Dad's Navy: As Captain Mainwaring, he entertained millions with his pomposity and his delusions of grandeur. But the real Arthur Lowe fancied himself as a different sort of captain

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The Independent Culture
MAIDA AVENUE, Little Venice, top end, is in a bit of a stir this Sunday morning. An event; celebrities. Passers-by who have stopped to stare at half-familiar faces quiz the people in the anoraks with the strange looks and autograph books, then smile and nod. This is where Arthur Lowe used to live, you know, Captain Mainwaring in Dad's Army, they're unveiling one of those plaques to him.

Ah, yes, Dad's Army: the BBC comedy about the wartime Home Guard, made in the late Sixties and Seventies, repeated most years, still commanding audiences of around 10 million. Children love it, parrot the catchphrases; watch glued as the captain, a small, portly, bespectacled bank manager, desperately deploys his platoon - butcher, undertaker, bank clerks, spiv, retiree with bladder problem - in defence of a small town on the south coast. They are untrained, ill-equipped and wondrously incompetent.

Mainwaring is deliciously pompous, inevitably punctured, but always defiant: for, amid the farce, there is an absolute refusal to bow the knee to something wrong, whatever the odds, which gives it a dignity beyond simple sitcomedy. You might care to see Captain Mainwaring and Dad's Army as speaking important truths about England and the English, then and now; alternatively, you can just laugh.

Clive Dunn, who played Corporal Jones, the butcher, is inside Arthur Lowe's old flat, waiting for the unveiling. Now, at 75, looking the way he used to be made up, he has come to London from his home in Portugal for the do. Ian Lavender, who was Private Pike, the 'stupid boy' always wrapped up well by his mum, will be here soon, as will Bill Pertwee, ARP Warden Hodges, Mainwaring's chief tormentor. Most of the rest of the cast are, like Lowe, dead. The flat, now all white paint and bare boards, is owned by a man who works at Virgin Records. But, yes, he's a fan: 'It's so untrendy it's trendy.'

Quite a crowd now. The event is being organised by The Dead Comics Society, one of those curious showbizzy organisations where Variety meets Charity, loudly. Plaques have already gone up to Hancock and Sellers and others. Fans pay pounds 25 a year to join and a minimum contribution of pounds 35 for an after-plaque lunch, where they can bid in a 'celebrity memorabilia' auction and mix with Lorraine Chase and Nicholas Parsons. But before that, another wall, in Baron's Court, at the old home of John Le Mesurier, the farceur and louche who played the languid, toffish sergeant to Lowe's counter-jumping captain, where Norman Wisdom and other dead comics in rehearsal are waiting.

WOULD ARTHUR have enjoyed it, the just-a-little-tacky razzmatazz, the auction where a signed photo of Jonathan Ross, Terry Scott and John Inman went for pounds 150? 'He would have made a speech, he loved all that,' said Clive Dunn. 'Then, in an aside, he would have said 'Variety People'.' Dunn used the Lowe Mainwaring voice for this, the one on which all Lowe anecdotes depend, a sort of Surrey version of WC Fields. David Croft, who wrote the series with Jimmy Perry, said he rehearsed his speeches in the bath. Croft remembered going round to Maida Avenue to discuss the stage version of Dad's Army with Lowe. 'He said, 'Care for a drink, David?' I asked for a vodka-and-tonic. 'Haven't any vodka. Russian stuff.' So I asked for a gin-and-tonic. There was no lemon: 'Joan (his wife) hasn't been marketing today. Have you tried cucumber?' '

A lot of Lowe stories have to do with drink, food and a reluctance to learn scripts in his own time ('I'm not having that rubbish in my home'). At Thetford, where Dad's Army did its filming, Lowe was legendary for his insistence on weak tea, and his interrogations about the quality of kipper and provenance of ham: 'Is the ham on the bone?' With Perry in a restaurant: 'Those people are drinking Matoos Rose, James. Are they insane?' After a performance of the stage show, after falling asleep in the soup: 'The mulligatawny in this place is not what it was.' Backstage at the Palladium during a Royal Command Performance, standing by a Kwa Zulu dancer with a baby at her breast: 'Likes a drink, does he?'

