Return of Mr Britcom

It Ain't Half Hot Mum, Dad's Army, 'Allo, 'Allo. David Croft could write sitcoms for Britain. James Rampton asks him whether his latest genteel offering can still pull in the viewers
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
When they come to write the History of British Sitcoms, the name of David Croft should occupy several chapters. He has been the brains behind some of the most successful television comedies this country has ever produced. His CV reads like a K-Tel Greatest Hits Compilation album of Britcoms.

With Jimmy Perry, he wrote: 81 episodes of Dad's Army, which ran from 1968 to 1977; 56 episodes of It Ain't Half Hot Mum (1974-81), set in a Second World War Royal Artillery concert party based in India; 70 episodes of the holiday camp sitcom, Hi-de-Hi! (1980-88); and 25 episodes of the below-stairs comedy, You Rang, M'Lord? (1988-93). As if that wasn't enough, in partnership with Jeremy Lloyd, Croft also penned 64 episodes of Are You Being Served? (1973-85) and 90 episodes of 'Allo, 'Allo (1984-92). His shows have been sold the world over; 'Allo, 'Allo, for example, has been seen in 47 countries and is especially big in Croatia. Croft could write sitcoms for Britain.

After 18 months' restless retirement, he is now back producing and co-writing (this time with Richard Spendlove) Oh, Doctor Beeching!, a nine part sitcom starting on BBC1 on Monday. This comedy, set in an out-of-the-way 1963 railway station, reunites the regular Croft team from Hi-de-Hi! and You Rang, M'Lord? of Jeffrey Holland (authoritarian station master), Paul Shane (world-weary ticket-collector) and Su Pollard (dizzy booking-office clerk, above, left to right). It presents a rosy picture of a long-lost world of steam trains and wind-up telephones. Like, say, Last of the Summer Wine, it has an olde worlde charm that may be lost on metropolitan sophisticates.

Croft doesn't mind a bit. A genial cove of 73 in a white linen suit that matches his hair, he sips white wine in a Kensington hotel and points to the fact that the pilot, broadcast last summer, steamed in with a more-than-respectable 10.8m viewers. He professes to being "delighted" that people might view Oh, Doctor Beeching! as old-fashioned compared with in-vogue sitcoms like Men Behaving Badly or Absolutely Fabulous. "Good," he chuckles. "That means it's something for Men Behaving Badly to be alternative to. If we had nothing else on our screens but Men Behaving Badly, then I'd be alternative. I'm harking back to a gentler era. I write ordinary, non-controversial comedy which gives families a good laugh. They know nobody's going to say 'shag'. If you took all the swearing out of Billy Connolly's act, what would be left of it?"

He does admit, however, that "the BBC forgot about us for a while. They were looking for teen appeal stuff, and a certain ageism crept in. If someone swore in a script, they thought, 'new wave, we'll have this'. They're subject to pressure groups and to reading the wrong newspapers. There's still an anti-racist lobby operating against It Ain't Half Hot Mum - even though it employed more Indian actors than any other sitcom. It'll pass. They just have to go through that stage."

Holland chips in with his ha'penny-worth. "Shows like Men Behaving Badly go out after the watershed because they contain material that certain people don't like. David's programmes have always been good, clean, wholesome, family shows - grandma won't die of a heart attack watching them. Ab Fab is very, very funny, but there's room for all of us. The marketplace is very wide."

Geoffrey Perkins, the BBC head of comedy who commissioned Oh, Doctor Beeching!, also mounts a staunch defence of the show against media trendies. "This has hit a particular audience," he maintains. "Not all shows can hit all audiences. This sort of programme is described disparagingly as 'family entertainment', but all that means is that it is a big, mainstream audience-winner. There's clearly a worry about shows that aim low and are made cynically with the attitude, 'that'll keep them quiet'. When they go wrong and miss the mark, people say, 'what was that for?'. But nobody would accuse David of aiming low. This is a very confident, strong team show.

"It sounds patronising to say it just does its job well," Perkins continues. "Dad's Army was sneered at when it started. In fact, comedy generally is sneered at - it's not quite what proper people ought to be doing. But the world of David Croft in Dad's Army, Hi-De-Hi! and It Ain't Half Hot Mum is very clear. You're never going to go into the traumatic depths of a relationship - that's not what it's about. But the shows are moving. Behind the characters in Dad's Army, for instance, there was the knowledge that they were fighting a war and that they could die tomorrow. There's an underlying seriousness about David's shows, but gently so."

The other thing that distinguishes Croft's comedy is the strong ensemble feel. "His gift is to throw together a group of characters who wouldn't otherwise be thrown together," Holland opines. "In Dad's Army, they were all thrown together by the War. But nobody gets a laugh on their own, everybody shares the laughs. Bernard Cribbens once said to me, 'I'll bend down, you kick me up the arse, and we'll both get the laughs.' That's the first rule of comedy."

Despite - or perhaps because of - his success, Croft has had his fair share of criticism over the years. "I don't mind a bad review if it's cleverly written," he declares, "but I do object to Sun-type articles - 'write to the BBC and tell them we don't want this rubbish'. That's just abusive. Those writers are a disgrace to comedy."

That aside, Croft's place in the pantheon of comedy seems assured. "You can't construct league tables," Perkins reflects, "but the stuff he's done with Jimmy Perry is unique. Dad's Army, which at the time might have been regarded as jolly but not very significant, now looks like the benchmark of team comedy. David's the master of that type of show. With an ensemble, you've got so many different comic ways you can hit. People can have particular characters they latch on to. It's like having a warm bath with eight different people."

'Oh, Doctor Beeching!', Mon 8.30pm BBC1