Dad’s Army, for those of you born outside of Britannia’s generous bosom, is a much beloved sitcom chronicling the adventures of the British Home Guard. When conscription called up every able bodied man to serve his country fighting Hitler in WWII, the ones that were left, i.e. the old and the unfit to serve, could choose to enter the Local Defence Volunteers; Britain’s last line of defence in case Hitler ever made it across the channel. And thank Christ he didn’t, because if all he had in between him and total domination of the United Kingdom was this collection of doddering nincompoops, we’d all drinking beer from steins and eating Bratwurst for every meal. But we’d also be living under a fascist dictatorship, so it wouldn’t all be booze and sausage, before you get any ideas.
Yes, the Home Guard as portrayed in Jimmy Perry and David Croft’s scripts weren’t the cleverest soldiers, or the most competent fighters, nor the most ruthless enemy that the Hun went up against. But they very well might have been the politest. Certainly the funniest. To the British population their adaptation to the big screen would have to be done carefully, with a lot of love and respect for the material. It would have to be made by quality filmmakers and be populated by an excellent cast. And unfortunately, that last point has been followed far too well.
The cast for Dad’s Army is one of the finest British ensembles ever assembled. Massively respected veteran thespian Toby Jones leads the core as comedy legend Captain Mainwaring; Bill Nighy is his public schoolboy foil Sergeant Wilson; stupid boy Pike is Inbetweeners‘ alumni Blake Harrison; the Oscar-nominated Tom Courtenay plays Jonsie and the film justifies its entire existence by casting the eternally underrated and underused Daniel Mays as Walker. It also finds room for Michael Gambon, Bill Paterson and Mark Gatiss.
The problem with creating a cast this exquisite is that they do a far too good a job at acting in their roles when they should all be performing. Dad’s Army was a farcical, broadly played, multi-camera sitcom and the script has followed suite. But that is the only aspect of the film that harks back to the tone of the original series. The cinematography is clearly running scared from the dreaded ‘televisual’ adjective so it tries all manner of cinematic tricks to separate it from its televised roots. There’s nothing comedic about the first ten minutes at all; it could easily be the beginning of a straight-laced, Second World War, espionage thriller. This is followed up by not one, but two consecutive scenes with a cameo appearance by a terrible looking CGI animal. This certainly separates its look from you average television programme, it just makes it look more like a mid-2000s instructional video instead.
The plot too seeks to create a more high-stakes version of the programme, by injecting a hot tub full of arse fat into its lips via the shapely shape of Catherine Zeta Jones. CZJ plays Rose Winters, an old student of Wilson’s and Mainwaring’s new object of affection. She comes to the base on Walmington-on-Sea under the guise of a journalist wanting to write an article about the regiment for a women’s magazine. In actuality, she’s a German Spy after the invasion plans for Normandy, which got dropped off in the town by carrier pigeon.
So obvious is her role as an enemy operative they make no mystery about it whatsoever. The identity of the spy isn’t given any ambiguity at all. It didn’t have to be the newcomer, it could have just as easily been one of the regular cast, with CZJ being used as a red herring. It is this aversion to risk that ironically prevents them from making a cinematic experience out of Dad’s Army in one of the few positive ways they could have done.
But ultimately, the failure of this film as both a Dad’s Army love letter and as a theatrical experience lies in the discrepancy between the script and the cast. As thespians, Jones and Co are simply acting too well for their roles. They add nuance and subtlety to the characters when there is room for none in the screenplay. The writers have kept with the tone of the traditional sitcom, meaning that the jokes rely on puns, innuendo and mockery, all of which the majority of our cast are ill equipped to communicate to the audience. Because of the realism they impart to the characters several jokes don’t land with the bawdiness they ought to, sacrificing the sheer vaudevillian chuckles for unwanted artistic expression. The tone walks this line unassuredly throughout, stifling the humour and only ever managing to be amusing when it needs to be hilarious.
There are good points. At least Blake Harrison and Mark Gatiss aren’t so far removed from their sitcom roots that they’ve forgotten how to play them. The film also benefits from welcome female company, fleshing out the roles of underdeveloped characters like Mavis Pike or Mrs. Fox. They even give a face to Mainwaring’s wife, a hitherto unforeseen and unheard role.
Dad’s Army is certainly a gentle comedy, which may gain it favour with members of the audience who were around to see it first broadcast. Unfortunately, this 90 minutes of mediocrity won’t make them laugh anywhere near as much as any 30 minute episode of the BBC at its best. Oh, and if you were hoping for a post-credit stinger revealing Peter Kay as René Artois in the new ‘Allo ‘Allo! movie, confirming the existence of the unified You Have Been Watching Cinematic Universe (or the YHBWCU, as fans will no doubt snappily dub it) then I’m afraid you’re in for a disappointment. They went with Rupert Everett as Mr. Humphries from Are You Being Served? instead.
2 / 5
Dir: Oliver Parker
Scr: Hamish McColl
Cast: Toby Jones, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Bill Nighy, Michael Gambon, Sarah Lancashire, Mark Gatiss, Daniel Mays, Alison Steadman, Bill Paterson, Tom Courtenay, Blake Harrison, Emily Atack, Holli Dempsey
Prd: Damian Jones
Music: Charlie Mole
DOP: Christopher Ross
Run Time: 100 minutes
Dad’s Army is available on Digital now and is out on DVD and Blu-ray on the 13th of June.