Our chaps will deal with them

E.S. Turner

  • Dad’s Army: The Story of a Classic Television Show by Graham McCann
    Fourth Estate, 304 pp, £7.99, August 2002, ISBN 1 84115 309 5

At Walmington-on-Sea Captain Mainwaring of the Home Guard is addressing his platoon of part-time soldiers:

Well, we’re making progress. A short time ago we were just an undisciplined mob. Now, we can deal with tanks. We can kill with pikes, we can make them all sneeze with our pepper – and after all the Hun is a very poor fighter with his head buried in a handkerchief! But remember, men, we have one invaluable weapon on our side: we have an unbreakable spirit to win!

Fighting the Hun with pepper? Was that something that Jimmy Perry and David Croft, the fecund scriptwriters of Dad’s Army, dreamed up in a dizzy moment? Not so. Charles Graves, an early historian of the Home Guard, refers to a unit which suggested in orders that any rudimentary weapons ‘could be usefully supplemented by a packet of pepper to interfere with the vision of any persistent unwelcome visitor’. Not, perhaps, the strongest authentication of pepper as a martial weapon, but who cares? The rudimentary armaments of the day included home-made pikes, kukris, ornamental sabres, golf clubs, axes and knobkerries. Perry, who joined the Home Guard as a 15-year-old, adds wire cheese-cutters and sharpened bicycle chains to the list. ‘In Essex,’ Peter Fleming says in Invasion 1940, ‘an unexpected windfall made possible the formation of a cutlass platoon, 24 strong, under the command of a former naval rating.’ He also tells how ‘four dozen rusty Lee Enfields, relics of some forgotten tableau or drama, were discovered among the stage properties at Drury Lane.’ And where did Captain Mainwaring’s men obtain their first serious weapons? Why, from the Peabody Museum of Historic Army Weapons, whose zealous caretaker had first to be outwitted.

In the great flap of 1940 the improvisation of infernal devices became a popular craft, not confined to the Home Guard. ‘I never thought,’ wrote Victoria Sackville-West in Country Notes in Wartime, ‘to spend an afternoon filling old wine bottles with petrol, paraffin and tar and finishing them off with two of Messrs Brock’s gay blue Guy Fawkes squibs bound tightly to the sides . . . This novel form of bottle party is conducted with the usual supply of English chaff and good humour.’ Eclipsing these patriotic exercises at Sissinghurst were the Home Guard demonstrations at Osterley Park, where a veteran of the Matabele wars showed how to ‘brew up’ a tank with the aid of Molotov cocktails. Also at Osterley, Tom Wintringham, who had commanded a battalion of the International Brigade in Spain, taught that ‘two or three determined men with a length of tram line or stout iron bar can often [sic] put a tank out of action’ (by thrusting it between track and wheel). Wintringham believed that two hundred resolute women with milk bottles could have frustrated the German raiding party of motorcyclists that seized Abbeville. This bracing advice appeared in Picture Post, which, along with other journals, suggested many other offensive and defensive ideas. These included festooning fields with telephone wires against aircraft, and waiting in a ditch to pull a grenade across the road in front of a tank.

It was a summer as exciting as that of 1803, when Napoleon’s troops stood on the cliffs at Boulogne. In the first call for Local Defence Volunteers, after the invasion of Holland and Belgium, a quarter of a million men had offered their services within six days (it was Churchill’s idea to rename this force the Home Guard). Everyone knew by now that the threat of invasion came not only from the sea but from the air, in the shape of parachutists. In the popular imagination, and in that of the cartoonists, these might well be disguised as nuns or traffic policemen. To meet this peril the country was being transformed – its fields stuck with stakes, its signposts disarmed, its milestones buried, its church bells silenced, its skies cleansed of racing pigeons, kites and fireworks, its key bridges and beaches mined, its piers cut in two, its ancient trees felled to clear firing arcs, its headlands capped with concrete pill-boxes, its vacant corners filled with static water tanks. On street furniture and on the fronts of motor vehicles were yellow patches which were supposed to change colour if mustard gas was about. Motorists who, on parking, failed to immobilise their cars, by taking away the rotor arm from the distributor, were liable to find their tyres deflated by the police.

