Clive Dunn: Much-loved comic actor forever remembered as Corporal Jones in 'Dad's Army'

 

Clive Dunn's first professional stage role was as a 72-year-old man when he himself was still a teenager, and it led to a highly successful career appearing almost exclusively as dotty old gents, notably Dad's Army's Corporal Jones, roles he once joked that he was destined to play due to his skinny, bandy legs. These characters always had more than a whiff of music hall about them, hardly surprising given Dunn's theatrical heritage. His grandfather was a music hall comedian, while his own father Bobby Dunn was a singer and raconteur who toured theatres, mostly the seaside variety, alongside his wife Connie Clive, a successful comedienne.

Born in London in 1920, Dunn was destined to go into the "family business", although his father was at first against it. As a schoolboy, when he dreamt of perhaps an alternative career as a movie cameraman, Dunn landed a job as an extra in the classic Will Hay comedy Boys Will Be Boys. But with his parents hailing from the stage it was agreed this was to be Clive's calling too, and he was enrolled into the Italia Conti stage school, where his classmate was the future '50s matinee idol, Richard Todd.

Dunn was given an exemplary grounding in theatrical craft and job experience in professional engagements such as pantomimes. His stage debut came dressed as a frog at the Holborn Empire.

Years of fruitless exposure in weekly rep and variety was interrupted by the war. He served with the 4th Hussars and saw action in Greece. On the night before he was due promotion from trooper to Lance Corporal Dunn he was captured and spent four years as a POW in Austria. To fend off boredom he took up drawing, mainly portraiture of his fellow captives. It was a passion he returned to after his retirement from acting.

After demob he returned to the theatre, spending many years in revue, including stints at the Players' Theatre in London, where his monologues in the guise of a dithering old codger some saw as the forerunner of his Dad's Army characterisation. But Dunn's quiet comic ability and mastery of the throwaway line was mostly lost in the large auditoriums he played, being better suited to the informality of television, and he duly got his small screen break playing a crumbling butler in the top rating series Bootsie and Snudge. Other popular TV roles followed in Michael Bentine's It's A Square World and as pensioner Sam Cobbett in My Old Man, in which his daughter in the series was played by his wife in real life, Priscilla Morgan, who was 15 years his junior.

Then came the part which turned Dunn into one of Britain's best loved comic actors, Dad's Army's Corporal Jones, local butcher and the lionheart of the Walmington-On-Sea Home Guard whose catchphrases – "Don't panic! Don't panic!" and the eternal "They don't like it up 'em!" – went some way into turning the character into a national institution. Dunn was still only in his forties when he played the octogenarian Jones, which certainly came in handy for some of the hazardous psychical stunts he was prone to perform, and since his experiences as a POW he had also grown anti-war and a keen CND supporter, quite at odds with the war-mongering Jones.

Meeting with mixed reviews when it first aired on the BBC in the summer of 1968, Dad's Army became an instant hit. At its peak in the early 1970s Jimmy Perry and David Croft's brilliantly written sitcom was watched by an average of 18 million people. There was a film spin-off, a long-running radio series, even a stage play that ran successfully in the West End. And in 1975 the cast were introduced to the Queen at the Royal Variety Show, the year Dunn was awarded his OBE.

Although he adored playing Corporal Jones and was saddened when the series ended in 1977, Dunn always resented the fact that Dad's Army irretrievably typecast him, starving him of the chance to play straighter roles. There were glorious exceptions, such as a brief and unlikely stint as a pop star with the sentimental "Grandad", a No 1 hit which saw him performing on Top Of The Pops and which later spawned its own kid's TV show. And there was his acclaimed performance as Frosch, the drunken jailer in the English National Opera's 1979 production of Die Fledermaus. The opera toured the provinces and saw Dunn receive standing ovations in some cities the moment he set foot on stage, proof of the fond esteem in which the nation held him.

Yet Dunn was spending more and more of his time in Portugal helping his wife and two daughters successfully run a small restaurant. Aged 67 he was lured out of semi-retirement to perform in the Theatre of Comedy's West End production of the classic French farce An Italian Straw Hat and also wrote a humorous autobiography suitably entitled Permission to Speak. In 1996 he was recruited by the Labour government to launch a drive to woo expatriate voters.

Robert Sellers

Clive Dunn, actor: born London 9 January 1920; OBE 1975; married firstly Patricia Kenyon (divorced 1958), 1959 Priscilla Morgan; died Portugal 7 November 2012.

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