oldest) member of the platoon was Private Godfrey, played by Arnold Ridley, who was a retired shop assistant from the Army & Navy Stores and who lived with his sisters Cissy and Dolly (who was renowned for her cake making abilities.) They lived in an idyllic cottage on the edge of the town and like Frazer, Jones and Wilson, Godfrey too took part in the Great War, although as a Conscientious Objector (at first derided for being so by Frazer) he served as a stretcher bearer and indeed won the Military Medal for his bravery in tending wounded men under fire at The Somme. With this background and also in view of his relative infirmity, Godfrey was appointed as the platoon's first aider.

The younger members of the platoon were Privates Walker, played by James Beck and Pike, played by Ian Lavender. Walker is a 'spiv' or as he preferred to put it, a 'Wholesale Supplier', who later in the series managed to avoid the call up to the Army due to an allergy to corned beef. Walker was able to procure pretty much anything for a price and was also something of a ladies man, often with his girlfriend (played by Wendy Richard) in tow at social events. By contrast, Pike was a Mummy's Boy who sucked his thumb at times of crisis and who sometimes wore an enormous scarf over his uniform, much to Mainwaring's disapproval, who frequently called him a "Stupid Boy!" It was also tacitly written into the script, though never overtly mentioned, that he was Wilson's son, through the latter's 'friendship' with Pike's mother, Mavis and he usually referred to Wilson as 'Uncle Arthur' much to Wilson's embarrassment.

There was also a plethora of supporting characters, including Mainwaring's nemesis, Chief Air Raid Warden William Hodges, played by Bill Pertwee. Hodges was a somewhat course figure, given to calling Mainwaring 'Napoleon' and who was usually at loggerheads with the platoon and perpetually looking for ways to thwart them, efforts which usually ended in failure for the warden and his sidekick, Mr Yateman the Verger who was played by Edward Sinclair. The platoon was based at the Church Hall and the long suffering vicar, the Reverend Timothy Farthing, played by Frank Williams often played the role of peacemaker between Mainwaring and Hodges.

'We're Doomed' also describes how Jimmy Perry wrote to one of his childhood heroes, Bud Flanagan (played here by the great Roy Hudd) in order to ask him to perform the show's now famous theme tune "Who do you think you are kidding Mr Hitler?" Flanagan agreed to perform and in a very poignant scene, Perry is moved to tears as Flanagan sings the song perfectly in one take and before leaving the studio, remarks to Perry that the song reminded him of those he had sung during the war.

The series, like all good comedy programmes, featured a multitude of catch phrases such as "Don't Panic", "You stupid boy", "Ruddy Hooligans!" "Put that light out!" and of course, Private Frazer's very own "We're Doomed!" as well as many others that are still remembered today, no doubt as the show is still often repeated and is still funny, which is not a bad effort for a show which is 47 years old.

Despite the best efforts to stop the show, Dad's Army was first broadcast in 1968 and went on for nine series. It was also voted 13th in a survey by the British Film Institute of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes.

Dad's Army was superbly written by people who had lived through those times and in Perry's case, who had served in the Home Guard and was acted by people who had also for the most part lived during the war and had often served in the Forces during the war. It was beautifully observed and immediately struck a chord with the British public, not only with the wartime generation but also with younger people, who perhaps recognized traits from their parents or grandparents.

Watching how Dad's Army was conceived and eventually made it to the small screen got me thinking of our own real life Home Guard and especially in my own locality of Greenwich and Woolwich. Through my various researches at the excellent Greenwich Heritage Centre, I do know a little of these men and thought it appropriate to share some of the various photographs I have unearthed.

On 14th May 1940, with the invasion of this country beginning to look imminent, the Secretary of State for War, Anthony Eden made a radio broadcast in which he announced the formation of the Local Defence Volunteers or LDV for short and appealed for volunteers to come forward. The criteria was that men had to be aged between the ages of 17 and 65, not eligible for military service and reasonably fit. There was no shortage of volunteers but there was at this time a shortage of uniforms and equipment. The bulk of the British Expeditionary Force was to be successfully evacuated from France in the ensuing weeks but apart from their rifles, the bulk of their equipment had to be destroyed and left behind. This did not dissuade the embryonic Home Guard, as they were renamed in July 1940 and training continued apace, whilst the supply of weapons gradually improved, with First World War Ross Rifles being brought out of storage as well as instruction in how to carry out guerilla warfare using Molotov Cocktails amongst other improvised weapons. Fortunately, there was never any need to put these makeshift weapons into action against German Panzers.

'R' Sector Home Guard at Southend Hall, Eltham 1942 (Greenwich Heritage Centre)

In Greenwich, the local Home Guard was the 25th County of London Battalion, based in Blackheath at Hollyhedge House and the 34th County of London (London River South) Battalion. In Woolwich, there were again two battalions, the 22nd County of London (Royal Arsenal) and the 26th County of London based at Lowood House on Shooter's Hill Golf Course.

The photograph of 'R' Sector at Eltham taken in 1942, shows a similar mixture in ages as the Dad's Army platoon and there are many proudly wearing their First World War medal ribbons, although not even Jimmy Perry and David Croft could invent the somewhat fearsome character wearing the eye patch!

The 26th County of London Battalion had originally been formed as the 19th Company, LDV and rather confusingly, kept the Roman Numerals 'XIX' as their Unit Badge even after they had adopted their new Home Guard identity. Their original commander, a Mr Shrewsbury was transferred elsewhere at a relatively early stage, although he seems to have been well regarded and was replaced by Major Arthur Dickens, who was highly thought of both as a great and tireless organiser as well as being a great gentleman. Sadly, Major Dickens, not a young man, passed away in 1943 and was replaced by Major HRJ Tobin, who saw the battalion through to the end of the war and the 'stand down' in 1944.

26th County of London Battalion in 1942 - Major Dickens front centre wearing gloves (GHC)

In addition to their anti-invasion duties, the Home Guard performed invaluable service manning guard posts and thus freeing up regular soldiers for front line duties. They also manned anti aircraft guns, which explodes the myth that they never fired a shot in anger.

With the coming of the American entry into the war and the subsequent Allied invasion of France in June 1944, the Home Guard's relevance diminished and they were 'stood down' on 3rd December 1944 but not officially disbanded until the end of that year. The 26th Battalion held a 'Stand Down' Dinner and Cabaret on the 4th December 1944 and the programme to this event survives in the Greenwich Heritage Centre. It looks to have been quite a night and no doubt many beers were sunk and many tall tales exchanged!

Stand Down Cabaret (Author's Collection)

Once the Home Guard was disbanded, each member who had served received a certificate signed by the King, which stated that the holder of the certificate had "In the years when our country was in mortal danger, given generously of his time and powers to make himself ready for her defence by force of arms and with his life if need be."

Home Guard Service Certificate (Author's collection)

The words on the certificate say it all and in it's own small way, Dad's Army does the real life men of the Home Guard and indeed the British people as a whole during the dark days of 1940, a great honour.

Unpublished Sources:

26th County of London Battalion documents - Greenwich Heritage Centre