It may be that the scriptwriters of Dad’s Army missed a few tricks. Why did we not see Mainwaring’s men, like the people of Margate, filling their bathing cabins with sand to use as roadblocks? Why did we never see them (or did we?) trying out the recommended shibboleth tests for suspected spies by making them say ‘soothe’, ‘wrong’, ‘wretch’, ‘rats’ and ‘those’? Did Perry and Croft ever show us Walmingtonians panicking as they picked up the scent of musty hay, pear-drop sweets or geraniums? What innocent fun they could have had demanding identity cards from couples parked in cars in lovers’ lanes. Graves says that when such couples did not know each other’s names the Home Guard were sometimes able to effect an introduction. But perhaps Perry and Croft were sensible not to follow real life too closely. Many retired officers who volunteered for the Home Guard caused friction by demanding to wear their old, better-fitting and beribboned uniforms, a problem that must have caused unrest in the East Sussex company that recruited six former generals. A scene in which Captain Mainwaring and his shambling sergeant were confronted by a row of Blimp-like senior officers in breeches, high boots, spurs and monocles would have been judged over the top even in high farce. Perry, remembering his Home Guard days, wisely settled for a single veteran based on his recollection of the elderly lance-corporal who had fought ‘Fuzzy Wuzzies’ in the Sudan under Kitchener; the result being the garrulous Lance-Corporal Jones, the only member of the Walmington platoon with campaign ribbons up.

Peter Fleming says that the nation contemplated images of invasion with ‘a morbid relish, but without complete conviction’. They brought a morbid relish, certainly, to the threats which streamed from German radio, notably in the sneering accents of William Joyce, eager to remind listeners what would happen to civilians playing at soldiers when Hitler invaded. Such members of ‘murder bands’ would count as francs-tireurs and suffer the appropriate penalties under international law. ‘Suicide academies have apparently been set up all over Britain,’ Joyce said. ‘The headmasters are cunning blackguards who teach their inmates how to make bombs at two shillings each, how to poison water supplies by throwing dead dogs into streams and how to kill sentries noiselessly from behind.’ There would be no quarter for ‘lady finger-breakers’ joining up to any amazon corps. The drivel pouring out of Hamburg was easily discounted, yet there must have been not a few who remembered how the Germans treated francs-tireurs and their protectors in 1914. At Dinant, in Belgium, there is a dilapidated and railed-off sculpture commemorating the 674 hostages, men and women, lined up and machine-gunned in the marketplace for sheltering civilians who had sought to impede the invaders of their country. If any wobbly-kneed Briton had gone around in 1940 reminding people of such acts of retribution he might well have risked prosecution for spreading alarm and despondency, which happened to a handful of doomsayers and rumour peddlers. Nor would it have been sensible for a Whitehall insider to regale too many saloon bars with the estimate by the Committee of Imperial Defence in 1937 that an initial air-raid on London would last sixty days and kill 600,000 people.

Not the least peculiar feature of that summer were the short, single-column advertisements in the Times and other newspapers in ‘Space presented to the Nation by the Brewers’ Society’. They were the work of the Ministry of Information, doubtless grateful for a friendly gesture from any quarter. ‘What do I do,’ ran one advertisement, ‘if I hear news that the Germans are trying to land, or have landed?’ The answer is: ‘I do not get panicky, I stay put. I say to myself: “Our chaps will deal with them.” I do not say I must get out of here. I remember that fighting men must have clear roads. I do not go on the roads on bicycle, in car or on foot. Whether I am at work or at home, I just stay put.’ At the end, in bold black type, was: ‘Cut this out and keep it.’ What if one heard the news of invasion while engaged in sport? The verses by Captain Harry Graham in an earlier day may have come to ribald minds: ‘I was playing golf the day/That the Germans landed;/All our men had run away,/All our ships were stranded;/And the thought of England’s shame/Very nearly spoiled my game.’ Leaflets with similar ‘stay put’ advice carried the line ‘Printed in England’, perhaps for the reassurance of those who doubted whether this was the way Englishmen should behave. Had not the Prime Minister been reported as saying that, in the last extremity, ‘You can always take one with you’? Much later it was revealed that the Royal Family and their equerries had been practising in the gardens of Buckingham Palace with rifles, pistols and tommy-guns.

If Hitler had invaded in strength, it is unlikely that the Home Guard, casting around for lengths of tram line to incapacitate tanks, or hurling lethal glassware at motor-cyclists, would have lasted long. As the scare receded, and the banks and building societies gave up their rural palaces to return to town, the Home Guard was left with fewer bridges and reservoirs to guard and fewer checkpoints to control (in the early nervous days there had been fatal challenges at Home Guard checkpoints, which did not go unnoticed by the BBC). Much of the best work by the Home Guard was done helping Civil Defence in blitzed cities. Some of the more able-bodied were later directed to man anti-aircraft guns, and for the first time had a chance to engage the enemy, if only at five miles up. By the war’s end the force, which at its peak had numbered 1,793,000, had won two George Crosses and 13 George Medals. A total of 1206 volunteers were either killed on duty or died from wounds.

