The following tribute started out as a re-write of my respectful nod to Clive Dunn on these pages in November 2012, Permission to Pay a Tribute, Sir. But today I’ve adapted it to mark the passing of the man who created Clive’s most memorable on-screen character.
While the great actor who played Lance Corporal Jones made it to the grand old age of 92, Dad’s Army creator Jimmy Perry went one better, bowing out over the weekend at 93, having beaten cancer three times along the way. And his departure seems to finally mark the end of a special era for British comedy and family entertainment.
For many years we’d seen the Dad’s Army crew steadily bow out, something starting far too early with the death of James Beck (who played loveable spiv Private Walker) in 1973, aged 44, just five years after Bud Flanagan, who sang Mr Perry’s memorable theme song. Edward Sinclair (Mr Yeatman, the verger), followed in 1977, and by the mid-80s we’d not only lost Talfryn Thomas (Private Cheeseman), but also key quartet Arthur Lowe (Captain Mainwaring), John Le Mesurier (Sergeant Wilson), John Laurie (Private Frazer) and Arnold Ridley (Private Godfrey).
That’s where I came in, so to speak, as in early 1986 this 18-year-old reared on Dad’s Army and It Ain’t Half Hot Mum got to meet one of his heroes, having the privilege of spending a couple of days in Jimmy Perry’s esteemed company on a course he hosted at London Media Workshops for around a dozen budding comedy scriptwriters.
I was the most junior by a fair few years, but found Jimmy perhaps the youngest of the lot in his boyish enthusiasm, full of great stories and truly inspirational in helping me start out towards my career goal.
By that stage he was around three-quarters of the way through a successful eight-year run with Hi-de-Hi! and still full of ideas, a five-year run writing You Rang M’Lord? ahead of him. But it was Dad’s Army that this sixth-form student wanted to know about – despite the fact that I was barely five months old when Jimmy and co-writer David Croft oversaw the first day of filming – and inspired me to apply for that opportunity.
I guess I was at a crossroads. My A-levels were coming to an end and I wanted to earn some money straight away and start living life rather than entertaining the idea of university at that point. I kind of knew what I wanted to do. It was just a case of finding the right path to get there. A series of BBC interviews followed, this scribbler eager to get in somehow, happy to start in any role he could at Portland Place or Wood Lane in a bid to be in the right place at the right time to pass on scripts of my own.
Two of my schoolmates did the same as cameramen, both proving a success in their respective fields. But I didn’t have the technical proficiency. So when I saw this course, and it involved a chance to meet a scriptwriting legend, I felt I might finally be on my way. But while Jimmy’s passion ensured that dream stayed with me, I quickly learned I was up against it, and didn’t have the confidence to break through at that stage.
It was a closed shop as far as I could tell – jobs for the boys, something underlined in Jimmy’s own assessment of the Beeb around then. As he put in his autobiography, A Stupid Boy (Century, 2002), ‘For over 25 years I worked in the middle-class, rather snobbish environment of the BBC. I’m ashamed to admit it, but it suited me down to the ground’.
While Jimmy came from a comfortable social background (‘We were so middle-class, our housemaid was not allowed to put the dustbins out until after dark’, he wrote), he was no snob. And despite my humble beginnings there was always a somewhat aspirational sid eof me. Neither of our families had any time for the more ‘common’ strands, and Jimmy – like myself – clearly didn’t want to follow the crowd.
As it was, I was more a real ale leftie than the champagne socialist Jimmy felt he was. Okay, so I was 30 miles down the A3 from his native Barnes and this private-schooled son of an antique dealer wouldn’t have been allowed to play with a council tenant like myself if he’d been born 44 years later, but we had a bit in common. That said, I was more or less happy to be discovered in the background while he – brought up on a rich diet of classic cinema and variety theatre – ‘just wanted to get up on that stage and show off’.
As he put it in A Stupid Boy, he wanted to ‘be an actor, be a comedian, be anything as long as I was in that limelight’. As it turned out, it would take me a while to get the material I needed, but Jimmy showed me the way, despite my initial disappointment of not getting there straight away.
One thing I did learn from that course was that personal experience led to Jimmy coming up with so many great scripts, starting with his adventures in Watford (the family moving there during the war to live above a family member’s antiques shop) in the Home Guard as a wet-behind-the-ears ‘stupid boy’ (his father’s exasperated expression at his lad, who readily admitted, ‘I can really be a bit of a nerd’) leading to Dad’s Army (1968/77).
Then – having initially received his call-up over Christmas 1943 – he served in Burma with the Royal Artillery Concert Party, inspiring It Ain’t Half Hot Mum (1974/81). Beyond that, post-demob and RADA training, he had a spell as a Butlin’s redcoat in Pwllheli, leading to Hi-De-Hi! (1980/88). So while his dream of becoming a successful actor never came to fruition, he found his salvation in creating such memorable characters, helping gather wonderful casts, and knocking out so many great storylines.
