Thursday, 25 February 2016

‘We’re all Doomed!’ (… or why the remake of Dad’s Army was never going to work)

This evening, my wife and I wasted some hard-earned money going to see a film that was so bad, we walked out after 35 minutes, a new personal record. What’s puzzling is that:

a    1) In all the hype and publicity and nostalgia for the original show, no-one in the 2016 film  production team thought that giving a bit of time to creating a new decent script was worth it, because:
      2) They hoped that enough idiots like us who enjoyed the original would pay out hard-earned cash, and what’s worse,
c     3) Those hard-bitten cynics and bean-counters were absolutely right, curse them.

So don’t waste your money like we did. Wait until the flim turns up on TV, watch the first few minutes, then turn it off and silently thank me. You’re welcome.

Dad’s Army (2016) is a complete turkey, whose only virtue lies in keeping excellent actors employed until the day they can find something more useful to do. The ‘plot’, such as it is, hinges on the idea that a few days before D-Day, the Walmington-on-Sea Home Guard would be given the responsibility of patrolling the white cliffs of Dover to help protect the nearby port being prepared for the invasion of France. This is, of course, a complete fantasy. In reality, no-one would trust the security of Operation Overlord to volunteers. At the time, Britain was an armed camp, seething with Allied invasion troops ready to move at Eisenhower’s command- so when the film’s plot asks us to possibly believe that the German High command would be taking a personal interest in Mainwaring’s platoon, it loses any hope of believability. We’re just watching a load of actors slowly going through the motions. And I do mean slowly. I’ve heard Christmas cracker jokes that were less predictable and more original.

The original series was based on a much simpler and potentially more terrifying reality- that everyday civilians like you and me could find themselves on the front line of battle in the case of invasion. (Johnny Speight, author of ‘Till Death Us Do Part, called Dad’s Army the original black comedy.) Most viewers of a certain age will remember the classic episode involving a captured U-boat captain threatening retribution, his cold demand from Ian Lavender’s character of ‘What is your name?’ followed by Captain Mainwaring’s panicked ‘Don’t tell him, Pike!’ It’s absurd and it’s funny, because it is frightening. We now know exactly what was happening across occupied Europe in 1940, and the genuine risks that Britain faced of Nazi occupation, just like France, Belgium or Norway. Mainwaring’s platoon, assuming they survived an invasion, wouldn’t have lasted five minutes after the Gestapo arrived- which is why Dad’s Army’s humour is based on a dark fear. As Private Fraser repeatedly put it, ‘We’re all doomed!’ Because they (and we) very nearly were.

In the 1960s, Jimmy Perry and David Croft’s idea for a sitcom was initially rejected by BBC controllers because they thought it was too close to the bone. The very first episode showed Mainwaring assembling his Local Defence Volunteers in the village hall, with townsfolk making insane plans to stop German tanks with improvised weapons. That’s how it really was, and thank God they never had to face the real thing.  Like all TV series, Dad’s Army had its duff moments when the script relied too much on the skill of character actors to make scenes work (especially the eccentricities of ‘Corporal Jones’), and the whole thing eventually ran out of steam after a while, but the writers did their best to keep incorporating enough realistic details to keep an older generation interested, whilst teaching a younger generation like mine a little social history (Air Raid Precautions, food rationing, unexploded bombs, rigid class distinctions, popular music…) whilst we were still in primary school. On the negative side, it's possibly also the place where many of us picked up unhelpful suspicions of modern Germany too. Or perhaps that came from Colditz. Or 'Allo?'Allo?

As for this film? It’s slow, it’s unfunny, and every time a member of the cast speaks, we’re remembering the other actors who made the original series work and thinking…’Hmmm, not quite the way John Le Mesurier / Clive Dunn / Arthur Lowe / James Beck / Arnold Ridley / Ian Lavender / John Laurie / Bill Pertwee would have said it.’ And that’s why the 2016 film version was doomed from the start, because it couldn’t rekindle the spirit of the original TV series, or the experience of actors like John Laurie and Arnold Ridley who had memories of the real thing. Real comedy (like all great art) holds a mirror up to the truth, and the laughter helps us defeat the darkness- just as it did in 1940.

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Any requests of subjects for future posts in 2016? No idea too stupid for consideration. And yes, I know I am a bad writer, so don't bother saying that unless you can write something better. But maybe there's a topic buzzing around in your head that you'd like to see covered... because I've got a keyboard here, it's loaded with letters, and I ain't afraid to use it.