Where the true Lowe lies in all this is difficult to tell. He enjoyed both actor-manager and Mainwaring personae, and Croft and Perry made increasing use of his mannerisms and tics in drawing the captain's character. He also had the eccentric's gift for unselfconscious self-parody, viz the mulligatawny soup. His service revolver as Mainwaring was in fact a Roy Rogers plastic special because he didn't like the weight of the real thing.

Ian Lavender remembers seeing the Lowes going up to bed in Norfolk carrying two rosebushes, a hosepipe and a bottle of Guinness.

AND THEN, of course, there was the boat. Lowe bought the Amazon in 1968 for pounds 2,000. It was a 114ft Victorian steam yacht, sans its steam and sans just about everything else, lying neglected in a Chiswick boat-yard. Lowe had just started making Dad's Army, having finally left Coronation Street, where he had made his name as Leonard Swindley, the draper, two years before. Lowe put tens of thousands into restoring the Amazon. He planned to retire on to it, and meanwhile had it berthed at Teddington or moored at seaside towns such as St Helier, in Jersey, or Shanklin, Isle of Wight, while performing in summer shows he had taken for the purpose.

Plans would be pored over in rehearsal rooms, invitations issued. Lowe did not sail it himself, but used a professional crew, or his son, Stephen, who had gone into the merchant navy. He did, however, affect a natty captain's hat and blazer, and a competent manner. 'There was a lot of looking over the side,' says Croft. Drinks would be served on a silver salver to music from the harmonium installed by Joan Lowe.

Ask Peter O'Toole, a great admirer, about the boat, and there is a roar down the phone about Lowe 'driving up and down the bloody Thames in this dirty great boat with people playing the organ. A boat with an organ] We used to call him Admiral Bligh. Arthur was a throwback to the old and proper days, larger than life. Life has become terribly small and mediocre, hasn't it?'

Bill Pertwee was invited on board at Teddington for a drink. 'Suddenly, Arthur shouted to the crew: 'Weigh anchor]' We then moved all of 50 yards down the river. 'Did you see that snotty boy picking his nose and fishing?' said Arthur. 'I'm not sitting on my yacht and watching that.' '

At Shanklin, Arthur's stately repair to the Amazon after his performance and a good supper became something of a tourist attraction; but he was never entirely happy with the attention of fans. At Ramsgate, where John and Joan Le Mesurier had a house and where the Amazon was moored for a couple of summers, one persistent couple onshore kept up a lengthy barrage of ' 'Ere, Arthur, Captain Mainwaring, don't panic]' studiously ignored by Lowe as he polished his brasses. Eventually, one of them shouted, 'Next time you're on, I'm switching you off]' Little wonder, then, at Preston station, when smiling fans peered into the dining-car as the Dad's Army team made its way north to turn on the lights at Blackpool, that Lowe should rap the window and bark: 'Clear off]'

LOWE was an unlikely sea dog. He was born in Hayfield, Derbyshire. His father was a railway worker and local character. The family had a history in service; Lowe always liked playing butlers. He tried to join the merchant navy before the war, but his eyesight wasn't up to it. In 1938, he enlisted in the Duke of Lancaster's Own Yeomanry and spent much of the war in North Africa, ending up a warrant officer. In the accustomed fashion, he acted in the Army and continued after demob, joining the Frank H Fortescue Company at the Hulme Hippodrome, Manchester, where he met his wife, Joan Cooper, then the leading lady; she later played Dolly, sister of Private Godfrey (the one with the bladder, Arnold Ridley, farceur, author of The Ghost Train).

After three years in rep, Lowe arrived in London. You will see him as a splendidly reptilian journalist at the end of Kind Hearts and Coronets. Many early West End roles were, improbably, in musicals like Call Me Madam or Pal Joey. Wider fame came with Coronation Street and Leonard Swindley of Gamma Garments, chairman of the Glad Tidings Mission Hall, would-be local politician, would-be theatrical producer, would-be husband of his assistant, Miss Nugent, still there as Emily Bishop. Eileen Derbyshire, who plays Emily, might recall Lowe as 'a lovely man' and talk about the early team spirit in Coronation Street, but he seems not to have reciprocated. In the only interview he gave worth reading, with Lynda Lee-Potter in 1969, he said: 'I loathe and detest being called Mr Swindley. The public are so stupid. If they've seen you on television they seem to think in some extraordinary way that they have some right to talk to you, that you belong to them.

