I was on a London Media Workshops ‘Writing Television Comedy’ course in my late teens, led by the great Jimmy Perry – the actor-turned-writer who teamed up with David Croft and wrote It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, Hi-de-Hi! and You Rang, M’Lord.
Oh yeah, and Dad’s Army too. For while a few of those BBC sitcoms lost their edge over time (or in some cases never quite reached it), Dad’s Army shone out from the rest, in no small part due to Perry and Croft and the amazing chemistry of the actors they assembled.
Back in 1986, I listened in rapture as the man himself reminisced about so many comedy gold moments and memories, awestruck in his presence for a couple of days at Rodney House, Dolphin Square, SW1. The course also involved us writing our own sitcom, and while that predictably came to nothing, it was enough purely being in the presence of the man who helped bring Captain Mainwaring, Sergeant Wilson, Lance-Corporal Jones and Privates Frazer, Walker, Godfrey and Pike to our screens.
One topic I did discuss with Jimmy was a mutual love of Will Hay films, and he recalled the influence of Hay and sidekicks Graham Moffatt and Moore Marriott on his own big hit, stripping that successful formula back to its main component parts – the supposedly-superior bumbler and supposedly-inferior clever one, supported by bungling old men and wet-behind-the-ears young ones.
I’ve seen various different versions of that premise since, but the main strength of this Perry/Croft collaboration was that you could perm any of those great characters and get the same result in the right hands – comedy gold.
Many of Perry’s small screen successes were based on his own life experiences, not least his time in the Watford Home Guard – very much the model for Private Pike – and in Burma with the Royal Artillery Concert Party, then on his demob as a Butlin’s Redcoat.
There was clearly a link there for Clive Dunn too, the former POW from a theatrical family having cut his cinematic teeth as a youth in Hay’s schoolmaster films Boys Will Be Boys and Good Morning, Boys, long before his big TV break in the late 1960s.
And it will always be that later role that Dunn, who died this week at the age of 92, will be remembered, having turned Perry’s vividly-drawn character of Corporal Jack Jones into someone so many of us grew to love over that next decade … and beyond.
Okay, so there have been times over the years when Dad’s Army became something of a byword for all the BBC’s lazy scheduling, just ‘another bloody repeat’, barely off our screens. But thankfully it was that rather than one of the many poor sitcoms that could have taken its place. For while the world has changed immeasurably since Walmington-on-Sea’s Home Guard stood down, it still sits comfortably, generation after generation still getting that quintessentially British humour. Timeless, in fact.
We have Perry and Croft to thank for that, but also all those great actors they cast, not least Arthur Lowe (Mainwaring), John Le Mesurier (Wilson), John Laurie (Frazer), James Beck (Walker), Arnold Ridley (Godfrey), Ian Lavender (Pike) and Bill Pertwee (Warden Hodges). And of course Dunn as Lance-Corporal Jack Jones, the local butcher and ageing former serviceman.
Jones the character was born in 1870 (yes, a 70-year-old played by a 50-year-old – another Moore Marriott parallel), an old campaigner who joined up as a drummer boy aged 14 and participated, as a boy soldier, in the Gordon Relief Expedition of 1884/85 and as a soldier in the campaign of Kitchener in the Sudan in 1896-98, where he learned how those ‘Fuzzie-Wuzzies don’t like it up ’em’, his character closely based one of the elder statemen in Perry’s own LDV platoon.
Dunn the actor played his own part in the Second World War, although his active service was soon curtailed – an early capture leading to four years’ internment in Greece and Austria. Even when that hell was over, he had to serve two more years in the forces before his demob, when he finally learned his acting craft – following two previous generations of his family into that business called show.
The breaks finally came, roles under the likes of Tony Hancock, Dora Bryan, Dick Emery and Michael Bentine leading to his big TV hit, having by then honed perfectly his trademark role of ‘doddering old man’.
Dunn, a committed socialist whose politics often led to tensions with old Tory Arthur Lowe on set, was 48 when he first transformed himself into Jack Jones, and within two years he was taking on a parallel role for his surprise 1970 No.1, Grandad, in turn leading to a similar role on children’s TV after the Dad’s Army years.
By the time I met Jimmy Perry, Dunn had disappeared from our screens and was in Portugal enjoying semi-retirement, working on his artwork and helping run a family restaurant.
Yet, all the time I have my treasured Dad’s Army box set, Clive Dunn and Jack Jones will remain with me – those nine series from 1968-77 (80 episodes in all) and spin-off radio shows (and less successful film) lasting well beyond their expected shelf life – and still as pertinent 35 years after that final episode when the platoon disbanded and Jones married his ‘lady friend’ Mrs Fox.
This past week, the current BBC was called into judgement again, this time over the furore that followed treasured broadcaster Danny Baker’s bizarre ousting from Radio London after an out-of-touch decision from the suits (or ‘weasels’, according to Baker) now running the joint. But I guess there’s nothing new there, not least when you hear of the lukewarm audience and management responses to the first episodes of this much-loved television institution.
Some will just remember Dunn’s catchphrases (‘They don’t like it up ’em!’ ‘Don’t panic!’ ‘Permission to speak, sir!’), but there was far more to Jones, his under-the counter culture and illicit sausage and bacon re-distribution, seemingly-innocent innuendo, and comically slow reactions with rifle and fixed-bayonet after all that illustrious active service.
Of course, the irony of that casting was that ‘old dodderer’ Clive Dunn out-lasted so many of his fellow Home Guard comrade actors. And 92’s a pretty good innings for a such a great character actor.