As film audiences pine for the days of yore more than ever, Britain’s beloved war comedy Dad’s Army is finally getting a breath of fresh air with the release of a new film, which comes to theatres February 5th. I had a chat with actress Holli Dempsey, who plays Vera in the film, quizzing her on how Dad’s Army will appeal to young viewers, memorable moments on set, and meeting your heroes.
So looking back in retrospect at an interview you did with Hello! Magazine back in February last year, were there any big surprises that happened during production in Dad’s Army?
I think you expect to feel a lot more, and I’m not sure what I mean by that. My brother said that when he met Ricky Gervais when we all went on a night out together, that it was just a bit disappointing even though obviously they’re amazing people, but you just expect to be knocked over backwards in their presence. To be honest it’s disappointing in a nice way because it makes their ‘niceness’ more accessible, if you get me. I was like that with Bill Paterson, because I was such a fan of his performance as Mr Jenkins in The Witches and I did knock on his trailer door at one point asking for a chat. He still cherishes that film as one of his favourite projects, and as a bonus it turns out the line ‘I don’t want cock-a-leekie, I like cress!’ was totally improvised!
Dad’s Army is obviously a classic that’s seen several different formats across radio, television and the 1971 film. Was it something you ever grew up listening to or watching because of your parents?
Honestly it wasn’t something I was at all interested in growing up! It was the green and the grey look of the show, the fact that everyone apart from Private Pike is older. When you look at shows like Harry Enfield and Chums, it’s an adult show with adult humour, but there was still an appeal for kids, whereas this is just seemed to be a grainy war show. However once I got the audition, I now feel ashamed because the box set is absolutely fantastic.
Did you feel at all intimated being such a young cast member amongst the industry heavyweights but also the fact that it is a show mostly of older generation characters?
To be honest if I’d felt like that I would have had a breakdown on day 1. The first rehearsal you had people like Catherine Zeta-Jones and Bill Nighy walking in and out and it was just like “Oh wow, play it cool!” But it’s not a competition, like my co-star Emily Atack (who plays Daphne in the film) and I are in the same age group despite her being more well-known than me, you can really learn from being around such amazing and friendly people. I can accept that I’m happy to sit there with my hands on my chin listening to their stories, and it makes for a great learning experience. Bill Nighy for example, as much as he’s done in his time, is just so normal and sweet.
So your character Vera is a newly created role for the film. Was there anything about her characteristics that resonated with you personally, or any inspiration you used when playing her on set?
I knew from the beginning that she was very sweet, quite working class and loyal whereas Emily Atack’s character is a bit more of a bombshell, so very confident and sexy and Vera isn’t like that at all. I didn’t have loads to go on but Ollie (Ollie Parker, director) obviously liked it, and my character is also quite balanced out by Pike (Blake Harrison, The Inbetweeners 2) which helps, as he’s very sweet and obviously young like me, so we made a lovely little couple!
From an acting point of view, do you have a favourite scene from the film?
Well there’s a scene where Catherine Zeta-Jones and I go head-to-head, which was incredibly fun, but I actually got a scar on my leg from the scene! It’s also hard because you’re obviously trying to be in character but part of you is sort of looking at yourself from the outside, going “Look at me doing this one-to-one scene with Catherine!”
Speaking of Ollie Parker, do you think as a director he’s made this film appeal to a new generation of viewers, most of which probably haven’t seen Dad’s Army before? Additionally how is it still going to appeal to our parents and grandparent’s generation?
The first thing has to be casting- it’s a real dream team with some of the best British actors in the industry, and they also look spookily similar to the actors from the old series, which helps I think. On top of that, I wasn’t actually sure how they were going to pull it all together because I only saw it for the first time last Sunday, but I Ollie’s made a clear effort to really make it into a film with all the cinematic bells and whistles, without the characteristics of a small TV show or ‘spin-off’ feel like the older works. Then you see all the men but they have the ‘familiar faces’ feel, which I think will be a relief for older viewers.
Even someone like me who never watched it as a child, it felt familiar!
So the film is loyal to the old show?
I think we were aware that we were working on one of Britain’s best treasures, and you don’t want to just run with it and revamp it to death. We actually have two remaining cast members in it, Ian Lavender who was the original Private Pike, and then Frank Williams who played the original vicar. They were both so happy and proud to relive and revive it, so we definitely weren’t trying to change it.
Do you think there’s enough humour that will resonate with younger audiences?
I really do, we actually had some kids in the audience when I saw it a week ago and they were giggling away, and fortunately kids can’t fake that enjoyment just because their dad was the cameraman or something. In particular there’s plenty of physical comedy thanks to Toby Jones (Captain Mainwairing), because he’s such a brilliant physical actor. I mean nothing too ridiculous, but there’s bits where he completely embodies Mainwairing and I think it’ll really make kids giggle.
It must have been difficult coming from doing a show like Derek to a classic film. You were working on both at the same time, correct?
I pushed myself to the nth degree on this job because I was doing Ricky Gervais’ Derek at the same time, and it was a real stamina challenge. Obviously it’s a question of nailing the character and the lines, but on top of that it was like, after working on Dad’s Army, can you stay awake on a train until 1am, have two hours sleep and then get up and do Derek? You don’t want either party to feel you’re not prioritising them, so that can definitely be a challenge but obviously no complaints, because it’s all I fought for.
In terms of coming from one project to the other, they were both comedies, although Derek isn’t a straight comedy. I don’t think anything is going to be like Derek because we finished filming at 4pm, and it’s all mocumentary style, so a lot more fast-paced and you never get bored of a scene because once you’ve done it and laughed a few times, you move on to the next. Dad’s Army was obviously a lot longer, sometimes with one scene taking two days to film when everyone is cold, hungry and tired so it tests you in a different way.
Were there any memorable moments from the cast?
Well it’s not from the set, but basically I got an email about a dinner invite on the first Saturday of filming, and it was simply: ‘Catherine would like to invite you out for dinner,’ and I was so confused, I thought it was a funder, or someone from a channel wanting to take us out. I went up to an Assistant Director saying, “I got this email about a Saturday night dinner, who’s Catherine?” And of course she just looked at me like I was from the zoo, and then obviously told me it was in fact Catherine Zeta-Jones! I was so embarrassed, but of course she’s lovely and very down to earth, and we had a great time.
So what does the future hold for you this year?
I recently came back from Bulgaria, shooting a new series called The Aliens for E4, it’s an adult comedy with a great script and cast, and will be coming out in April. I want to do lots more work this year particularly in theatre, as you really work from the bottom up and it’s incredibly challenging. Radio would be great too; to be honest I’m open to anything!
Holli Dempsey first started acting when she joined a local theatre group at 11. She then got her break playing Willow in the last few episodes of The Bill.
Dad’s Army opens in theatres 5th February 2016.