It Ain’t Half Hot Mum wasn’t so much to my liking, but had its moments, not least thanks to Windsor Davies (still with us at the age of 86, I happily add), so good in his role as Battery Sergeant Major Williams.
And while my modern sensibility suggests plenty of great Asian actors could have played Rangi Ram, Michael Bates was brilliant and at least born in India, fluent in Urdu, and a former Gurkha. Besides, Jimmy insisted there was no ‘blacking up’, telling The Telegraph’s Neil Clark in a 2013 interview for his 90th birthday, ‘All Michael wore was a light tan. He was never blacked up!’ Similarly, he dismissed allegations of that series being homophobic, suggesting shouting at soldiers that they were ‘a bunch of poofs’ was what sergeant-majors did. ‘That’s how they talked!’
I also felt the early series of Hi-de-Hi! had their moments, although I’d moved on by then. finding it a bit obvious in places. Again though, the quality of the casting and acting often shone out. As for You Rang, M’lord? I’ve not seen enough to offer an opinion, just seeing another show with more or less the same cast as Hi-de-Hi! commissioned, steering clear. An Upstairs Downstairs pastiche said nothing to me. That said, it was clearly a labour of love for Jimmy, brought up on his father’s tales of his own father’s days as a butler, ‘below stairs’. Meanwhile, David Croft – who also served in the Royal Artillery, although he didn’t meet Jimmy until many years later – knew from his mother’s stories from her days as an actress between the wars all about ‘upstairs’ life.
But back to Jimmy’s finest moment. For while a few of those Perry and Croft sitcoms lost their edge over time, Dad’s Army shone out, in no small part due to its creators writing believable, memorable characters and finding an amazing chemistry through the actors they assembled.
Thirty years ago I listened in rapture as Jimmy reminisced about so many golden comedy moments, awestruck in his presence at Rodney House, Dolphin Square, SW1. We also got to write our own sitcom, and while that (perhaps predictably) came to nothing, it was enough being in the presence of the man who brought Mainwaring, Wilson, Jones, Frazer, Walker, Godfrey and Pike to our screens.
One topic we did discuss – one I brought up – was a mutual love of Will Hay films, Jimmy recalling the influence of Hay and sidekicks Graham Moffatt and Moore Marriott on his own work, stripping that successful formula back to its component parts – the supposedly-superior bumbler and supposedly-inferior clever one, supported by bungling old men and wet-behind-the-ears young ‘uns. I’ve seen various different takes on that formula since, but the strength of Perry/Croft collaborations was that you could perm any of those great characters and get the same result in the right hands – comedy gold.
There was a Will Hay link through Clive Dunn too, a former POW from a theatrical family having cut his cinematic teeth as a youth in Boys Will Be Boys and Good Morning, Boys, long before his TV break in the late ‘60s. And it will always be his Dad’s Army role he’s best remembered for (give or take his 1970 novelty No.1 chart hit with Grandad), turning Jimmy’s vividly-drawn character, Lance Corporal Jack Jones, local butcher and ageing ex-serviceman, into someone so many of us grew to love over that next decade … and beyond.
There have been times over the years when Dad’s Army became something of a byword for lazy BBC scheduling, just ‘another bloody repeat’, barely off our screens. But thankfully it was that rather than the lesser alternatives. 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. And we have Jimmy Perry and David Croft to thank for that.
Later in 1986, the year I met Jimmy, we lost Janet Davies (Mrs Pike) at the age of 59, but thankfully there were no further departures until Colin Bean (Private Sponge) in 2009, followed by David Croft in 2011, then within six months of each other Clive Dunn and Bill Pertwee, who appeared not only as Warden Hodges but in all four of Jimmy’s BBC series. Now, with Jimmy’s passing, Frank Williams, who played the vicar, is the only senior still around, although thankfully through Ian Lavender (Private Pike) we still have at least one ’stupid boy’ bringing up the rear.
More to the point, through my Dad’s Army DVD box set, my signed copy of A Stupid Boy and related Bill Pertwee books, and those TV repeats (still, after all these years), the story continues, those nine series over nine years (80 episodes in all) and spin-off radio shows lasting well beyond their expected shelf-life. And they’re as pertinent nearly 40 years after that final episode when the platoon disbanded and Jones married his ‘lady friend’ Mrs Fox (played by Pamela Cundell, who outdid Jimmy, passing away at 95 last February).
As Jimmy put it in A Stupid Boy, ‘I never did become a famous film star or a great comedian, but I like to think I’ve made people laugh and reminded them of the time when this dear country of ours stood alone against the most evil regime the world has ever seen’. He certainly did, with great moments in all his shows. And for Dad’s Army alone he deserves his place among the realms of the comedy and writing legends.
For this website’s 2012 tribute to Clive Dunn – which formed the basis for this feature – head here. And for a link to Neil Clark’s 2013 interview with Jimmy Perry – marking his 90th birthday – for the Telegraph, head here.