The Dad’s Army Radio Hour
Middlesbrough Theatre, 17 April 2018
Dad’s Army is fifty years old. It has been with us for what seems like always. More than that, it has become a part of the background hum British collective memory,and is still popular today when shown on BBC2. Perhaps it’s because, like all the good Croft & Perry comedies* it tells us something about the way our society worked then, and perhaps works even now. We still recognise the chippy grammar school product Mainwaring, desperately tying to exert authority over a platoon of Britain’s finest in the shadow of the effortless (and sometimes even unknowing) superiority of the public schoolboy Wilson. Each of the other main characters is a deftly drawn pen-picture: the mummy’s boy, the doom-sayer, the spiv, the old soldier, the doddering relic, and with them the supporting cast of the eye-rolling vicar and his sycophantic verger, the bolshy air raid warden and a succession of chinless braying army officers. All of them seem to exist, at least in his mind, only to conspire against Mainwaring’s ambitions. But somehow, this ragbag group of misfits get by. They have their defeats, but they have their victories too. They are are what we imagine ourselves to be: the noble everyman in the face of adversity. Perhaps that’s the real reason they resonate with us even now.
Two actors, David Benson and Jack Lane, play 25 different characters (all of the above, plus several other female roles, including the estimable Mrs Fox), and during the course of the show they perform three full episodes from the radio series run of Dads’ Army, including the one containing possibly the most famous one-liner in British comedy. The set is simple. Two lecterns, two microphones and the “On Air” light. That’s it: nothing else is needed.
And they are simply superb. The voice characterisations are beautifully realised, though the highlights are the uncanny renderings of John Le Mesurier’s Wilson and Clive Dunn’s Corporal Jones.
All the episodes they choose are good. There are two before the interval: The Day The Ballooon Went Up (from 1969), and My British Buddy (from 1973) though of course the highlight comes after the break, and is the story that preceded My British Buddy and began the 1973 series : The Deadly Attachment, in which the platoon are forced to stand guard over a captured U-boat crew who are desperate to escape. This is probably the single most popular episode in the history of the series, and they nail it. The pacing, the voices, the timing are all beautifully done, with the added bonus of seeing the actors inhabit their characters as they perform. And of course the audience laps it up, which is as it should be. It’s a wonderful show.
*I’m thinking here of shows like It Ain’t Half Hot Mum and Hi De Hi! that are snapshots of a particular time and place. Dad’s Army is slightly different in that these two shows noticeably take place at a point of transition: the end of one era, and start of a new one. Dad’s Army was not quite designed that way, though its end on TV did manage to close things off in a similar fashion.