Piquant items from Graham McCann’s book about Dad’s Army have been widely quoted, notably the insistence by Arthur Lowe (Mainwaring) on having a clause in his contract stipulating that in no scene would he be required to remove his trousers. Lowe, it turns out, was a sergeant-major in the war, and John Le Mesurier, who played the limp Sergeant Wilson, was a captain. Now Lowe was playing a bank manager who had come up the hard way, and Le Mesurier, his chief clerk, was a pampered ex-public schoolboy, incapable of giving orders (‘Oh, Wilson! Bark it out! Bark it out!’). Came the day when Wilson, of vaguely aristocratic background, became an Honourable and was admitted to the golf club that had excluded Mainwaring, a man who could boast only a suffragan bishop on his wife’s side. It was class rivalry, McCann says, which ‘provided the grit that made this pearl’. He quotes Dennis Potter’s description of the programme as ‘a conspiracy of manners between the loving caricatures in crumpled khaki and the complicit delight of an audience which likes pips as well as chips on its shoulders’. McCann sees in Mainwaring a military Pooter, a ‘sublime bridler’, a man displaying a ‘unique mixture of bewilderment, exasperation and uncontainable curiosity’, and it is this last quality which repeatedly leads him astray. He is fed splendid lines – ‘He who holds Walmington-on-Sea holds England’; ‘The French are never very much good after lunch, you know’ – but his most famous utterance, noted in one survey as the funniest joke ever heard on television, comes when a captured U-boat officer, who is being cheeked by the youngest member of the platoon, demands the offender’s name for his blacklist. Instantly Mainwaring raps out: ‘Don’t tell him, Pike!’

It is strange to learn that Lowe would never take the script home (‘I’m not having that rubbish in the house’) and that Le Mesurier’s early judgment on the programme was: ‘It’s a disaster, my dear boy, I really can’t tell you, oh, it’s absolutely appalling, it can’t possibly work.’ Tom Sloan, the BBC’s Head of Light Entertainment at the time, was a cautious man who pondered, on reading the first script, ‘Were we making mock of Britain’s Finest Hour?’ His conversion was rapid. He was persuaded that everything was true; not only was pepper issued as a weapon, but sugar was advocated, too, for putting in the tanks of enemy vehicles. Did he ask which ministry issued groceries for warlike purposes, and on what terms? Did they tell him that the Walmington platoon would engage in light spivvery and black marketeering? Perhaps not. They did remind him that it was a time when the possibility of defeat did not enter anybody’s mind, and assured him the programme would reflect that confidence. So that was that. The first programme, in 1968, was watched by seven million, and later episodes drew up to 18 million. All this was achieved, not merely because it was consistently hilarious, the fun being character-based, but because – shocking to admit – it was clean and upbeat. McCann describes in dazzled detail all the vicissitudes of the series, which ran to 80 episodes, all summarised in an appendix. He discusses the film version, the stage version and the American version (‘Don’t tell him, Henderson!’). If one needs to know which records the players chose for Desert Island Discs, which of them did voice-overs for Spam and Homemade, and which fell victim to narcolepsy, alcoholism, emphysema and renal failure, the information is here. There is a Dad’s Army Appreciation Society, with a branch in New Zealand, to whom these things matter. One mystery, however, goes unanswered: why was the Dad’s Army platoon, properly the responsibility of a subaltern, commanded throughout by a captain?

If Jimmy Perry, whose initial idea sparked the programme, had served not in the Home Guard, but in mixed anti-aircraft batteries as I did, might we perhaps have had a long-running series called ‘Mum’s Army’ or ‘Gran’s Army’? The mixed ack-ack battery – with its ‘co-ed gun girls’, as one newspaper described them – has never received its due in literature or drama. The country was once covered with such gunsites, in parks, recreation grounds and racecourses, wherever factories or harbours needed protection. On each site young women – shopgirls, nursemaids, typists – operated the fire control equipment while men fired the guns. Women were not supposed to kill, but they did pin-point the targets, and often it was a woman officer at the plotting table who gave the order ‘Fire!’ Such batteries, deployed on the South Coast, eventually achieved a commendable destruction rate against flying bombs. The sitcom possibilities were many: the night alarm, with girls dashing from their beds, throwing battle-dress over their pyjamas and steel helmets over their curlers, naughtily adding a last-second dab of lipstick and arriving at the command post bright with excitement and night cream; the ensuing terrific din, which broke nearby windows and (allegedly) lavatory pans; the convivial stand-down, with buckets of hot cocoa drunk in the lingering scent of cordite. In quiet times there were distractions in plenty: visits by ENSA parties (Every Night Something Awful), by crackpot lecturers, by Members of Parliament, by nit-picking or susceptible brigadiers, by courses on mothercraft and – always good for a subversive laugh – discussions on ‘The British Way and Purpose’. On these gunsites, military discipline and strict segregation of the sexes at night by no means stifled romance, though the girls preferred to seek it on local leave. I did my best to suggest the comedy potential of mixed batteries when I co-scripted, pseudonymously, a film in which Donald Sinden played a gunsite officer with a roving eye whose wife, against regulations, was posted to the same site as an ATS private. Might this have served as a pilot programme for ‘Gran’s Army’? At the time my reaction to the film was the same as Le Mesurier’s (‘An absolute disaster!’). It ended up tenth in a list of the most popular films of its year.