'In fact, I only worked six months a year on Coronation Street. I insisted on it. The rest of the cast were quite different. They were bought body and soul. They were puppets on the ends of strings. I wanted always to be free to do other things . . . '

Lowe doubled Swindley, equally improbably, with the Royal Court, playing the elder partner and the judge in the first production of Osborne's Inadmissible Evidence. Lindsay Anderson thought Lowe gave the play 'a bite, an acidity, an edge that I shouldn't think it has ever had again'. Anderson was such an admirer of 'Arthur's Edge' that, after Lowe's performance in This Sporting Life, 'I knew I never wanted to make a film without Arthur in it', casting him in every film he made in this country, including If . . . and O Lucky Man.

O'Toole starred with Lowe and Alastair Sim in The Ruling Class: 'He was one of the most subtle, broadly ranged actors we've ever had. Playing between Arthur Lowe and Alastair Sim was like having someone pissing on my grave.'

But Mainwaring looms over all, smothering memory of other series and roles: Stephano at the National, for example, or his fine Micawber for the BBC.

After Mainwaring, too, Lowe spent a lot of time on tour in some pretty creaky vehicles - Laburnum Grove, Caught Napping, Home At Seven. Why? Well, Lowe, they say, was 'an old pro': he liked touring, leading a company. And then there was the boat, and his wife: Joan still liked to act, and appeared with him. He seemed content; there was no sense of a twilight, or waste. Nor perhaps should there be: according to O'Toole, Dad's Army used to be required watching for students at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.

Lowe died in 1982. He collapsed from a stroke in his dressing-room at the Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, less than an hour before curtain up on Home At Seven. Joan and the show, of course, went on without him. He died early the next day, aged 66. Joan died five years later.

AND THE Amazon? That's up at Clachnaharry now, on the Caledonian Canal, near Inverness. Stephen Lowe runs it as a museum ship. It is a thing of fine lines, dark mahogany, and solid Victorian tubbiness. It was built in the famous Arrow Yard in Southampton in 1885 and is the oldest wooden steam yacht in the country. There are Joan's harmonium, the dressing table and bed made from panelling Arthur spied in a skip outside the Buckstone Club, and the semi-circle cut out of the bar to accommodate Arthur's tummy and allow Joan to pass behind him. Stephen chartered it out and ran it as a restaurant until the recession hit. He and his wife brought it up to Buckie to fix a new propeller shaft, and stayed.

It looks a little lost and lonely on the canal. Trade has not been good, and Stephen has put it up for sale. Was pounds 285,000, now pounds 185,000, one nibble. Stephen thinks he might bring the Amazon back south. A reserved man, he is not entirely at ease with the Arthur anecdotes, preferring to remember an unflamboyant, hard-working, private man 'miles away from Mainwaring', with a tinge of melancholy about him. He's thought of writing a biography of Lowe, 'but I'm afraid it would be a bit boring, because there isn't all that much to write'.

In Surrey, though, Tony and Leslie Keen are thinking about a book. They have a Lowe archive, sold off by Lowe's stepson, David, Joan's son by her first marriage, some years ago. There are programmes going back to the Hulme Hippodrome, fan letters, photos, press cuttings, and the notebooks in which over the years Lowe recorded each engagement, from Murder at the Ministry in Palmer's Green to a voice-over for Tetley tea-bags. They are a little sad, these stub ends of an actor's life, the strutting and fretting over and done. Back at the auction, meanwhile, the bidding goes on for other small hem-touching tokens of lost Variety lives, Lowe and Richard 'Stinker' Murdoch in a Schweppes ad, a tape of Kenneth Williams's last voice-over, a photo of Peter Sellers and Irene Handl.

THE WOMAN who helps Stephen Lowe on board the Amazon up in Scotland claims second sight. She says she has seen the little dog of a previous owner; and she says she has seen Arthur. It is a good thought, a small, round ghost there, looking over the side, making himself busy, up on the bridge, pouring a gin, adding a cucumber. Much better than a theatre to haunt.

(Photographs omitted)